Where are you on the “hero’s journey?”
This timeless framework—made famous during the 20th Century by the writings of the late Joseph Campbell (see The Hero with a Thousand Faces)—can be discerned across all cultures and in most great literature and films. Study the shared elements of the most riveting stories ever told—from Homer’s The Odyssey to the Old Testament’s accounts of King David, to the blockbuster film Titanic and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter phenomenon—and you will gradually observe a ubiquitous, progressive sequence:
· A call to adventure, which the hero may willingly embrace or be forced to undertake through circumstances or events
· Supernatural aid, whereby a guide, mentor or teacher comes alongside the hero, often providing key tools or weapons for the hero’s arsenal
· Crossing into the dangerous unknown
· A succession of trials or tests
· Coming to terms with crucial relationships
· The accomplishment of a worthy goal or securing of a precious prize
· Returning as a much-matured leader to serve humankind, with individual desires more fully enmeshed with global needs.
Campbell asserted that this “monomyth,” or “humankind’s one great story,” was not limited to the arts but was ultimately grounded in our own nature, reflected through religious and culture rites and traditions. Each person, he taught, ultimately has to grapple with their own hero’s journey.
Some of you reading this have just heard the “call,” perhaps. Circumstances are changing in relationships or professions, doors are opening or closing. Maybe you’re busy blaming others or waiting for someone else to do something, and you’re stuck; or, perhaps, someone who can help you has been trying to get your attention. There’s a parent or sibling or child with whom you must reconcile in order to transcend your current emotional state and taste more inner peace. Or perhaps you’ve accomplished much, but have held back from sharing your insights, resources or connections.
Greek mythology brings us the unfortunate character of Tantalus, whose name serves as the foundation for our modern use of the word “tantalize.” Punished for an egregious misdeed,Tantalus was forced by the gods to stand in a pool of water that disappeared whenever he was tempted to stoop down for a drink. Furthermore, branches of fruit grew just above his head; but whenever he reached up to grab hold of something to eat, the wind would sweep the fruit away from him.
The eternal frustration felt by Tantalus of seeing something so close but beyond out his grasp has been felt—albeit, to a far less extreme level—by anyone who has allowed themselves to remain stuck along the journey. Far too many persons settle for less than what their hard-wired talents call them toward, never allowing this latent potential to develop into strengths. Stuck in a tepid pool of mediocrity, these individuals catch glimpses of passion and excellence but can never quite get their arms around the opportunities to unleash them.
A great parable of embracing change is found with the lead character of Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King, published in 1959 at the height of the post-war period. A millionaire pig farmer who from a materialistic perspective “has it all,” Henderson feels a lack of any meaningful connection or passion in his life. Hoping for a change of pace and a fresh perspective or epiphany, he heads to Africa—where a series of events lead to the locals declaring him to be their Rain King, the one who will bring about an end to the oppressive drought plaguing their village.
Henderson engages in numerous philosophical discussions with the village’s king, Dahfu, and through this relationship gradually begins to see that life is more than just the slow wasting away to which he has reduced it. Instead, each person has the opportunity to embrace a succession of rebirths, or transformations, through engaging their imagination. Life, Henderson learns, can be a journey of ongoing spiritual growth, ultimately geared toward seeking to love others well. The protagonist leaves the village with the intent of becoming a doctor when he returns to his home. Before his departure the long-awaited rain falls down, symbolizing how the parched landscape of Henderson’s own soul has at last been nurtured.
As I look back and examine my own seasons of “drought,” they have been windows when I was learning and growing the least—times when I had resigned myself to things as they were without seeking to elicit meaningful change. I was stuck in that spot for a while around the middle of last year, before breaking through with the help of others. I imagine at some point things will dry up again, and I’ll face the choice of whether to give up or persevere along the journey.
What choices are you making right now? The adventure of a lifetime, Campbell claimed, was simply “being who you are.” Are your actions aligned with an inner wellspring of authenticity?
Where are you on the “hero’s journey?”