You will see the pain and horror, but you will see the beauty too.

This is a repost of Dr Catherine Svehla’s latest entry in her mythology blog that challenges us to embrace the whole experience of life.

Listen to her 30min presentation of the Blackfoot myth of the Buffalo Dance here

Life-affirming mythologies

“Life isn’t meant to be happy. That’s not what it’s about. Ah, the damage that is caused by that attitude. All life is sorrowful. Sorrow is the essence of life. But can you handle it? Are you affirmative enough in your relationship to life to say ‘yea’ no matter what happens?”        

                                                                                                                                                      —Joseph Campbell


Buffalo Dance by Robert Bissett


One of the functions of mythology is to help us establish our relationship to life, to provide the context and meaning for experiences of all sorts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. Bombs are falling in the Middle East and almost 300 people died in a plane crash. We’re treating children who want into the United States as criminals and arguing over who deserves health care. Here in California, we’re facing severe drought conditions. Times are tough and everyone knows it and we deal with it and carry on, etc.

But sometimes the pain of the world breaks through. Then what?

What’s your world view, your perspective, your myth, about the suffering in the world? Is suffering real? Does it matter? Can we get rid of it if we try hard enough? According to Campbell, a life-affirming mythology is one that makes room for both the joy and sorrow in life and treats them both as inevitable.  In this week’s program I tell a Blackfoot myth about the buffalo that Campbell often used as one example of a life-affirming mythology. It provides a way for people to accept all of it—death and killing and the fact that life feeds on life— and find beauty, sacredness, and connection.

A few years ago I heard author and poet Deena Metzger read some of her work in the space that is now the RFJT Listening Lounge. Metzger speaks directly to killing and suffering of many types and someone in the audience asked her how she could go so deeply into those experiences and come out whole. Part of her answer still rings in my ears. You have to look very closely at every thing she said, and not turn away. You will see the pain and horror, but you will see the beauty too.

We have many opportunities to get close to the reality of death as it happens all around us. Do we dare? Do we dare to feel it?

Enjoy the story.

The painting is “Buffalo Dance”  by Robert Bissett, who has an interesting website about art and painting in addition to his wonderful work. Check it out.


4 responses

  1. Thanks for such a refreshing perspective! I love the Campbell quote.

    Life is full of horrors and there isn’t necessarily a way to reconcile the suffering to the beauty. I have no idea what the answers are to “change the world” though, and am very cautious about those who think they know what the answers are. Humans have a long history of inflicting pain and suffering on others and even themselves. Perhaps the suffering wants something, but I can’t help but think that the answers are more likely to come at the local level of events. But, it does seem that it is at the local level that we are the least engaged, well, some of us anyway. 🙂

    Our modern burden seems increased by an awareness of so many distant happenings that sometimes it feels overwhelming to me. I’ll be honest here and say that I am currently not directly attending to day-to-day world events. I am aware enough because people talk and write about what they hear on the news. I feel that if I am honest with myself, I can only be deeply emotionally available to what touches me through people that I engage with on a regular basis.

    Having said that, I look forward to checking out the link.



    August 7, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    • Campbell seems to embody for me the perspective that enables one to say ‘yes’ to whatever comes, not in a fatalistic sense but in a bigger picture view. This is not unique to the buddhist perspective but I have found many buddhists who do teach this – I guess the challenge is to not only to teach it but to live it. Most days it is easier to not look or to live in denial. I have that luxury but so many do not. Maybe they are the true teachers, the ones who live amidst the horror and yet find another way to see the world.


      August 8, 2014 at 12:34 am

  2. Hi- thank you for reposting “Life-affirming Mythologies” from Myth in the Mojave! I really like your art work and perspective….so nice to meet a kindred spirit. Catherine


    August 22, 2014 at 5:23 pm

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