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2020: Flaws in the Hero's Journey

Updated: Jan 19


2020 was indeed the year of clarity. It may not have been the clarity we wanted, but it kept coming, over and over again. It felt to me like an earthquake inside our collective consciousness. There was no formal warning, many people were less prepared than they realized, and the damage is still being measured. In fact, the aftershocks just keep coming…


The COVID virus was only the incendiary. I found the response, or lack thereof, to the pandemic most troubling. As the cracks in our institutions were exposed, it revealed just how broken those systems really are. And it has left us splintered.


It’s a fitting time for The Mandalorian to bring the Star Wars themes of good versus evil back into popular culture. The show is a technological achievement beyond what we’ve seen before, marrying man and machine in a whole new way and bringing with it an epic battle for what’s right and what’s just. It was exactly this duality of light and dark forces, man versus machine, that made change so difficult to accept this year.


Human nature’s desire to innovate comfort has proven counterproductive to evolution. The more comfortable we are, the more complacent, blind, and ignorant we become. Why is it so hard to accept that we cannot relax into comfort at the expense of other human beings? Even our precious technology can’t rescue the masses from sickness, loneliness, and disillusionment. We are approaching one year since the pandemic hit America – have we accepted change yet?


Today’s socio-economic environment is increasingly calling for common ground. But how can we find balance in a culture that feels more divided than ever, lost between dualities? Lying peacefully at the center of it all, as always, is the Dao. A Jedi master would call it the force. Lao Tzu wrote,

"The Tao is always at ease.

It overcomes without competing,

answers without speaking a word,

arrives without being summoned,

accomplishes without a plan."


Let us examine the dualities we are caught between so that we may find ourselves. It’s just a bounce off the top, bottom, and back, a third time, to center. Three is the key to unlocking the Dao. Three is also the sacred number of the trinity, divinity, and even comedy. Earth is the third planet from the sun and Goldilocks had to meet three bears to find what was “just right.” Business, economics, art, and music, all pull from the power of three. But across the board, the third bounce back to center is too often abandoned in the haste of discomfort!


Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, aptly called the Monomyth, is a story about the pursuit of the middle way, or Dao. It’s more commonly described as the individual’s plight to find a personal identity (ego-death) while simultaneously describing the evolution of humanity as a whole. It is a template for finding the balance between both; a lofty order that, for the most part, delivers. But as we discovered in the year of clarity, nothing is quite as simple as it seems. There are always monsters lurking in the darkness, pulling us away from our center. There will always be duality.

The Hero’s Journey

American mythologist Joseph Campbell was greatly influenced by the pop-psychology of the 1940s and ‘50s. He pulled from Carl Jung’s work around archetypes to devise the Monomyth. The symbology has somehow transcended time and location, incarnating in every culture to guide human consciousness. It provided the basic structure for The Hero’s Journey, as presented in Campbell's 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.


The Hero’s Journey can be either a spiritual metamorphosis or a physical voyage of transcendence. Most often it translates to a developmental rite of passage, overcoming a great obstacle, dark force, and/or ego itself. Take, for example, the venture of Luke Skywalker’s battle between the forces of good and evil. George Lucas hailed Campbell as his ‘Yoda’ because he drew much of his inspiration from The Hero’s Journey. Christopher Vogler, a story development veteran in Hollywood, went on to translate the Monomyth into a manual for filmmakers called The Writer’s Journey (1998).


But Joseph Campbell's work is a template at the end of the day and the point of my #AnotherWay work is to break free of templates. As we close out a tumultuous year of clarity, I've found three criticisms of The Hero's Journey particularly relevant:

Cultural Appropriation


Campbell draws on creation stories, myths, and folklore from around the world to build the Monomyth template. He does not question whether that is appropriate, respectful, or hurtful to the intended purposes of the stories’ originators. There is no universal perspective - that's what makes life beautiful. There is art in the diverse interpretations of symbols that have either gone into its design or have emerged since. Remember my earlier study of how language is just a connotation of meaning. Campbell himself writes:

“Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.”

This does not, of course, excuse cultural appropriation. Campbell was most of all a student of literature. While he did share conversations with cultural leaders, most of his material appears to be sourced for his own convenient means. His writings do, however, reveal his desire to transcend all attachments to them.


Anthropocentrism


I find this one the most troubling and difficult to untangle. Anthropocentrism is a human-centric worldview; that humans are the most important entity in the universe and therefore all interpretations of the world are biased toward human values and experiences. Since I am a human, I’m really not sure how to overcome that bias. Some thought leaders, like Bayo Akomolafe, navigate it effortlessly and quite poetically.


Humans are but a very small part of a larger, more complex whole. Whether that whole is of organic, artificial, spiritual, or divine origins, may just be incomprehensible to the human brain. #WeAreOne is not limited to human beings. Nor is the Dao reserved only for life. Yoda moves objects with his mind because he taps into the force (or Dao) to become one with them.


It is worth noting Akomolafe’s criticism of The Hero’s Journey that there is no voice given to the monster the Hero is trying to defeat, even if that monster is the human ego. Campbell gives countless examples of mythological personifications of the ego as a monster, demon, or other scary entity. While it is easy to recognize those metaphors, there is also philosophical value behind recognizing the ego as an equal. "[T]he way we respond to the crisis, the way we attempt to defeat the monster, is the crisis.”


The ego is the other half of the duality that makes us human. The purpose of listening to the ego is to find balance. Bounce off the top (ego), bottom (ego death), and back, a third time, to center (the Dao).


Masculine Bias


It would be myopic to dismiss that Campbell was a white male, raised in an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family. There are benefits and blindfolds that come with that perspective that has pervaded American history since its inception. As such, it must also be acknowledged that I bring a middle-class, white female perspective to my analysis.


Vogler opens his third edition of The Writer’s Journey with a preface about what he learned since the first publication. It includes a discussion about what he sees as the difference between the male and female experience of the Monomyth. Instead of a linear passage of stages, he explains that women tend to experience development in more of a spiral.


I believe that much of the journey is the same for all humans, since we share many realities of birth, growth, and decay, but clearly being a woman imposes distinct cycles, rhythms, pressures, and needs. Men’s journeys may be in some sense more linear, proceeding from one outward goal to the next, while women’s journeys may spin or spiral inward and outward.

I would go so far as to say, however, that the spiral metaphor works better for both women and men. We are entering an age that some Native American scholars have called a return to the divine feminine. Female energy tends to be more flexible than the masculine, making it easier to change. But the power of this unified duality is found in the Yin/Yang symbol, a balance of both energies.


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The infinity of the spiral reminds us that #DevelopmentNeverEnds. In any given moment, we can be at any stage in any order, and even all stages at the same time (duality). This eternal moment is the Dao, where time is relative. There will always be unseen forces at play. The earth will still quake inside the Dao, but it’s a little easier to ride if you are one with the earth. Either way, it's going to take a journey.


Emileena is writing a book called ANOTHER WAY, the Dao of Artist Development. If you are an artist looking for development, consider Emileena's E-Velop program.

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