The Cost of Myths

If I show up dead in a ditch somewhere, you can bet the perpetrator is a Texan who read this post.

March 6 was apparently the anniversary of the Alamo, which I know only because a Texan Facebook friend posted, “Remember the Alamo!” on his page. The story of the Alamo, in Texas lore, is one of a scrappy band of freedom fighters who fought to the last man against Mexican invaders, buying time for Sam Houston to assemble an army that beat the evil Mexican forces the following month.

Because I am a historian, and also an asshole, I could not let my friend have his fun. I posted links to a couple of articles, which it appears he subsequently deleted–as is his right on his page–that told the more complicated story of the Alamo. The truth is that white American settlers came to live on Mexican land, initially at the Mexican government’s invitation, many with slaves in tow, slaves that the Mexican government subsequently threatened to free, which royally pissed them off. Now to be fair–and to avoid creating an inaccurate anti-myth–Santa Anna’s government had reneged on the entire constitutional framework under which the Texans had settled, he was not exactly a believer in democracy (and had two Mexican states unhappy with him, too), and he probably wanted to abolish slavery more to stick it to the settlers rather than out of a deep belief in human freedom. But nonetheless, I have checked with friends who are real historians (my long absence from academia negates my continued claim to that title), one of whom teaches American history at Texas A&M University, and they assure me that slavery was at the heart of the rebellion against Mexico (who did own the land in question). It is also a historical fact that slavery exploded in Texas after its independence and subsequent admission to the United States.

Regarding the battle for the Alamo, there are also questions about how valiant the fight actually was–some argue it was an unnecessary siege set up by the poor decisions of its defenders–and its military importance. However, I have never claimed to be a scholar of military history, which frankly puts me right to sleep like warm, bourbon-laced milk, so I will not die on that hill, or rather in that 18th century Spanish fort. Like many things in history, the whole thing has been blown up into a myth, the founding myth of Texas. Most Texans, however, probably can’t tell you much more about the story, real or imagined, beyond the admittedly really cool slogan.

But they probably will come after me for this post, nonetheless. The fact that I myself have Texas lineage will not help me at all. My attendance at the University of Oklahoma will be the final nail in my coffin.

Incidentally, I briefly thought about re-posting the articles on my FB friend’s page after he deleted them, but that was too asshole-ish even for me. So I’m writing a blog post instead, which I consider to be only minor assholery. Yes, I am a terrible person. Who also loves history.

We all love mythology for its clean narratives, simple characters, clear heroes and villains. We mythologize all kinds of things, from history to current events to our own lives and families. Myths are incredibly comforting and self-gratifying, projecting back to us a pleasing image of ourselves, our countries, our causes, our tribes, our people in the midst of the moral failures that are part and parcel of every life and every society but which are nonetheless so hard to face. Myths tell us we aren’t so bad after all. We’re the good guys. We can be heroes. Myths can have more or less truth involved, but they never involve the whole truth, which is always more complicated and less heroic.

In a way, history itself is a merciful process of the kind of oversimplification that myth-making employs, a manifestation of our normal cognitive function as humans to impose order on things so we don’t get overwhelmed by information. There is no way on earth to fully represent or incorporate the stories of every person who has lived in a certain time or place. You can always find another perspective, another pattern, another person who doesn’t fit the mould. And you’re always working off of incomplete information besides that. History is not only written by victors, it is written by the random, ordinary people who wrote a lot of letters to friends and family with hoarding tendencies.

Oh look, it’s another letter from Winston, who is not at all important but who will be the subject of 57 dissertations 200 years from now because he loves to see himself write and I am a hoarder.

History imposes an orderly narrative on the chaos of events and necessarily involves making choices. But these days, historians do try harder to tell the full truth and to include the voices and stories of those whom past historians overlooked or intentionally ignored. Histories of the United States, for instance, have too often featured a heavy dose of myth, telling the story of a land of the free, the forever good guys fighting for liberty, the pioneers of democracy who always stood up for those values.

