Last summer, I had the surprise of seeing Santa Claus in person…the jolly old elf with long white hair and beard and a fur-trimmed red suit. He was real, in person, enjoying a vacation at the Jersey shore! I knew him as soon as I saw him…just as everyone did. Many people called out, “Santa! I know him!” imitating Buddy’s (Will Ferrell) line from the movie, Elf (2003). We all know Santa no matter where he shows up because an ancient St. Nicholas has become mythical—born of real life but made mythical by our need to understand life’s wonder and mystery. Santa’s mythical sense is clear to everyone: when you’re good, you’re rewarded; when you’re bad, you suffer.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. I do not mean to say that “Santa’s mythical sense” is always true—oftentimes bad people prosper and good people suffer…truth is different than myth. The strength of the mythical Santa is that we want to believe that the myth is always true…we love that when Santa is involved, the good are rewarded and the bad do suffer. The strength of anything mythical is that we want to believe…we want life’s wonders and mysteries to be understandable.
Ancient mythology tried to make sense of the natural world, explaining many mysteries that modern science has demystified. Modern mythology deals in exaggerated aspects of real human experience, to explain desirable ideals or fatal flaws…and give meaning to the chaos and randomness of life.
- Think of the mythical status of the RMS Titanic: a mythical name—named for the Titans of Greek mythology; mythical in size—the largest ship afloat when it was launched; the extreme height of elegance for First Class passengers. Mythically, what happens when mankind acts with such hubris? It sinks on its maiden voyage, tragically killing more than 1500 crew (the captain mythically went down with his ship) and passengers…we want to believe that when you show off, life humbles you.
- Think of the mythical flight of the Hindenburg zeppelin…one of the largest airships ever to fly. Named for the President of Germany—the man who appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor—the Hindenburg was hailed as a technological marvel…it crossed the Atlantic in half the time it took by ship. But decorated with its belligerent swastikas, it no sooner arrived on its maiden voyage to the U.S. when it exploded in midair. One of the first disasters captured by movie camera and narrated for radio broadcast, the zeppelin mythically explained the threat of modern and mechanized society… “Oh, the humanity!”
- Think of the mythical status of Babe Ruth…just a baseball player, and yet the city of Boston suffered through 86 years of the “Bambino Curse,” failing to win a World Series from 1918—when they sold his contract—until 2004! Or when, in Game 3 of the 1934 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, he pointed to the centerfield wall and called, and then hit, his next home run. True or not, we want to believe his mythology because “expert performance” is a desirable human trait.
- Think of the mythical status of Lou Gehrig…just another baseball player, and yet he was dealt, what he called, “a bad break.” His “Iron Horse” streak of playing 2130 consecutive games ended when symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) wracked his body. He had been a Triple Crown winner, an American League MVP twice, on six World Series champion teams, and an All-Star seven consecutive times. But when his “bad break” ended his career and soon took his life, he still announced to the world, mythically, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” We want to believe the mythical sense of both his nobility and the world’s injustice.
I think I could name a hundred examples of real-life happenings that I raise to mythical meaning—even happenings here and now—because it gives meaning to the confusing chaos and randomness of ordinary life. It feels better, and more motivating, to believe that Santa will reward me when I’m good.