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Jonathan Young, Ph.D., told a lively version of "Hansel and Gretel" to his audience at Unity Community Church in Hemet on Sunday.
The running commentary that accompanied his storytelling illustrated Young's notion that each person is living out a personal story, which is an example of the timeless patterns or archetypes found in fairy tales and other myths. This conclusion came from Young's experience assisting with seminars by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, where Young was a psychology professor.
Although Campbell wrote and edited more than 20 books, including the best-selling The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his interviews with Bill Moyers, first televised in 1987, gave him a whole new audience. In The Power of Myth, Campbell showed how people today can enrich their lives by looking at the hidden meanings in tales from different cultures.
Young was founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library at the institute and is now a full-time storyteller, lecturer and writer. During his 10-year association with Campbell, Young was interested professionally in the similarities Campbell found between spirituality and psychology.
Personally, Young concluded that we're living mythic lives. Like his mentor, Young sees fairy tales as one source of wisdom. By their method of interpretation, the tales can be symbolic road maps. For instance, "Hansel and Gretel" is a story of poverty, survival and hard times, Young said. The stepmother convinces the father that they must abandon the children in a deep dark forest or the family will starve to death. A bird leads the children to the edible house of a witch, who intends to fatten them up and eat them. Gretel pushes the witch in the oven, and the children fill their pockets with food and treasure. The stepmother dies of starvation, and the children return home and save their emaciated father.
If interpreted psychologically, the father could represent that part of a person who is in charge, but feels weak and ineffective. The stepmother might symbolize the negative part of the self that doesn't act in your best interests. And the children may stand for the creative, playful part of a person. Like the parents in the story, people pressured for resources, time or energy, may make drastic decisions, said Young. If they decide to focus strictly on goals and abandon the children, the vitality of life drains away.
At first, Hansel is the stronger of the two children with simple straight-forward ideas, like leaving a trail so they can find their way back home, said Young. Gradually Gretel's more complicated, intuitive leadership takes charge. The story is suggesting that we need to made that shift, Young said.
Young also pointed out that the children come away from the witch with her magic, her power. If they had found their way out of the forest without confronting her, the experience would not have been as valuable. This comes from going into the heart of darkness and facing the inner witch, Young said.
Tacked on to the end of the story is the line: There goes a mouse. Whoever can catch it can make a fine hat of it. It seems to be a non sequitur, Young said that mice once were considered emissaries between earth and the underground, which was the sacred or the unconscious. And that hats had to do with jobs or identity. So, if you catch the humble mouse - seemingly inconsequential in the story - perhaps you can catch the elusive symbols and make something out of it in terms of identity, role, task or calling, said Young.
If we look closely at the stories that have mattered to us, we can find an enormous amount about what we're up to in this life, about what we are to do, what is in our nature, he said. Campbell called it following your bliss - what you're good at, what captivates you. Usually that is really hard work, but you need to do it.
Campbell said that when you follow your bliss, doors will open, help will come, things will be possible. This was very true for him. He made the 'wrong choices,' passed up all kinds of things - a doctorate, good teaching posts - and still he became world famous because he was so good at what he did, Young said.
To those curious about their stories, Young suggests the following exercise:
Take a separate sheet of paper for each five years of your life and write down the stories that made an impression on you. This includes television commercials, song lyrics, movies, bedtime stories as well as works of fiction and nonfiction. Don't do it in one sitting. More stories will come to you over time. You'll probably have a lot of variety, but look for similar threads running through your lists.
If your lists are filled with comedy and humor, maybe you're a trickster who likes bumping things to see what happens. If you loved biographies of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, perhaps you are a healer. There are two reasons to know your story, says Young. One is to appreciate it, to celebrate it, to know what a wonderful novel that you're living, he says. If you aren't the star, if you see yourself as a supporting character, you're in the wrong story.
Secondly, you may want to look at your options and put a particular spin on your story. For example, if you're under pressure and have to decide what to cut out, Hansel and Gretel may be your story. But you can choose to keep the children - creative or leisure activities - rather than sacrifice them to do more work, as the critical stepmother self demands.
A little difference can make an enormous change in the outcome, Young says.
Published: Thursday, December 11, 1997
Section: LIVING Page#: C01