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The Hero's Non-Journey

The Hero’s Journey is a staple in therapy / personal development – not to mention Hollywood scriptwriting. It begins with the ‘hero’ (of either gender) in an unsatisfactory place. They then ‘hear a call’ to go beyond this. Initially, they resist, but the call becomes insistent, and in the end they have no choice but to follow it. In doing so, they cross a threshold, after which return to their old life is impossible. In the model, they are now on a quest. They find allies. They learn tricks and skills. They find mentors, who will advise. At some point there will a confrontation with the epitome of the bad forces that, secretly, were causing all the trouble in the first place. A titanic struggle takes place – which the hero wins (often with a talisman that one of their mentors has provided). In more sophisticated versions, the dark force turns out to be part of them, and they have to not so much destroy it as transcend it – learn something from it but also go beyond it, silence its importunity but not just trample it into the ground. In the struggle, the hero discovers a magical ‘elixir’ (or wrests it from the villain), which they then take back to the old world and put to good use, leading a bigger, better life and helping other people with the magic, too.

This is genuinely fine stuff – but I wonder how often such journeys fail, not because of the overriding force of evil but, well, just because shit happens. You hear a call but don’t quite understand what it is. It’s one thing to feel dissatisfied, another to choose the right route out of that. Alcohol, drugs and casual affairs are all ‘calls’, but are they really heroic? Maybe you don’t quite make it across the threshold. There will be plenty of forces trying to keep you back. Habit. Commitments to others. Fears of all kinds. Or maybe you get through, but there aren’t any allies or mentors there (or they turn out to be unreliable allies or crap mentors, with their own agendas or just ill-informed). Or maybe the bad guys prove elusive. Who (or, as this is metaphor, what) are they, exactly? Or maybe you do track them down, face up to the big test – and lose. The bad guys tend to lose in the movies, but in real life they are powerful and practiced at winning battles. (The whole good guy / bad guy thing is an invitation onto the Drama Triangle, which is not a good place to be. Is this really such a good idea?)

In an ideal world, the reaction to the above is pride at having tried. ‘It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all…’ But disillusion about the whole business of call-hearing can set in, and you end up back in the old rut, but with a new sense of dissatisfaction or, worse, bitterness and envy of people who do hear calls, follow them and succeed. Maybe, your fight with the bad guys has left you damaged, physically, financially, emotionally, spiritually - stuck in Victim mode…

I really like the hero’s journey idea. I believe that the notion captures something very profound about being human: that there are crucial times in life when we have to seize our destiny in order to both fulfil ourselves and make us truly useful to others. (This is what I think Sartre and the existentialists were on about, though they put it in a very extreme, rive gauche way.) The hero’s journey idea helps us map that destiny-seizing, and that is hugely useful. But blander versions of the journey can make it look too easy. It isn’t. It can go wrong.

Popular songs that tell this story. Comfortably Numb or the Dark Side of the Moon album– for all his faults, Roger Waters had a very clear understanding of how we need to travel but can take wrong turnings. You only live Twice is a beautiful evocation of the ‘call’ in the context of romance.

And here's a webpage with a different take on the Journey...


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