As an English teacher, I am very familiar with the concept of the “Hero’s Journey.” It is an archetypal construct that we see repeated over and over again in literature, and for very good reason–it touches close to home–it is a reflection of the human experience.
Archetypes, if you’re not familiar with the idea, are, in essence, symbols, ideas, or concepts that we, as human beings, all hold in common. Carl Jung believed that this commonality is part of what he termed genetic memory–in other words, memory that is quite literally passed down through our DNA.
An easy example would be mice. Why in the world do so many of us fear mice? They are itty, bitty little things but they send many people squealing, running for cover, or hopping on the nearest chair.
Why? And why only some people, but not all?
Well, in terms of genetic memory, we theorize that it stems from our ancestors run-in with the Black Plague. Mice, or more correctly, rats spread the disease that decimated Europe. For those of us who run from the furry, little creatures, our ancestors watched their friends and family die around them. All because of the little, itty, bitty creatures. And they passed the consequent fear of those little, furry creature on to us, their progeny, (however many times removed).
Those of you who don’t run screaming for the hills at the sight of a mouse? Either your ancestors were fortunate enough to escape a run in with the Black Death or they simply didn’t pass that fear on to their ancestors. Thus, mice are just cute, little, furry creatures to you.
I’m quite sure that someone in my line must have watched their whole family drop like dominoes because I absolutely HATE the little things myself.
Archetypes stem from these universally held concepts such as good conquers evil. It also extends to colors: black symbolizing death, fear, and rot. Or to settings: the mountains symbolizing obstacles, adversity, a journey, etc.. Archetypes permeate our society in big and little ways–and none more so than the Hero’s journey.
The idea of the Hero’s Journey is quite basic. An ordinary person is called out from his ordinary life by something extra-ordinary. He is called to a road he never intended to travel. He struggles with what that road is asking of him. He longs to go back to the way things were “before.”
In literature, the hero or heroine ultimately come to terms with the call and rises to the occasion, overcoming the obstacles and embracing his hero nature.
Not necessarily the case in real life.
What do I mean?
Well, just like all archetypes, I believe this one was born directly out of real life. As I’ve established before, all people, at some point, are going to be forced to wrestle with dragons (aka adversity) whether that comes in the form of sickness, betrayal, violence, death, etc….the “dragons” take many forms, but in the end, we all must wrestle with them.
Granted, it is rarely as obvious as Harry Potter being called out of the mundane life to one of wizardry or as Katniss Everdeen being called to take on the corruption of her society, but still, we are all, everyone of us, called to our own, personal hero’s journey.
But too often, we don’t come to terms with the journey. We don’t rise to the occasion. We don’t defeat the dragon.
As anyone who has followed my blog knows by this point, I am a huge fane of Brene’ Brown. In her book “Rising Strong,” she states:
You may not have signed up for a hero’s journey, but the second you fell down, got your butt kicked, suffered a disappointment, screwed up, or felt your heart break, it started…it happens to every single one of us. Without exception. The only decision we get to make is what role we’ll play in our own lives.”
If you read my last blog, and reflected on how you typically react to adversity, you should have a decent idea of what “role” you typically take in terms of your hero’s journey.
Let’s take a moment to envision it in the role of a story…do you rise to the occasion? Do you overcome? Or when Voldemort enters the scene, do you run for cover? When society is falling apart around your head, do you pretend that nothing is happening?
Do you like the ending of your story?
If your answer is no, then I have some really good news for you: in this story YOU get to choose the ending.
What kind of hero do you want to be?
This doesn’t always mean you win, at least in one sense of winning. Sometimes our Voldemort is cancer, and the cancer wins. Sometimes that car accident steals your daughter from you. Sometimes your husband leaves you for another woman.
When looking at that sense of winning, we don’t always win, but we do still win.
An easy example for me personally is my daughter, Serena. Many of you know that my daughter died of SMA almost 16 years ago. That was my first real call to the hero’s journey. It was the initial conflict. It was the first real breaking of my heart. She died. I didn’t win in that sense of winning. But I did win.
How in the world can I say that?
Because I chose my ending, and that ending was to wrestle with the pain, to “lean into it” as I like to say, and to choose to defy my circumstances, and to overcome.
I chose my ending. We all get to choose our endings.
