Monday, April 27, 2009

Myths, Legends, and Life

Most of my friends won't understand what I'm talking about, but it's OK. Learning is worth the effort, but I do not intend to teach here.

The great things about legends is that no matter who we are or how we grew up, any cultures legends can teach us and guide us. And the greatest villains and greatest heroes resonate so strongly in us because they are us. We created these villains and heroes and so they reflect who we are as a people. I've long understood that in principle, but I now have a better understanding why these stories are so important to us. I read a book called “The Palace Of Illusions” which is an interpretation of the Mahabharata. I know I will get much of Hindu mythology wrong in this, but what is important to me here is that these characters, even through an interpretation, has the essential and powerful necessities of a truly great and everlasting legend. The necessity is that they helped me understand what I was doing and what I was going through.
I went through some recent hardships that I could not understand and I let that misunderstanding nearly destroy me. I rejected everything in my life, even those things that were most precious to me. I turned against those I loved and I felt betrayal and anger to those close to me.

Panchaali, as she was dying, was asked to remember a moment of pure happiness. She thought to her husbands, she thought to the one she desperately loved, she thought to her family, but they never brought her pure happiness. The one who brought her happiness was a very good friend.

How often do we watch a movie or read a book and think we are the hero? How often do we also think that we are the villain? And rarer still, when do we see ourselves in supporting roles? This is the power of myths and legends, we are all those characters, or we wish to be. All of them. I grasped immediately that my friend was Panchaali. That was true in so many ways it was almost scary, though not in the most blatant of ways. The way she holds tradition and rebels against it at the same time, the way she draws everyone to her, the way she cares for everyone she loves in a way that makes each feel incredibly special. So sweet, so caring, and all consuming.

But I was the one who had lost all direction. I was the one desperate to find understanding. I read the book as a way to be close to someone I cared about when I could not be. As the story progressed, I tried to imagine who I was. I looked with hope that maybe I was Bheem, the one husband who really loved Panchaali, but I knew that was stupid. Certainly I had that no question kind of love, but not the tolerance or patience, and most important, she was not my wife or ever likely to be in any case.

I settled on Karna. I felt rage and humiliation at losing somebody I loved more than I ever could imagine and I felt I had been slighted and humiliated and toyed with. I felt my feelings were not reciprocated and worse still, a source of mockery and pity. The pity crushed me more than anything else could have ever. I tried to understand why I was being treated as I was and why was I being slighted? Why was I a distant third? Why was I not good enough? I wanted retribution. I wanted pain. I wanted destruction. But, as with Karna on the battlefield, when opportunities arose, I could only protect my enemies. When the chance to create havoc presented itself, I could not follow up. I loved them all and I could not be a source of pain and suffering. And like Karna's death, I was attacked at this vulnerable moment, or so it felt. The thing about legends is that we follow them to the end because we associate so much with the character. True, I could make a very strong case I am Karna minus, regrettably, being the one true love of Panchaali. I had the anger and the love and the loss and the pain and the attempted reconciliations. But, the story continues.

I saw in the great war everything I felt. Everything being destroyed for foolish lies, misunderstandings, and strong emotions. I was wrenched with the realization that I had been willing to hurt those I cared about for stupid feelings of pride. I wanted revenge. I wanted to make others hurt like I did. I never acted on these feelings, but they were there and it took everything I had not to hate or hurt those I love.

I read how the war did nothing more than create grief and pain. It hurt the heroes more than anyone else. The anguish they carried matched mine. They felt they had no choice and they could not have done any different, but of course they could. Everyone in the story hid information that would have solved most of the problems, but everyone was too filled with pride, honor, or fear to speak out. I understood how they acted poorly because they did not have the full story. I thought this was the problem. If only I knew the truth! If only I knew everything. I could have behaved different. I could have been a better person.
I love to lie to myself.

I got to the end of the book. Panchaali is about to die and Krishna comes to her. She realizes that Krishna, who never wanted anything from her but her friendship, was always there when she needed him. He taught her what she needed. He helped her when she needed and he left her alone when she needed. His was true love because it wanted nothing in return. This was the love I had felt until recently and it gave me such joy. Stupid vanity and jealousy destroyed that! The more I chased a love that was not my kind of love, the more I destroyed the love I did have. This is the love that I had shared and threw it away for vanity and jealousy! I want to be, and hope to be her Krishna.

The future is unwritten and in it there will be pain far greater than anything we have felt in the past. It will have joy far greater than in the past. But the future is a joy to watch unfold. I now know that I will continue to cherish love and hate jealousy, but I now know that there are many kinds of love and each of us need different kinds of love at different times in our lives. And love that seems unimportant now can be the most important love in a person's life later.

In the end, we just want to be important to those who are important to us. That requires us to be trusted and act worthy of being reliable. And I was not. But the future is funny. It allows us to grow and change. Maybe it's too late today, maybe not. But, we can make the future a better place for those who stick by us through our follies if we learn from our past foolishness.

Is this too much to take from a legend or myth? I don't think so. It is this ability to embed it's teaching into our lives when we need them most that these stories remain with us. I'm now going to at least read the Bhagavad Gita. Maybe I'll come away from all of this with a better understanding of myself. At the very least I'll understand my new home a bit better.

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