Transformation and shedding

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When i find myself obsessing too much about the state of things, I play a game called “hero’s journey.” Sometimes I use it as a lens on my own life, bringing new insight and meaning to past events, or greater understanding and patience to a current challenge. I also imagine it can be applied at any scale, since we are all on the collective adventure of being between old and emerging stories. By that token, we have received the call but are probably still back at refusing it and trying to keep on living a “normal” life. Eventually, things will get so bad (if they haven’t already), we’ll be forced to embark. And then who knows what will happen?

There’s a tension in the hero’s journey between transformation and becoming. Joseph Campbell says that the hero transforms – he must literally become a different person in order to accomplish his tasks: pass the guardians at the threshold, enter the inky darkness of the underworld, defeat a few monsters, find the dragon, slay the dragon, get the treasure. At each stage, he meets with greater and greater opposition and must dig deep within himself for the resources to rise above the challenges. Such experiences change a person.

And, indeed, what is being conquered but the hero’s own inner demons? “You are your own worst enemy” is at least as old as the Bhagavad Gita, which has a verse naming the mind as both Krishna’s only enemy and his only friend. Those qualities of self-discovery, humility and confidence are the currency of the hero’s journey.

Another way to look at the effect of the journey is not as a literal metamorphosis into a more worthy person – the sort who defeats monsters and slays dragons – but as a shedding of layers of false selves on the way to becoming more and more authentic. This version says that we all have within us the capacity for heroic acts: saying yes, embarking on the adventure, meeting dangers with courage and presence, trusting our inner resources, relying on help when it’s offered, summoning humility in the face of unknowing.

Like most contrasting ways of seeing things, they are probably both true. Certainly, the end result is the same – the hero returns home with treasure and new perspective to share with his community and everyone is better off. I do wonder whether the classic Campbell definition is too daunting, implying as it does that heroes are not like us; they’re better than us. Untouchable.

That’s why I like the second image better; it’s more likely to motivate me out of complacency and avoidance. Who hasn’t experienced that shedding of layers in the face of great adversity, say, the loss of a job or a loved one? And isn’t it a relief, even if only temporarily, to drop the weight of the masks and armor? What would be the equivalent of this on a cultural level? Maybe it’s starting to happen already. Many of us are getting too tired to carry the false stories much longer.

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