A few weeks ago I wrote about Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. Now myth falls under the category of allegory. Allegorical stories are more than just their face value. They usually have a greater point that they are trying to drive home. Fables, parables, and sometimes fairytales also do this. In the case of the Hero’s Journey, it’s a metaphor for Life, and the events we undertake in it.
Have you ever heard someone say that life is an adventure? Well, in this case, it’s true. A lot of misconception is that it’s more of the fun kind of adventure; like having a life-changing field trip with your buddies.(youtube; just for the lolz). But the adventure that life is tends to be more like the Rollercoaster-y adventure of The Hobbit.
Now you can look at it two ways; both fit nicely side by side and inside each other. One is that your whole life is one great Hero’s Journey, starting from your birth and culminating at the time of your death.
To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal it self, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death?
Vikor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
The second is that life is a collection of Journeys you undertake. (Like in the life story of Hercules or King Arthur, to name some well-known ones.) Every time a new life event arises, whether positive or negative if it presents a challenge, can be seen as structured out in such a way, starting with a call to adventure, and ending with you, the hero, transformed. Instead of the step of the hero returning to the normal world, there can be seen a refusal or inability to return. You have been permanently transformed by the call and your subsequent answer to it. (Because why would you go back to an old job, or your school days; or how would you go back after losing a loved one, or a serious illness or injury?)
But what, really, is the utility of this?
It’s all about the perspective one takes. When you undertake a journey, go on an adventure, there’s a certain level of preparation and acceptance implied. (Though some journeys are about finding that acceptance, but we’ll talk about those later.) When you are prepared for something psychologically, your body will respond. You stand up taller, and the front of your body opens up. (in a, “come at me, bro” stance) If you stand up straight and open the front of your body up, your mind will believe it’s prepared for anything, and others will treat you as though you yourself are competent. In reverse, if you don’t prepare or undertake a challenge willingly, you’re more likely to react with your “fight or flight or freeze”. If you huddle into yourself, your brain believes there’s a very good reason for it, and so do the people around you.
Another use is that this formulates something like a map for your life. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero focuses on one direction: up. Whether the hero is trying to save their home, find redemption, or resurrect a loved one, it is the aim of manifesting a goal that enables the hero to drive forward through their trials and even climb out of the belly of the whale. The Hero has a goal, a compass, and this aim gives them the ability to see where they are going and how to get there.
When we become mired in the travails of life, we can look to the path that we are on to guide us back into the desired light from the murky depths where our nightmares come into being. My favorite literary example of this is in C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of The Dawn Treader, when they visit the Island Where Dreams Come True. The island itself is a great darkness that once entered, seems that it cannot be left. The crew members even fear that they won’t be allowed to leave. All seems lost until Aslan, in the form of an Albatross, guide them through the mire as a point of light to follow.
Humans are navigational creatures. We prefer to have an aim, a destination in mind, and to also know how to get there. (Some seem to prefer wandering aimlessly, but I’d say that they are the exception, not the rule. Though, there seems to be the underlying aim of the discovery of the Unkown with these folk.) We have devised many aids throughout the ages to tell us where we are in the physical world and how to tell us how to get other places. We’ve devised units of measurement to tell us how far it is to go, how far we’ve come, we even have devices and systems that tell us how long it’s taken us to get there or even predict how much time it will take! We have ways of measuring and classifying what it is in the physical world that we’re looking at, and how we can use it. (or how it will use us.)
If our species has spent so much time and effort into mapping the physical world, then it stands to reason that humanity also has a means for mapping the psychological world. The human psychic realm is a strange, arbitrary place. It is a mix of ancient systems that evolved before consciousness arose, and the new and somewhat fragile by comparison conscious blocks of our cognition.
Philosophers have theorized that the only true wall between us and the rest of the universe is a psychological one (which can be observed through the use of psychedelics and the experience of ego death.), that the sense of self is a constructed one. So, the psychological world and the physical worlds are one and the same, and our temperament demands a navigational tool.
This tool is Story.
Not just any story, but a distilled story. A story that has meaning beyond what you can articulate. A story that has been told by thousands of people in thousands of ways. One that touches you in a hundred different ways, every individual time you read or hear it. It’s the story that inspires and motivates you, or terrifies and instructs you. It’s the story that makes you step back, and reexamine something in your life. It’s a story that defines an Individual, a Community, The Ideal. It’s the thing that you have realized is the most important to your life.
It is Myth and Archetype and Folklore. The tool is when you take this thing, and use it to direct your life. You act it out, in hopes of achieving an aim. Usually to model or avoid the attributes of a character. You want to achieve what they did, or to even go beyond them. Stories trigger not just thoughts in your head, but actual, visceral reactions. And then we act them out. The story tells you something you’ve wanted or needed to know and tells you how to go about it.
Those are the important stories. And those are the ones that stick with us for hundreds, thousands of years. The rest fall to the side and are forgotten.
And that, is the utility of Story.
In a few moments the darkness turned into a greyness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been. They blinked their eyes and looked about them. The brightness of the ship astonished them: they had half expected to find that the darkness would cling to the white and the green and the gold in the form of some grime or scum. The then the first one, and then another, began laughing.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.