Monday, July 23, 2018

Your Hero's Journey

Star Wars and the Hero's Journey by Rachel Scheller

Telling Stories that Matter

This is the text of a sermon I delivered to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF) on Sunday, July 22, 2018.

I teach a popular online course at the College of Western Idaho called “Survey of World Mythology.”[1] Every semester, my students start the course thinking that they are going to learn about Zeus, Hera, and maybe Thor—and in all fairness, Thor is why I initially wanted to teach the course.

About three weeks in, we get to the part where I introduce Jesus as just one of many examples from world religions of the “dying god” archetype, and there’s the delicious sound of young minds being blown. “What? We’re reading Christian scriptures as myths?” Well, yes.

Stories, wherever they come from, have power. Stories can shape our cultures—and our individual stories can shape our values and our sense of meaning in a world that might otherwise feel like pure chaos.

A possibly spurious[2] quote attributed to British novelist John Gardner famously asserts that there are only two basic stories in the entire world: the hero’s journey, and a stranger walks into town.  Today, we’re going to talk about the first kind of story.

In my world mythology class, I spend an entire unit on the hero’s journey. This universal archetype, a story that exists across all world cultures, was described by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book heavily influenced George Lucas—so I guess we have Campbell to thank for Star Wars (well, at least the good movies, the ones that the young folks call four, five, and six)[3].

What is it about the hero’s journey that makes it such a powerful story for pretty much every human being?

Joseph Campbell outlines 17 stages of his monomyth[4]—but we’ll be here all day if we try to get through all of them, and I know some of you have brunch plans. So I’d like to focus on just three elements of the hero’s journey and consider how these elements apply to the stories we are telling about ourselves in the world, right now:
  •         Answering the Call
  •          The Belly of the Whale
  •          Ultimate Boon/Freedom to Live

Let’s Start with Answering the Call.
Here you are, minding your own business. Maybe you’re working a desk job. Maybe you are surrounded by small children who are continually asking you “why?” and demanding peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Maybe you’re a modern day Jonah, preaching to people who comfortably agree with you, your Facebook friends, your book club group, your progressive liberal friends.

Suddenly, everything changes. The telephone rings. An email hits your inbox. You see a social media message from a long-lost high school friend.

Campbell says that the call to adventure is:
to a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man."[5]

When did the call come to you? How did you answer?

If you’re like me, the call has come many times, and I’ve answered in different ways. Sometimes I’ve been like Jonah—Run away! Sometimes I’ve proudly crossed the thresholds and stormed the barricades. But my most important calls have been the last kind Campbell describes—the calling by accident. When an anonymous blog I wrote about parenting a child who had a then undiagnosed mental illness, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,”[6] went suddenly viral in 2012, I wanted to run away. But I answered the call. I put my name on the story and told our family’s truth about just how hard it is to raise a child who has mental illness, without a village to support us.

Think for a moment about the accidents in your life that in hindsight, changed everything. What truths do you need to tell?

Next, let’s look at the Belly of the Whale.
This idea comes straight from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and I think it’s important to remember that, like Jonah, whether or not we accept the call, we can and probably will still end up in the fish’s belly at some point in our lives.

But it’s not as bad as you think. In fact, Campbell describes the image as one of rebirth. He says:
The hero… is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.[7]

The belly of the whale is where we have to do the hard work that accepting the call requires of us. I suspect that it’s where many of us are right now.

According to NBC News:
Across America today, rates of depression and anxiety are rising dramatically. A 2018 Blue Cross study found that depression diagnosis rates had increased by 33% since 2013—and that’s for people who have health insurance. Our teenagers are especially hard hit, with experts blaming everything from social media to video games to the loss of community.[8]

In the belly of the whale, we are alone, and we feel helpless. Do you feel helpless right now? Does the endless and exhausting news cycle—children in cages, women’s reproductive rights under threat, politicians who sold out our country to a foreign power—feel overwhelming to you?

I think that collectively, what we’re really experiencing is a cultural belly of the whale. We wanted something different for America. We believed in our Unitarian values of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; and Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”[9] but it all feels so helpless, so hopeless.

That’s why we have to learn to write and revise our stories. We’ll be reborn, and we’ll tell the tale. But right now, we may not know what the meaning of this story is, to ourselves, to our communities, or to our nation. Rebirth isn’t easy.

