Every one of us is called upon to become the hero of our own life. Joseph Campbell, an American writer and professor, distilled the typical outline of how this plays out in story and in real life. We call that path “The Hero’s Journey.” It’s a fabulous template for people to figure out where they are and where they are going. Let’s take a look at the cycle.
We all start out in the ordinary world. Everything is normal, routine, and usually comfortable. There usually isn’t anything to complain about, but there may be a feeling that something is missing.
We’re living in an “ignorance is bliss” state, or an unawakened state. Things are as they are “supposed to be,” which generally means that we’re living up to someone else’s vision. It could also mean that we don’t know what we don’t know, so we aren’t asking enough of life or ourselves.
Now something happens that rocks our world. Perhaps it’s a death, a bequest, a great job offer, a betrayal, an accident, or a spiritual event. Whatever it is, it stirs something inside us that yearns to be explored.
Refusal of the Call
Doubt sets in. We question our loyalties, our bravery, our sanity. Do we do this thing? Are we up to it? Do we stay in ignorance or do we risk uncertainty?
In the modern world, many adolescents refuse the call. Their parents have made it too easy for them to remain dependent. And even if they live independently, they haven’t had the hardships or discipline required to have healthy habits, boundaries, or learn emotional regulation.
Or maybe their parents don’t have those skills either, and they don’t know that emotional breakdowns, name calling, and staying in bed all day is not healthy. So, they remain adult-children.
It’s necessary to break out, do something hard, something that may even kill you, to prove to yourself who you are to reach adulthood. When life is too soft, many of us never do this because we don’t have to.
Meeting With the Mentor
They say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This is that moment. This is a parent, friend, someone who has done this thing and succeeded, someone who has attempted and failed, a professional, or it could be a supernatural being or vision. This person gives the hero the understanding of the importance of the quest and the courage to go on. S/he may also provide equipment, knowledge, and support.
Some movie examples of mentors are Yoda (Star Wars), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), the Good Witch of the East (The Wizard of Oz), and the Morpheus (The Matrix).
Crossing the Threshold
This is the “no going back” moment. Once we cross the threshold, we leave the known world and begin traveling in the unknown world. Typically, at this point, the hero has accepted that the mission is greater than the desire for comfort and has committed to it. S/he may also have an understanding that it’s something that has to be done in order for him/her to become all s/he’s meant to be.
Lots of people never cross the threshold. They stay their mama’s baby and never leave their comfort zone. If you are holding fast to your beliefs, live in a homogeneous bubble, and living from a space of habit (or white knuckling your way through life), you’re not crossing the threshold. Even if you have left home, have traveled, and done some exotic things. You may still be in the “known” land avoiding the call.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
We typically start our journey with enthusiasm, and then reality sets in. We’re in a strange world with unknown customs. We may join forces with allies. We will face enemies. This process teaches us many skills we will need to go beyond surviving to thriving. The experience shows us who we are.
As we get closer to reaching our goal, our resolve is tested again. Do we have what it takes to finish this journey? Life has ups and downs. We’re tired. We’re not there yet. Can we endure?
Now is the time to make the final preparations before taking on the big boss.
At this stage, we take on the big boss and vanquish the beast. This is our rite of passage. We’ve proven that we are not who we were. Our child self (or previous self) can die so that our new, adult self can be born. Without death, transformation doesn’t happen.
In A Monster Calls, this was the moment that the little boy spoke the truth that he didn’t want to admit. So, this doesn’t have to be slaying a dragon. Sometimes the enemy is an aspect of ourselves.
With all obstacles out of the way, we can now seize the treasure. This can be the princess, secret knowledge, gold, or some token that symbolizes the completion of the hardest part of the quest. But all is not over, we still have to get back home!
The Road Back
The road back is fraught with trials too, but now that we have done it once, it’s a lot easier this time. We have more knowledge and courage. It’s not the ordeal that getting here was. We’re moving away from what’s unfamiliar and back to what we knew.
The final hurdle is to confront oneself. If this happens, the hero accepts his new identity, responsibilities, and the joy and status that comes with it. This purification “seals” the initiation and the transformation that began with the ordeal is complete.
Return With the Elixir
“Returning with the elixir” is about incorporating the changes we made during the journey into our every day lives. In my opinion, this is the hardest part because the people we left behind didn’t go on that journey with us. They may not see us as the new people that we feel inside. They may not understand the new knowledge that we possess.
When we live in a culture without rites of passage or initiations, our heroes can feel adrift when returning with the elixir because we need a society that celebrates our struggle and triumph. We need for our struggle to be celebrated. Returning with the elixir isn’t something that we do solely for us. It’s for the benefit of the community, and when we live in a community that doesn’t want what we have to offer, it can feel like rejection.
Although we must all do this journey alone, we’re always a part of the community we left behind. There is an unspoken contract that, if we return home – unless that home is destroyed or is something we must escape from.
So, on that note, it’s important to know that not every hero’s journey will follow all of these steps. Yours may not have a mentor, allies, or return home, for example. The framework still holds true in a general way, however.
Examples of Real Life Calls to Adventure
- transitioning into adulthood
- leaving an abusive relationship
- death of a loved one
- leaving a job you hate to pursue your dream
- being fired
- surviving an accident or illness that robs you of your health or mobility
- going on a spiritual adventure that changes your life
- leaving your religion
If you are called to do something life changing, take it. It will grow you. Too many people die without having ever lived. If you don’t want that to be you, heed the call.