Embarking on my Hero’s Journey — At 65!

Ah, the “golden years”, when we can finally enjoy the fruits of our labors, explore the world, develop new hobbies, or just relax and enjoy the moment.

Cut to: The crash of glass shattering into a thousand pieces!

Life does not always go according to plan. Actually, life rarely goes according to plan, at least not our plan. It seems that once we get that settled, comfortable feeling, the universe is prone to giving us a big shake, as if to say, “Wake up! You’re not done yet. You’ve got more work to do!” There’s no use arguing. You can plead your case all you want. “I’ve done lots of self-exploration”, “I’m very self-aware”, “I’ve made so much personal progress”, “But I meditate every day!”. None of that seems to matter, though, because there is still more to do. And so, we find ourselves tossed out of our sense of comfort, complacency actually, facing uncertainty and peril with foreboding and terror. This is the onset of our Hero’s Journey.

The “Hero’s Journey” is a narrative structure that forms the foundation of all great tales of the human condition, and it has been used for centuries by storytellers across a myriad of cultures. Importantly, these stories are our stories, because they embody our hopes, fears, struggles, resourcefulness, and resilience in the face of life’s trials. They also chronicle our ongoing search for meaning and purpose. Described in detail in the last century by Joseph Campbell, the “Hero’s Journey” consists of distinct stages comprising many elements and characters. There are many very good descriptions of this motif, and Christopher Vogler’s book The Writers Journey¹ is an excellent treatment of the subject.

The onset of the journey is when we are beckoned, or in some cases forced, out of the “ordinary world”, that with which we are familiar and have grown accustomed. This could be our “comfort zone”, in which we are quite content with our situation, or more often our “discomfort zone”, in which we are doggedly tolerating the current situation. Fear, complacency, inertia, and shame all contribute to our staying put in our discomfort zone. Once we have been enticed, or catapulted, out of our version of the “ordinary world”, though, the wheels are set in motion for us to embark upon a quest for something of tremendous value.

In my case, at age 65 I find myself newly single, jolted from a marriage of thirty-five years. There was no herald, beckoning me to explore new worlds. Rather, I felt like the sole survivor surveying the burnt ruins and desolation of his village left in the wake of Genghis Khan’s marauding hordes. Regardless of how I arrived at this point, though, my version of the “ordinary world” is now in the rearview mirror. It is time to embark upon my quest.

I will face many challenges and trials along the way, and in fact, I already have. I came to the stark realization that my marriage was over the very same day that I almost lost my disabled daughter to a medical emergency. Fortunately, she is now well, and I have bounced back from the emotional devastation I faced that day. I know, though, that if I am to navigate this quest successfully, I will need to muster all of my powers. These include my intelligence, intuition, curiosity, and resilience. Vulnerability is a power that I have been reluctant to fully develop thus far, and I sense that this may become crucial to deliver me through decisive tests and allow me to attain my special treasure.

Along the way I can expect to encounter several archetypal characters, who will play pivotal roles in my quest, guiding and supporting me, but also tempting, misdirecting, and trying to thwart me. An essential archetype is the Mentor, who provides motivation, insights and training to help the Hero overcome his doubts and fears and prepare for the Journey. My current Mentor is helping me develop my power of vulnerability. Other characters I can expect to encounter include allies, villains, shape shifters, and tricksters. The key is for me to recognize which archetype a particular individual embodies, and this will require that I fully bring to bear my power of intuition.

The pivotal event of the Hero’s Journey is when the protagonist must face his deepest fears, and cross into the foreboding unknown to claim his prize. In the epic poem Beowulf, the eponymous hero must descend into a frigid, dark, lifeless lake to confront the mother of the monster Grendl, which Beowulf had previously slain. The embodied message is that it is not the thing we fear that we must confront, but the mother of the thing we fear, which is often our sense of shame and inadequacy. This always lies in the darkest corners of our unconscious, where we mistakenly believe it can remain hidden away. We put tremendous effort into avoiding this confrontation, but when we finally muster the courage to face the underlying source of our shame, a miracle occurs.

As Robert Johnson describes in Living Your Unlived Life², “at some point in our adult life we are called to live everything that we truly are, to achieve greater wholeness. However, we tend to redouble our efforts to achieve happiness based on the formula prescribed for the first half of life”- to use the sword that served us so well before. That is the case with Beowulf, who realizes that the steel sword he has brought with him will be no match for Grendl’s mother. However, in the moment that Beowulf has fully committed to engaging his monster, he is presented with a great gift, a glistening golden sword, with which he is able to dispatch the primordial beast.

When we finally commit to descend into the darkness, we will be given what is needed to confront our greatest fear, that our belief that we are not enough and don’t matter might actually be true.

This is where we must venture to claim our prize. It is a place that we desperately wish to avoid, yet it is where we can recover the greatest treasure of all. This paradox is the essence of the Hero’s Journey. So, what treasure am I seeking? What is the reward for navigating the perils of this uncertain pursuit? Half a century ago, John Lennon described this quest most eloquently. “There’s nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.” That’s it! That’s the treasure. Becoming the whole person who I am and claiming the freedom to be that person, stripped of the emotional baggage and defenses that I brought into adulthood and have dutifully carried with me ever since. Fortunately, John told us how we can get there. “All you need is love!” Yes, love is the ultimate superpower needed to navigate our Hero’s Journey, my Hero’s Journey, and what the Hero ultimately learns is that the love he needs has been within him all along. However, just knowing that, even writing about it, isn’t enough. I must experience it, feel its power, and trust its source. That’s what my Journey is about.

[1] Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions, 1998.

[2] Johnson, RA, Ruhl, J. Living Your Unlived Life. New York, NY: Jeremey Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.

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