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The Hero's Journey: Using an Ancient Framework on Modern Stories

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Joseph Campbell's seminal work was revealing The Hero's Journey, a story structure that could be applied to many different stories and myths throughout history. From the epic of Odysseus, the sci-fi wonders of Star Wars, and the undersea adventures of Finding Nemo, we've been reading and watching heroes since we were young.

But what about you and me?

Most days, our life's story does not feel heroic, but mundane. Even when with a happy family and meaningful work, the slow creep of the status quo invades our life. This isn't wrong, in fact it's inevitable! The question is: What are you going to do about it?

Instead of feeling guilty, let's take a look at the Hero's Journey, and apply this ancient wisdom to our current situation.

Campbell calls the initial stage Conventional Slumber, meaning the hero is stuck in the same-old, same-old routine each day. The hero feels quite comfortable going through the motions, even if they are good and admirable! When the hero feels the stirrings of a challenge without a pre-determined outcome, he or she is ready for the next stage, the Call to Adventure.

Now, a crucial part of our story is already upon us, because at this point we can choose to continue the journey towards wholeness and transformation, or we can choose to veer off towards destruction. Ironically, the path of transformation is the difficult one, filled with tough conversations, vulnerability, and sacrifice.

If you were to use marriage as an example; many married couples find themselves in a rut, and yearn for a call to adventure! Heeding the call in a positive way means initiating conversations, date nights, and more. Heeding the call in a destructive way can often lead to physical and emotional affairs, or estranged, cold relationships.

For another example, many people embark on the hero's journey through a career change, whether it's self-initiated or not! To tell a little bit of my own story, a couple of years ago I was feeling a call to adventure in my own work and entrepreneurial journey, but didn't' quite have the courage to make the change on my own. This goes to show how difficult self-initiation is, and the value of mentors and guides to help point you in the right direction! This is known as the threshold of difficulty, when it seems you can come up with any reason to validate the status quo and remain comfortable.

You may be thinking you're no hero, just a normal person in a normal family with a normal job. If this is your mindset, I encourage you to seek out adventures of all kinds, whether a new activity, skill, friendship, or trip. It's tempting to only think of adventures in a grand sense, and downplay our everyday opportunities to engages with people and places in a new way. This is a mistake. Heeding the call to adventure plays out in numerous little decisions we make to shake up our experience in a positive way. The adventure could be something physical like a backpacking trip, learning new mental skills, or attending an industry conference. Every hero's journey is linked together by by doing the little things necessary to support the call, so don't become discouraged because today's adventure is doing the taxes. In the end, we must overcome our fear of the unknown and be willing to heed the call.

The next stage is Training and Discipline, and can often be the place we lose our way. The initial excitement of the call wears off and we're caught in the nitty-gritty of taking action and executing on our purpose. We stop going to the gym, blow off a couple of lessons, miss a deadline, or simply find another adventure quickie to satisfy us. The entire narrative doesn't solely rely on us, and mentors, guides, and companions join in to support you along the way. But we're not out of the woods yet. To stay in the fight, pursue the call, and do the work takes guts and courage. The worst is yet to come.

What follows training and discipline is the Abyss. We reach the abyss and are overcome with worry, regret, or frustration. The tummy weight is still there, your business hasn't taken off, bills are unpaid, no one is validating your art, and the relationship hasn't turned around yet.

You're at the end of your rope. How do you climb out?

Something has to die. The death may be a bit of ego, an unnecessary product line, favorite food, or way you prioritize time. The abyss brings us face to face with the realization that we can't bring everything with us on the journey. Something must be left behind to die.

Without death, the hero cannot be reborn. Your new self, the artist, the entrepreneur, the leader, the writer, the nurse, the teacher; they are all the hero you are called to be. But you cannot remain as you are. This shedding of the previous self can take a long time, and many times people have crawled back out the way they came, and oscillate between slumber, calling, and training, never to be fully transformed.

The abyss is a painful place. Our conflicts and struggles often show during training and into the abyss, tempting us to give up and return to the status quo, offering half-hearted options instead of the real thing. For Luke Skywalker, the dark side cave is where he must face his own death before continuing in his quest. Each of us has to be willing to enter our own dark cave, and face what's inside.

In our pain, our conflict, it's easy to lose sight of why we heeded the call in the beginning. It's easy to blame others or the system which put us here. Author and teacher Richard Rohr once wrote "Pain that is not transformed is transmitted." Think of struggle and conflict as the universe's test of your mettle, forging you as metal is shaped under great heat and stress. If we cannot allow our struggle to transform us, it will inevitably be transmitted to others, and consume us. But if we are patient, and see the greater goal in the chaos, one day we will look back and see how even our struggles played a critical role in creating the life we now live.

As you continue to pursue the call and walk the path, many more challenges, struggles, and successes await you. One of the gifts of the abyss is the clarity gained from knowing who you are and what you're doing. You don't need the validation like you once did, and the natural peaks and valleys of the journey seem to smooth out a little, because while you're heeding the call, the very nature of success and failure take on a different meaning. Both become teachers and guides, and we simply need to be open to the lessons they present.

The final stage is Return and Contribution, coming back into the world with a gift to share and a way to better our lives. The story isn't just about you anymore, but the ways you can uniquely support the community and world around you. You become the mentor and guide for others as they are caught in conventional slumber and resist the call to adventure. In truth, life feels very meaningful and comfortable.

Which means...

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