The myths we share

Here’s something that opened my mind recently and got me to think very differently. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points to shared myths that help us operate in society.

When we think of “myths” we often — OK, I often — think about the things we learned in school about ancient Greece and Rome. I think about “creation myths,” how all religions have one.

And then I think about things that are obvious myths in our everyday lives — religious stories, for instance. I know this will offend some, but even as someone who ascribes to a faith, I know that the stories that bind our faiths together — Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, even the Great Flood, which is present in some form in almost every faith that stretches back millennia, are all myths.

But beyond religions, we actually agree on some myths that help society thrive. Agreed-upon myths are what allow us to function in groups of more than about 150 people. National, state and city boundaries are myths. So are codes of laws. So are sports, fashion, civic organizations, businesses and intellectual property. Real property, too, as long as we’re talking property.

When we talk about “people crossing the border illegally,” what we mean is:

• We have agreed on the myth of an arbitrary line that divides two nations
• We have agreed on the myth of nations as cohesive, separate units
• We have agreed on the myth of proper (“legal”) ways to move across that line
• We have agreed on the myth of instituting some punishment for moving across that line in improper ways

There are, of course, nuances in each of the myths, but they are not natural laws; there is no science to it. Some people got together and agreed on these things, and we continue to agree on them. Even the people who do cross borders illegally have accepted these myths and cross in ways that are different than the agreed-upon “proper” or “legal” way to cross the border.

Money is another interesting myth we agree on. Intrinsically, there’s no value to paper cash. I mean, at least metal has some practical use, so even a penny has value, although it won’t buy you a whole lot of stuff.

But it’s great that we came up with it, right?

I mean, I can do some things, but I don’t think I’m particularly useful on the barter market. Not many people need a guy who can cook a mean rack of ribs very often, and even if they did, what could I do for the people who owned, slaughtered and butchered the pig?

Money bypasses the barter system — it used to be that if you had something I wanted but I didn’t have anything you wanted or couldn’t do anything you wanted, the only ways I could really get the something you had would be to steal it from you or to just kill you and take it. But with this new system, I can hand you money to get the thing I want, and you can go hand someone else money to get the thing you want.

But it only works because we all believe that money has some value. If I had a painting I really valued and I didn’t think money had as much value as the painting, you’d have a hard time getting the painting from me.

In order for you to commit a crime we call breaking and entering, we have to agree that I own a structure we’d commonly call a house and it sits on land that you are not allowed on without permission, even if I don’t build a barrier. If you step on my lawn uninvited, you are trespassing. If you walk one step in the “wrong” direction, in some states I’m actually allowed to kill you with very little or no warning because you stepped on the wrong patch of grass.

But this is another myth we agree on — there’s even a saying that good fences make great neighbors. We all rely on each other, but a little space, if you please.

Here’s something to think about: What myths do you hold so dear you won’t recognize them as myths? Clothing labels? National symbols? Hairstyles?

You may need to look past some of this stuff in order to see people as people.


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