Have you ever thought about the ways all stories are the same? They’re all about a “descent” followed by a “return”. Think about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey.
Genealogists love stories. They’re the very essence of why we collect our kin, so I think it’s worth pushing our skill and understanding. We should want to get better at stories, the same way we get better at research as we gain more skill.
I have YouTube video about stories in my bookmarks because I’m fascinated by this idea of descent and return: “Every Story is the Same” by Will Schoder (Nov. 23, 2016). A good intro to this idea. Click through to the video. You’ll love it.
Dan Harmon tells us how to practice seeing the pattern of descent and return in stories. He’s talking to writers, but he could just as well be talking to genealogists:
“Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.” (“Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit“, at channel101.fandom.com, visited April 3, 2020).
I first encountered this idea as an undergraduate, in a Greek Mythology class. I did my final paper on the myth of Arachne (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 6). Arachne was a talented weaver. She boasted she was more talented than the goddess Athena. Athena challenged her to a contest. Athena wove a tapestry showing the punishment of mortals who had defied the gods. Arachne wove a tapestry showing gods abusing mortals. Predictably, Athena destroyed Arachne’s tapestry. Arachne hung herself. Then Athena turned Arachne into a spider.
I read the myth as a story about the contest between humans and gods for the right to weave human destiny. Arachne confronted the goddess, and paid a penalty for it. Descent and return; changed by the experience. I still think about it often. She was turned into a spider. She was changed by the experience; a huge price to pay. But she and her kind are still weaving. We humans won an important piece of the battle.
Some of my friends might be interested to know what brought this idea to the forefront today. Is it something to do with the devastation of the Corona virus? No. Something much more in line with my usual patterns of thought.
I was listening to the Sunstone podcast last night. Somewhat unusual for me. They’re the folks who say there’s “More than One Way to Mormon.”
One episode caught my attention, and turned out to be well worth the investment of time. Episode 51: Returning to Church Without Returning to Church (Feb. 3, 2020). “Stephen Carter argues that eventually returning to church is essential—but for reasons that would surprise both orthodox Mormons and post-Mormons.”
The surprising reason is that the return is the necessary conclusion of the Hero’s Journey.
More surprising to me is that in 30 years of using this analytical framework for stories and for personal experiences, it never once occurred to me that it would apply here. I’m intrigued. One podcast on this topic was not enough.
1 thought on “We Love Stories”
Applying the “return” to a religious life, I’m reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who famously urges people to take what they’ve learned back to their own tradition.
“I always encourage them to practice in a way that will help them go back to their own tradition and get re-rooted. If they succeed at becoming reintegrated, they will be an important instrument in transforming and renewing their tradition.
When we respect our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors, we feel rooted. If we find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage, we will avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society, and we will become whole again. … Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995), 89-90.
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