How does this work? How do we actually do this?
I’m going to refer to Brene’ Brown a lot as I explain this. When I first walked through this personally, Brene’ Brown hadn’t written her books, and I had no clue who she was, but as I’ve read her books, I’ve seen the reflection of my own journey, and I’ve seen the reflection of the journeys others have made around me, in her work. My life and my observations validate what Brown found in her research.
If you’ve ever wondered why the same event can cause one person to rise, and the other to sink into bitterness, brokenness, or addiction, she can answer that question. She unpacks the concept of resilience.
If you want to choose to write your own story, if you want to change the ending, it means “getting uncomfortable; it’s choosing courage over comfort.” If you’re going to write your ending, you need to be willing to get down in the mud and wrestle. It’s going to get messy.
Our instinct is often the opposite, to disengage to self-protect. To deny what we feel, to hide from it. In Brown’s words “We can’t chart a brave new course until we recognize exactly where we are, get curious about how we got there, and decide where we want to go.”
Brown breaks this down into a two step process.
1) engaging with our feelings
2) getting curious about the story behind the feelings–what emotions we’re experiencing and how they are connected to our thoughts and behaviors
This sounds deceptively simple. It’s not. Oftentimes we deny what we feel saying that “we didn’t care anyway.” Or we mask hurt with anger. Or we transfer emotions we don’t understand onto a person who is an “easy” target (aka our spouse or child, brother or sister, etc.). Or we self-flagellate. The list goes on.
All of these are methods of not engaging with our emotions. They are ways we choose to disengage.
When I lost Serena. I was angry. I was angry at God. I was angry at mothers who still had their children. I was angry at the whole world.
I remember how that anger made a lot of people uncomfortable. It wasn’t “Christian” they said. Ironically, I never felt that condemnation from God. From Him, I felt a sense of encouragement, that He was not intimidated by my anger, I also felt a recognition that denying what I felt wouldn’t make the feelings disappear. I had to wrestle with them to get through them.
When we deny what we feel, we get stuck. I’ve seen it happen to so many people. They deny the hurt happened. They deny the violation of what was done to them. They pretend that they are not angry at the abandonment they feel. They pretend the brokenness isn’t really there. And so they get stuck right there, in that moment where the hurt, abandonment, violation or brokenness occurred.
The movie “The Shack” illustrated this so beautifully. When the main character asks “God” in agony why he would bring him back to face what was done to his daughter, “God” simply says, “Because this is where you got stuck.”
We get stuck at the moment where we stop dealing with our pain. It has to be dealt with. There is no other option.
Ignoring what we feel does not make it go away–it lets it own us.
Brown puts it this way:
The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending.
When Serena died, I could have become bitter. I could have lost my faith. I could have cut myself off from risking, from loving. Many do after getting shattered the way that the death of a child shatters you. Knowing that kind of pain, you disengage, not wanting to be hurt like that again.
But I made the decision years ago, before I understood what that decision meant. Risk was worth the pain. To fly, you have to fall. To succeed you have to fail. To love you have to break.
Serena was the first step of my hero’s journey. There have been many failures and setbacks and heart breaks since. There have been many times when I have felt the temptation to disengage, to step back, to self-protect.
But I just can’t do it, because I know.
I know the truth.
Brown says that “courage transforms the emotional structure of our being” and I believe her; I feel it. There is no going back.
And I’m glad. I don’t want to go back, even when I do. I don’t want the easy out. It’s not an out at all. It’s chains. It’s a prison. It’s being stuck.
God, as He so often does, gives us the principle of this truth. We say it. But we rarely fully grasp His meaning.
“We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28
Not just the good moments. Not just the easy ones. Not the comfortable ones.
But we have to choose to defy our ending, and let Him work His magic in us.
He wants us to lean in and wrestle with our adversity like Jacob wrestled with God–to wrestle and not let go until the blessing which comes out of the adversity is ours.
When we trust God enough to lean into our hero’s journey, it leads to our good, our growth, and our overcoming. It is the ending we want, the ending He created us for, and it is how we rise strong despite horrific circumstances, crippling pain, and agonizing betrayal.
We lean in, we wrestle, and we trust for the ending that can be.
Choose to be brave. It’s what you were made to be.