Words that Really Bug Me

I am not seriously bugged by certain words so much as by their misuse. Take the word, MYTH. It is derived from the Greek, mythos, which means “story”—by extension, “sacred story.” And it was the ancients’ favorite way to refer to stories of the gods. But when Christians wanted to replace those stories with their own (i.e., their own myths surrounding a God-man who “existed before all worlds” and who “rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father”), they had to call all other myths falsehoods. The strategy worked. And so that bastion of educated minds, The New York Times, writes today of the “myth of Reaganomics.” But if you do that, if you persist in the lie that myths are “lies,” then you cannot read Greek myths—or any sacred stories, including the Christian ones—as true in some sense.

When I read the myth of Icarus who flew too high to the sun on his waxy wings, I am reminded not to fly too high myself on my flimsy thoughts, thinking they are more substantial than they really are. Otherwise, I will “crash.” The imagery helps to keep me psychologically safe.

Or take the word DREAM. Do people actually mean dreaming when they say, “It has always been my dream to . . . “? They seem to be saying my wish, my desire, my goal in life, i.e., something that the ego has invented to fulfill its own selfish and usually shallow aims. This is “Bucket List” mentality—when one’s goal in life is to sky dive. Really? That’s the best that you can dream? My daughters and I invented a game to guess how many times the word “dream” would be used incorrectly at their various graduation ceremonies—I usually won. They were young and apparently more hopeful that someday people will realize that it is the unconscious that sends us actual dreams that can help us lead our lives correctly.

Dreams are mysterious “stories” that occur while the ego is wiped out. They frequently go against one’s ego wishes. They show us what is really going on psychologically, what’s actually in the “bucket” of the unconscious, and to what extent we have or have not fulfilled the actual meaning of our lives. Real dreams encourage us to live as honestly and profoundly as we are capable.

I encourage everyone in my practice to write them down, type them up as a gesture of respect, and to ponder them—even if we don’t get around to discussing them. Besides, it can be very difficult to unpack the real meaning of a dream.But when a person does, he or she knows it. Life flows more in its natural channel, and one is less often depressed. Indeed, dreams often tell us “stories of the gods,” those factors in our lives that we had best give our devotion lest we feel unnaturally out of sorts. We need myths, and we need dreams.

ICON? Restaurants are not iconic. Television shows are definitely not iconic. The Greek word means “image”—by extension, “sacred image.” In art history, it refers technically to Byzantine painted “portraits” of Christ, the Virgin and Child, etc.—often on wood and with much gold, rather stiff in style. They show us “supernatural” images that lie deep within our own souls. Sacred images of the “Buddha” are also icons and lie deep within us. We need them in order to stay in touch with the unconscious, to be creative, even to be happy most of the time. C. R. Morey writes of icons in Christian Art (Norton, 1935): “Byzantine art at its best, remains the finest expression of Christian dogma that Christianity produced. It is, moreover, not the mere letter of this dogma which its artists conveyed with such uncanny clarity, but its soul-stirring profundity.” (p. 33). Anything lacking in “soul-stirring profundity” does not deserve to be called iconic.

Do I need to mention EPIC—when the newscasters using it seem not to have actually read the grand epic adventures of Odysseus in the Odyssey or Rāma in the Rāmāyana?

Can a football player really be a LEGEND like Paul Bunyan?

I am distressed that actors called STARS are such poor imitations of the “Stars” that symbolize our true destinies. I fear that my fellow Americans have such low expectations for themselves.

Finally, FAITH. I cringe when PBS refers to the “Hindu faith” or the “Muslim faith” in one of their documentaries. As if religious “faith” were one’s belief or even an institution. Has no one actually studied religion? Are we culturally trapped in the mere opinionating of the dinner party? As far back as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther had enough of the misuse of this word. He wrote in his “Preface to ‘Paul’s Epistle to the Romans’”: “Faith is not something dreamed, a human illusion, although this is what many people understand by the term . . . they conjure up an idea which they call ‘belief’ which they treat as genuine faith. All the same, it is but a human fabrication, an idea, without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart.”

He is referring to the fact that he once had “belief,” and it meant nothing. He was still deeply troubled, having given up his law career, and psychosomatically painfully constipated. But then it happened as he pondered scripture in the privy, “It’s a gift!” Grace transformed him. He was shown the meaning of “faith” in a new way.

Jung wrote about pistis, the Greek word usually translated as “faith”: “No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure, a thing that has become for him a source of life meaning, and beauty, and that has given a new splendor to the world and to mankind. He has pistis and peace.” (Collected Works, 11, par. 167). Unless you mean “faith” in this profound sense, don’t use it.

When I hear all these words misused in popular culture—by both the educated and uneducated, both of whom seem uninformed—I can’t help but protest. My wife says, “Give it a rest.” But I can’t! I just can’t.

WANT MORE? Read my book, The Snake and the Rope, where all these words are used with loving care.

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