“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
When I read that line in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, I was in ninth grade. I was 14. I looked about 12 years old. My life felt very unheroic. I would have told you then that other people would be the heroes in my life.
It would be a few years later – after my father died from a six-year illness – that I would decide that if I was ever to be a hero, I would have to plot my journey. It would not be found in books I was reading. No one else was going to show it to me.
I discovered Freud and Jung and Joseph Campbell the summer before my high school senior year. No one I knew was reading these books. There was no one I could talk to about these ideas. I discovered that I might be able to find my bliss. I began to believe that perhaps when I left home for college, there was the possibility of having a fulfilling life.
I had read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell’s seminal theory outlining the common journey of the archetypal hero. For Campbell, a thousand heroes across many ancient myths from around the world created a monomyth. At first, I thought I had no place in their stories. But the book took on a popularity and follow your bliss became a popular mantra that you could find on the t-shirts of my Rutgers classmates.
The monomyth was applied to popular literature, songs, the lives of artists and films. I studied it in an Arthurian literature class in college. (The pop-culture allusions to it got a big boost after I had graduated college and was teaching when Star Wars was released in 1977 and Campbell and George Lucas started doing interviews together.)
And I started to slide back to my 14-year-old self and believe again that I was not to be the hero of my life. I would never make it through the hero’s journey myself, though I tried many paths.
The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world. I did that throughout my teen years (as many people do) and through college. I tried to leave behind the places of the psyche where my difficulties resided after trying to clarify those difficulties. It is hard to eradicate them.
Campbell said, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Many of my contemporaries saw drugs as the way to explore that region. But I never saw anyone return with any new powers.
In my adult life, I believed I had made atonement with the father, been through trial and quest, and descended into the underworld. I literally tried a vision quest, but I never met the goddess. The caves I explored were dead ends.
I must have never died because there was no resurrection, no rebirth, no transformation. No need to find a road back. I stay where I am.
I started to believe that I did not want transformation if it meant descending into the belly of the whale and death, even if it is figurative. I am happier in this world than I have ever been, and yet I do not describe myself as “happy.”
It does not seem that I will be given an adventure to follow, like Theseus, or be carried abroad by some agent as was Odysseus. Maybe it will be some blunder, some casual strolling that reveals a flash to my often wandering eye. I am easily distracted these days. I am almost afraid that something will lure me away from the paths of man.
Further reading into and about Joseph Campbell during my later life has uncovered aspects of his life that makes him far less heroic to me. It seems that every writer, athlete, scientist and artist I loved and looked to for guidance on the journey, was either mad, alcoholic, cruel, or unable to share a life with a husband or wife and love their children. They are all flawed.
I read about the “myth of the hero” and think that indeed it is a myth. There are no heroes. There is no pattern for the journey.
Lesson by Matthew Winkler, animation by Kirill Yeretsky.
What trials unite a Harry Potter or a Frodo Baggins, and what do we mortals have in common with them?