Discovering Your Personal Mythology: Part 3 — Stepping into Your Personal Myth
Activating Your Inner Hero
The Hero’s Journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell, is a profound insight into the history of man and his stories; however, as compelling as this mythological map is, the whole concept is rather academic and void of valuable content if people are not granted the opportunity to play a part in the story. That is where the stories of individuals begin. To be clear, the individuals of which I speak are not mythological, neither god nor nymph; that is, not Aphrodite or Sisyphus, but you and I.
The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. – Joseph Campbell
Campbell, as the above quote confirms, clearly recognized the usefulness of this pervasive theme of heroism in the lives of every man, woman, and child. In various books and interviews, he describes very normal life phases and events such as puberty, leaving the nest as an adult, and even the act of being born, as highly relatable examples of heroics. Mythology simply offers us the symbols of transformation, while the responsibility of such transformation lies in our hands. It is up to you, me, and everyone else to charge themselves with the task of carrying out of their own salvation. The guise of popular culture and contemporary trends all too often serve to muddle our own innate sense of valiance. We become what we think the world would have us be and disregard that ‘privilege’ Campbell spoke of.
The most obvious way to point out the affect that hero mythology has on us all is to discuss films. For our modern society, movies often serve as the contemporary epochs, our functional mythologies. This truth is found in our response to these stories, the spirit they awaken within us. Ever go to an action-packed movie at the theater, like a Bond movie or Star Wars, and notice that by the end of it you experience an intense feeling of confidence and a lust for adventure? That’s mythology working on you. The hero archetype embedded in our unconscious is invoked through witnessing acts which reflect its own nature.
We recognize on some level that the hero we see on the silver screen is not simply a character that somebody made up, but a symbol of what has been lying dormant in ourselves.
Why else would we leave with a sense of being ready to take on evil for the good of mankind? Do we not all in some manner relate to the little hobbit, Frodo, in both his fear of leaving the comfort of the shire and his sense of duty as he ventures forth? I cannot answer that question for you, but I know that I do, and I also suspect that the success of the Star Wars films and Lord of the Rings trilogy have at least something to do with what they evoke within the hearts and minds of their audience. Sometimes, entertainment is not purely entertainment, and this was and is the role of myth in society. I would invite the reader to test this against their own experience. Can you see or feel a difference within yourself after watching a Lord of The Rings film versus watching a couple of episodes of a sitcom? I can. The sitcom is entertaining, while the hero film is invigorating.
Note how inspired people tend to get when listening to a true story of human triumph. In our rags-to-riches accounts, such as with Oprah Winfrey, we find the real living, breathing Cinderella. We intuitively experience a lift in spirit when we hear such tales. Anyone who has frequented the content of the internet outfit, Upworthy, will know what I am talking about.
What about my journey?
Everybody has a unique life with details and variables that are distinctly theirs, which is why the basic cycle of The Hero’s Journey is so useful. While I cannot tell anyone what his or her personal journey is, I can provide examples of my own. Journeys that I have taken include: the process of recovering from alcoholism and addiction, facing fears of failure and embracing the performance aspect of being a musician, and going from a neurotically insecure boy who could not talk to girls to a man who is willing to brave the uncertainty of pursuing the woman for whom he has fallen. The list could go on and on. This also illustrates an important point: we do not necessarily take just one journey. It is certainly true that we can look at the entire lifespan of the human being as The Hero’s Journey, but we can also identify smaller journeys within this timeline.
The un-lived life is toilsome.
Conversely, we can also see the antithesis of such heroism in our lives as well. It should be no trouble for an addict to relate to the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings movies. To be possessed by an object of obsession to the point that the mind narrows into a coffin of self-imposed misery is not a new concept. How many of us can relate to becoming so blinded by a lust or desire that we can no longer enjoy our lives? Even the very thing that we become paranoid of losing ceases to provide any real sense of comfort or satisfaction, yet still we cling to it in hopes that we’ll beat the game. This is the journey un-lived, the life without that privilege Campbell mentions of ‘being oneself.’ Gollum, under the mysterious spell of the ring, revoked this privilege, and becomes nothing short of a ghoul. The fact that he was once a cheerful little hobbit, a good-natured creature, is no coincidence. Note the similarity here to the book of Genesis, where man falls and they are exiled, not from the shire, but the Garden.
The big question is whether you are going to say a hearty yes to your adventure. ~ Joseph Campbell
What does it mean to say a “hearty yes” and where is”‘your adventure” to be found? Well, there are simple questions that may lead you to the answers. Look at what your personal values are and the things you would do ‘if only you had the time or money.’ What is the one thing that you have been unwilling to face for as long as you can remember? Furthermore, what is the one thing that you cannot not do? If your heart is prone to poetry, cooking, or painting, these may provide clues. Do those things. Engage with your passions, or “bliss,” as Joseph Campbell used to affectionately call it. This is where our essential life energies surface and seek expression, such as in Jung’s commentary on the libido. I’m not suggesting that you quit your job, throw caution to the wind, and pursue the uncertainty of a fleeting desire, though that might be what you conclude is the next step. It also might mean being the best husband, father, mother, daughter, etc. that you can and that your adventure is within the context of what we would consider normal life. This is when the extraordinary might become extra-ordinary.
We may only understand the call by seeing where we have refused the call, perhaps from not being yet ready or from clinging to an image of ourselves that was more secure and comforting. When the phone keeps ringing, despite our being adamant about ignoring it, we can know that there is some significance to the call. I can almost guarantee that if you study The Hero’s Journey, you will find yourself being ‘called to adventure’ in some way. Whether you answer this call or not is up to you. What it asks of us is often that we exchange our complacency and security for the alluring thrill of a personal quest. You might be able to look back and see where this journey has taken place in your life already, suggesting that it is not this article that tells you it exists, but your experience of it. As an archetype, the hero is in all. Campbell’s work simply gave it a name and a map for us to know better what we are working with.
So do understand that The Hero’s Journey is not simply a topic for the academic world to discuss, but an open invitation for anyone who feels dulled by their current situation or secretly longs for danger and the triumph over it. For, after all, if Luke Skywalker never leaves Tatooine, the universe does not get saved, and for that heroism, I thank him and everyone in real life who has embarked upon their own personal myth. The completion of the hero cycle is returning to society with treasure to share with everyone, as the hero is the ultimate sacrifice. He gives up everything so that he may give everything.
This is to be rich in spirit, not rich in gold, and spirit given is spirit gained.
On February 22nd at 1 pm the Refuge Meditation Group will be hosting a workshop co-sponsored by Centenary College’s religious studies department on the the Hero’s Journey, as outlined by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. I will be one of the presenters. It is free of charge and open to the public. Click here to join the Facebook event page.