I’m not sure if the Age of Reason is over or it’s just taking a sabbatical, but not since the days of the ancient Greeks has our world been so riddled with mythology. We might not expect Zeus to come hankering after our handmaidens any time soon, but we believe in all kinds of crap that has just about as much empirical evidence to support it. Take a look around. Here in North America, we live in the most bountiful society in history (sorry, Europe, but it’s true) and yet, for the most part, we’re dissatisfied with it. There isn’t a day goes by without somebody claiming our world is actually just a suburb of Mordor and the evil Lord Sauron is only one piece of jewelry away from unleashing the orcs. Why is this? It’s because we believe in our mythologies so strongly that when they don’t measure up (and they never do) we start hunting around for somebody or something to blame. Bluntly, Zeus is irreproachable; Leda must be a slut.
First of all, we believe we live in a benevolent world. Yeah, yeah, yeah: “Bad things happen to good people,” but nobody really thinks that. If they did, they wouldn’t be quite so surprised when the world jogs up and kicks them in the groin. This myth runs across the board, all the way from “That woman walked off with my pen” to Hurricane Katrina. Last week, I half witnessed a grown man prop his seriously expensive mountain bike next to a bike stand at McDonald’s, not lock it with the massive lock that was clearly attached and have it stolen before he could figured out whether he wanted to be supersized or not. The telling note of this tale is the guy’s astonished look when he returned and his accusation that I should have done something. His point was I saw a crime of opportunity being committed. My point was I saw the beginning and the end but nothing in the middle, and besides, old, out-of-shape men very seldom catch crack addicts on bicycles — especially when they have a substantial head start. There was no mention of who gave the little crook the opportunity in the first place. This off-the-cuff thinking drives our world because our society has been so successful at reducing everyday risk that we believe there isn’t any anymore, and we’re outraged when the odds catch up with us. People simply refuse to accept that we’re all just one U-lock away from getting our collective bicycles stolen by people who don’t give a damn whether we’re good parents, support the arts or recycle our juice boxes. And this brings us to our second myth.
We believe that everyone is reasonable. We think that for anyone to step outside the bounds of good and gracious living, they have to be pushed by powerful forces. To go back to our bicycle thief: he may or may not have been a crack addict, but chances are good he didn’t consult his moral compass before riding off into the sunset. What probably happened is he was hanging out at Ronny Mac when the opportunity for a free bike hove up on the horizon, and since he who hesitates is lost, he jumped on and took off. It’s that simple. Maybe there were mitigating circumstances. There might have been an unknown emergency somewhere or some other altruistic purpose I’m not aware of. Perhaps our boy is, in actual fact, the Jean Valjean of two-wheeled transportation. It’s not likely, but it is possible. The problem is we, as a society, believe that this is not only possible but probable. We simply cannot fathom that some people are bad. We’re shocked and frustrated when we find them living among us, and the first thing we do is demand some reasonable explanation. Who is responsible for this? What unholy set of conditions led this young man to steal that other fellow’s bicycle? Reasonable people simply do not pedal off with other people’s property. No need to call MythBusters, folks: yeah, they do – every day.
If you see a pattern here, you’re not alone. Like the Greeks who modeled their society on their gods and heroes, we are changing our society to conform to our new mythology. Our world must echo our beliefs, and when it doesn’t, there’s hell to pay.
Wednesday: And the Myths Go On