Finally, let’s look at the Ultimate Boon and Freedom to Live.
The ultimate boon is that grand meaning of life that we are searching for—but it may not turn out to be what we think it will be. Remember that great final scene in Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade, where our hero has to choose the cup of Christ from a whole shelf full of glittering golden goblets? The cup he chooses, the Holy Grail, is made of clay, a carpenter’s cup, simple and unrefined.

Sometimes we don’t know what the meaning is until we sit down later, like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, to tell our story of “There and Back Again.” The act of telling may in itself help us to discover what the story’s point is.

Campbell says:
What the hero seeks through his intercourse with [the gods and goddesses] is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This is the miraculous energy of the thunderbolts of Zeus, Yahweh, and the Supreme Buddha, the fertility of the rain of Viracocha, the virtue announced by the bell rung in the Mass at the consecration, and the light of the ultimate illumination of the saint and sage.[10]

Grace. I really like that word. I personally define grace, though I don’t completely understand it, as the power of good that pervades the world. Of course, you don’t have to be religious to find your ultimate boon, your grace. This spiritual energy may even exist in the absence of energy, in nothingness.

Ultimately, I think what the story of Jonah and the Whale tells us is that we can run but we can’t hide from our calling, so we may as well find some ultimate boon in it. For me, that boon is the freedom to live without fear

What are we afraid of? Well, first and foremost, the greatest fear of all: fear of death.

Campbell’s hero conquers death by understanding that, as the Latin poet Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses, “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms…. Nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.' Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”[11]

In other words, fear not: Death is change, not end. This is the point of most major stories about endings and beginnings, and for the hero, this knowledge is the ultimate freedom.

But now, a warning! We have to be careful how we use our stories.
This impulse to tell stories can be a powerful force for good—but also for evil. As one example, the Nazis were really good at telling stories that gave life meaning—at the expense of 14-year old Anne Frank and six million other innocent people. Stories—especially overly simplified ones--can be dangerous. Don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen here.

In her popular TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”[12] Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie observes:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.[13]

Do we tell ourselves stories that contain stereotypes? I know I do.

The Atlantic Monthly’s psychology editor, Julie Beck, makes the same point in her article, “Life’s Stories.” She writes:
The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.[14]

In other words, we need to understand that our story is not the only story—and that the stories we hear about others, maybe even about Donald Trump supporters, are also not the whole story, or the only story. 

Listening to others’ stories, especially stories from marginalized people, is at least as important as telling our own, maybe more—and Facebook doesn’t make it easy. We have to look for what psychologists refer to as disconfirming information—stories that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works.

This brings me to the last point I want to make:

We Need to Revise and Retell Our Stories
Sometimes we don’t know the meaning of our stories until years later. Sometimes we have to rewrite our old stories to accommodate a new narrative. This task—telling stories that matter—is not accomplished in a single draft. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime.

Julie Beck notes that how we tell, revise, and retell our stories affects who we are and how we see ourselves. She writes,
In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you're on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are…. Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.[15]

What are the themes of your hero’s journey? What calls have you answered? Would you answer them differently today?

What whale bellies have you endured, or are you enduring now? How will you be renewed, reborn, when you emerge?

Finally, if you’ve found the ultimate boon and the freedom to live, congratulations! Also, I’m sorry. When I was 35, I thought I had everything figured out, too, and I was pretty smug about it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t have it all figured out, and now I know that I probably never will.

Fortunately, as Beck says,
A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. Whether it’s with the help of therapy, in the midst of an identity crisis, when you’ve been chasing a roadrunner of foreshadowing towards a tunnel that turns out to be painted on a wall, or slowly, methodically, day by day—like with all stories, there’s power in rewriting.[16]

In the end, there’s no right or wrong story, no best path. There’s your story. How will you answer the call? How will you escape the belly of the whale? What will you tell us about freedom to live when you return from your journey? The story may change 1000 times, and the hero may have 1000 faces, but in the end, your hero’s journey is just that: yours. Per aspera ad astra—through hardships to the stars.


[1] I will be teaching ENGL 215: Survey of World Mythology in the spring of 2019 if you’re interested! More information about the course can be found here: https://catalog.cwidaho.cc/course-descriptions/engl/
[2] For a history of this quote and its attribution, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/
[4] Here’s a link to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, where an overview of his life and work can be found https://www.jcf.org/
[5] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 48
[6] Link to the viral essay at The Blue Review here: https://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/ and to my blog here: www.anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com
[7]Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 77
[10] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 155
[11] Ovid Metamorphoses, quoted in Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 209
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.

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