Some people argue that we need myths, we need inspiring stories of foundation and legend and ethos that bind us together and devote us to whatever thing the myth is about. Texans love the Alamo myth because they love to think of their state as a place of rugged independence and grit. The mythic story of America’s founding does make the patriotic heart swell with pride.

And don’t get me wrong–Texans are independent and gritty (you should have met my grandparents, whew), as were their forebears. America is a miracle of history. Its founding documents contained the first blueprints for a democratic, pluralistic society, even if they were buried under provisions for slavery and discrimination of various kinds.

So why can’t we just leave it there? Why can’t we have our myths? Why must I be an asshole and wreck all the Alamo fun, among other nice things (never invite a historian to your myth celebrations, they will ruin them every single time)?

Live shot of a historian leaving your 4th of July party.

Because myths aren’t true. And the truth, while not being just a really awesome time in the short term, is the only thing that will set us free in the end. I think this dude named Jesus, many of whose followers ironically seem to be some of the biggest fans of myth out there, said something to this effect. I think what he meant was that the truth is the only way to achieve true unity and reconciliation, with and between ourselves and with our maker. Satan is the father of lies, or so I hear.

Myths are used to exclude and deny the truths of those who challenge them. The Alamo story has been used to deny the equality and inclusion of Mexican Americans (whose ancestors actually fought on both sides of the conflict, just to make things a little more complicated). The myth of America denies the experiences of Black Americans, whose very existence, as a living reminder of the nation’s moral failure and hypocrisy, seems threatening to the keepers of the myth. Family myths exclude the pain of those who don’t fit in, those who disappoint, those who struggle in the system the family creates. Religious myths do the same within churches and religious cultures.

I’ve been interviewing a number of my fellow missionary kids of late, and it’s reminding me once again, how harmful the missionary myth–the story of Christian Super Stars who save the world for Christ–is even to those whom it exalts. Person after person has told me about the jarring discontinuity between how their families were idolized by American churches and what they experienced in reality–parents who were neglectful or too overwhelmed to parent well, sometimes parents or other missionaries who were abusive, families under enormous strain. Or just their own more ordinary personal struggles, struggles we all have while growing up, but struggles they didn’t feel they could express because they might wreck the myth. So many MKs felt their job was to prop it up, to not be a bother, to make no sudden movements, to smile and wave. One MK expressed it so well, discussing a conflict she had as an adult with her parents, who wanted more frequent contact with her after a childhood of forcing her to be independent. She asked them why they were upset, when “I’ve done what you’ve asked me to do.”

This young woman did her job upholding the myth, but the myth was a shoddy substitute at the end of the day for a more authentic family relationship that acknowledged and prioritized her childhood needs. And most myths, however amazing they feel at the time, however easy they are to perpetuate, are cheap alternatives for wading into uncomfortable truths with those whose stories challenge the myth. But if we will do that, if we will relinquish our mythical security blankets, we will emerge on the other side with something much more valuable.

Myths always cost something. Beyond those who are directly shoved aside or pushed down, their backs paved over with airbrushed tarmac, myths cheat us all out of genuine community. You can’t love a myth. You can’t claim to love a two-dimensional version of something that has many more sides. You can’t pretend to love the shadow of something you’ve never actually seen. You can’t begin to love a person who doesn’t trust you enough with their story because you insist yours is the only one that’s true. You can’t truly devote yourself to a country whose history you don’t know, a history you must understand in full in order to realize a brighter future.

Next time you Remember the Alamo, give a few thoughts to the real story, and to real stories more generally, which challenge us to summon the bravery needed to abandon myths for something much better.

One thought on “The Cost of Myths

  1. Another great post, Holly. I particularly appreciated your closing paragraphs about the cost of mythology. Having been part of (at least) two communities that are propped up by their mythology, I’ve seen that cost first hand. As always, thank you for being willing to voice uncomfortable ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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