Two Englishmen and a mountain.


Two Englishmen stand in the highlands of Fiji, gazing up at a hill high above the village they are staying in. As there is not a lot else to do, they decide that it makes a great goal and head off. Of course they do not know much about the land beyond what they can see, so they head off in a straight line. Dropping into valleys and struggling up to peaks they make some progress, but after several hours the peak still lies in the distance, and they return home. The next day, fed up with goals they simply head out for a walk. Ambling along the watershed ridge, as they have had enough of steep hills, but like the view they find themselves at the top of a distant peak. Looking back they realise they are standing at the top of the peak they has set out for the day before.

This story is true, but to me it has also become a personal myth. Like all good myths it gives a space to take in ideas, give them a good shake to see what falls out:

  • The myth of modernism: The straight path to the mountain is always the best.
  • The myth of post-modernism: All paths to the mountain are the same.

My intention in calling both things myths, is not to dismiss them, but to start to think of them as fundamental ideas. To me the story of the mountain trumps both these positions. Yet what I really want to start with another myth entirely:

  • We all have mythologies.

This myth can be easily shown to be true, simply by a clever definition of mythology, so instead let me discuss my own. It comes from many places, some of the most significant influences include:

  • Mathematics
  • Christianity
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Douglas Adams
  • Collapsanomics
  • Icelandic Sagas
  • The Malvern Hills

These things give a great deal of framework to my life, colouring my reactions in ways that I cannot predict. When presented with something new they will effect how I behave for good or bad. They help me work on when I need to use a direct approach, and how to meander when it might not work. To use a computer analogy they are the fundamentals of my code. To keep that story going, I therefore think that it is important to think them through and debug them, hopefully before those bugs come out in a crisis. They are, in many ways, my religion.

It has become quite common for people to see the immense harm and trouble that religion has caused throughout the world and see the solution as being no religion. Yet I do not think we can get away that easily. Even in mathematics we have to take the set of axioms we use on faith, we cannot show that they cannot admit a contradiction. We have to be careful where our ideas come from. My friend Vinay Gupta recently said on twitter:

The problem that we have in the west is that we thought the cure for Bad Religion was No Religion and it’s left a generation lost.

@leashless

I agree. The solution to the problems of both bad and no religion that I have tried to develop is to identify and analyse my religion, trying to take responsibility for it and live by it.

Acknowledgments

This post started life in a discussion with Bembo Davies (from whom I stole the point about taking ideas into myth and metaphor and shaking them), Michal Woźniak and others on the role of totems in the future at the Edgeryders conference. At the time I talked about mythological maps to our emotions. As you can see my thinking has developed from being told maps to the need to develop our own. Many of the ideas have been made clearer in my own head by conversations with Vinay Gupta, as well as a study of his twitter stream.