“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
The problem with the word “adventure” is definition. No one can be certain of the exact description because it depends on the unique characteristics of an individual. Most like the idea of an adventure, but when the call to the adventure comes, it may slip by unnoticed, or be considered an uninvited guest. Saying a “hearty yes” is accepting both the good and bad of a journey, exploit or deed.
Joseph Campbell breaks down the Hero’s Journey into three acts with several stages. Act one begins with the ordinary world, the safe place where we feel comfortable and fully in control of the situation. We are unaware of what is to come. Then comes the call, which is a demand for action to counteract a direct threat to ourselves or the well-being of family and friends. But when we realize the difficulty that lies ahead, we refuse the call, doubting our ability to tackle the task.
I received “my call” the other night when I heard a dreadful clanging coming from my washing machine that resonated through our home. It must be an anomaly, I reasoned as I added another load to my once-reliable washer. The washer would not budge. Herein lies the problem: I do not consider washing clothes by hand an adventure, nor do I think that I have a special talent in this area. Besides, the idea of being on a Hero’s journey is incompatible within our world of the ordinary.
And then the unexpected happened. Wringing out towels and feeling the ache in my arms, I came to understand my adventure. I looked backward. I felt a kinship and respect for my grandmothers and great-grandmothers who washed for large families, hanging out their wash on clotheslines in the heat of summer and the cold of mid-winter. I felt the deep need of the present. I was washing my clothes with drinking water that many in our world lacked. And finally, I felt a responsibility for the future. Water conservation begins in small ways.
Adventures end with enlightenment, with a new-found understanding. The repetitive nature of washing gave me a fresh perspective about the hero’s quest. It is seeing the greater journey in the daily tasks that seem ordinary and inconsequential, even mundane. There is meaning and consequences in everything we do.
May we always be able to say a “hearty yes.”
“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
These words were on my mind as I felt the plane lift off the runway heading towards Scotland to follow the bagpipes. I am not an easy traveller as some who have no fear of flying, missing train schedules, or unexpected detours. I want a plan with timetables and reservation numbers to confirm that there will be food and shelter at the other end of the journey. In other words, I want security every step of the way. There is safety in believing that somehow I remain fully in control of my circumstances and surroundings.
That is not the hero journey. To travel that road, security and comfort must be set aside for something grander to occur. The important thing, I reminded myself, is that I have taken a first step.
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
Hercules, Perseus, Theseus – these were the myths for which I searched the libraries as a 10-year-old. Magnificent heroes, blessed with superhuman strength and unfaltering courage, forged their destinies through journeys fraught with danger and treachery. As time passed, I chose new stories to take their place. Ones that were more in line with what I considered credible and more suitable for my reality. While I still enjoyed the hero myths, I lost that singular childhood enthusiasm. When I grew older, I became less sure of their relevance in my life. Indeed, the word “mythology” has the implication that what has been written is so fantastic that it simply cannot be true. That being the case, what significance can be given to these narratives? The real question is, do we still need heroes?
The heroic story is not only limited to Greek mythology; rather there are common elements through all mythologies that speak to the need for a hero, a model, someone who can be emulated, someone who makes us proud to be human. Their journeys are more about overcoming an internal conflict than achieving an external victory. The quest pattern begins with a journey over land or sea into the unknown. The hero confronts danger to bring back a person, object or knowledge. Gilgamesh overcame despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life. Jason led the Argonauts on an expedition in search of the Golden Fleece to secure his kingship. Hercules performed twelve labours and achieved immortality.
Our modern world still holds these same qualities is high regard. We pursue a “Golden Fleece”, the symbol of authority, to establish our position within society. We identify with Gilgamesh in our search for the meaning of life. We live in a finite existence, yet we recognize the possibility of the infinite, of immortality.
We need hero myths to remind us we are on a personal quest that celebrates the life that has been granted. Joseph Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
We travel the path of heroes.
“Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.”
C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Mythology is a story of the sacred that has come down through the ages of humankind. The breadth and depth of this discussion is immeasurable for it encompasses all cultures throughout time. Even definitions and categorizations are complex and the subject of ongoing debate. But there is one certainty: myths seek to answer those questions that give substance and meaning to our existence. How did life begin? What happens in death? Why is there good and evil? Why am I here? What is my purpose? We want to be masters of our universe, which can only be realized when we understand our place within that universe.
Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who wrote and lectured on comparative mythology and comparative religion, suggested that “Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.” This is indeed a topic for deep discussion. Even so, there is a genuine simplicity imbedded in these spell-binding mythological tales, each of which offers a wealth of imagery to amuse and stir our senses. They reveal the power of love, courage, loyalty; and address the darker emotions of jealousy, cruelty and violence. They help us understand loss and the finality of death in our reality.
As a ten-year-old, these thoughts were far from my mind when I searched the library shelves for books that would take me back to ancient Greece and the heroics of Hercules, the beauty of Aphrodite and wisdom of Athena. I felt a connection with their stories that continue to this very day. Perhaps being the master of our universe is merely being a voice within a universal conversation.
Civilizations pass; myths endure.
“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”
I always wondered who coined the catchy phrase, “follow your bliss.” The complexity of thought in these three simple words strikes to the core of our being. Most of us have a reasonable understanding of what “following” means. The problem – “bliss” is difficult to describe because of its transitory nature. Everyone has a uniquely personal definition.
Joseph John Campbell, American mythologist, anthropologist, writer, lecturer and the author of that expression, believed it was possible to “follow your bliss.” Indeed, his life is a testament to the truth of that statement. As a child, growing up in White Plains, New York, he became fascinated by First Nation artifacts This fascination transitioned into a life-long passion for mapping the interconnected linkages that exists across the spectrum of mythology and religion. Joseph Campbell acknowledged the inevitability of sorrow and pain in the human experience. Even so, living in joy is a choice.
The scholar has spoken: Joy is our choice.