The Healing Power of Myth: Personal Reflections

Jason L. Cook

In late fall 2001, about the only real feeling I had was anger; otherwise I was numb. In the summer of 2000 I had found myself in the hospital for eight days, diagnosed with endocarditis which is an infection of the heart wall. It’s a silly disease arising from an infection in the bloodstream. In my case, I had a strain of bacteria in my bloodstream that had nested above a valve on my heart; it looked like cauliflower on the echocardiograms. This particular strain of bacteria exists in just about every human’s mouth. I have a small heart defect, what many would call a heart murmur, which made me more vulnerable. It’s the kind of thing many might have, where you take antibiotics prior to having your teeth cleaned. I took them; they apparently failed. A few months later, I’m in the hospital.

In short, I was working too hard and ran myself near into-the-ground the month of that dental appointment. I got my teeth cleaned. That’s all. The antibiotics failed; my system just wasn’t up to the task and I was vulnerable. I almost worked myself to death. The time between the dental appointment and the hospitalization was one of steadily, but subtly, declining energy. I began to fall asleep at my desk. I finally went for a physical at a practice set up to do physicals and got a misdiagnosis. Later, I went to a doctor for an initial visit in order to get set up with a local physician. I brought the report from the physical. Halfway through the appointment as I am describing my symptoms, she leaves the room. Turns out she called the head of infectious diseases at the local hospital. I went to the hospital and had about a gallon of blood taken out of me for cultures.

That day, my left hip began to hurt. Fortuitous, that. My doctor keyed into that. It got steadily worse over the course of the day. After I had been to the hospital, I climbed the stairs to my apartment and got inside the door. Lying on the floor because I was exhausted from dragging my left leg up the stairs and my general lack of energy, I fell asleep until my wife came in. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed and the paramedics took me in. Eight days spent in the bed and barrels of intravenous antibiotic fluids later, I left the hospital with a walker, a pump that kept antibiotics in my system 24/7 and a limp. I did get rid of the walker and the pump.

So, this brings us to late fall 2001. I worked then at a large, international investment bank. While I didn’t work in lower Manhattan, a lot of people I know did. I was in Midtown Manhattan on September 11th. I got to Grand Central from Time Square as quickly as I could and caught the last train before the city was shut-down. I needed to be home; I never have figured out if I was a coward.

So, feeling completely a wreck, fairly sure that I was headed for somewhere I didn’t want to go, I called the employee assistance program for a referral to a therapist. I went to a guy who listened and told me something to the effect of “sounds like you are having a mid-life crisis.” Mid-life crisis? I was 30. But, apparently a serious illness can have a similar effects on a person he explained. Not to mention, he said, he was seeing a lot of people in my industry those days who were dealing with varying degrees of depression following the attack. We had lost friends, colleagues, rivals. We had walked those halls; we had drunk heavily at Windows On the World, pretending we were Masters of the Universe. We could have been there.

He recommended I read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. I did and as I followed his recounting of the shared themes of these myths, of the various archetypes, I came to understand a message that life is a journey, a struggle. Always has been, always will be. The reward of this journey isn’t wisdom, or enlightenment, or anything of the sort, it is, as Campbell so famously put it, not about “the meaning of life, but the feeling of life”. I needed to feel alive.

Healing is a process, one that in some instances may never be complete. My journey has continued. I’ve taken up climbing. I now have a daughter through whom I came to truly hear the voice of the Gods. Like everyone else, I have bad days and times when I feel depressed, or angry, or frustrated, but I’ve come to accept that this is part of the deal, part of the package. So are the days when my hip hurts and the limp is worse. I just now try to not to be angry about being angry, or frustrated by feeling frustrated.

Why is this relevant to you? It may not be, but as I continue to build my practice, my spirituality, I am looking at how I’ve gotten to where I am now. As I close my first year of being consciously Pagan, I look back and realize that I may have found my way onto this path through a therapist who knew that the power of myth could heal. Through understanding ancient tales of how humans relate to the cosmos, tales so true that they are timeless, I came to grasp that all we have is the feeling of life and therefore it is life itself that is sacred. My Pagan belief was thus unknowingly born. Our religion, with its embrace of the sacredness of life, the conscious contact with the divine in each moment of our lives, allows, nay, compels us to feel alive in each moment. Grasp that and you can heal yourself.