Life can be a challenging journey. A heroic mindset can equip us for the adventure.
At the beginning of Inferno, Dante Alighieri wrote that somewhere during the journey of life, he found himself “within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
This is exactly what happened to me in my early 30s. I had reached many of the typical milestones that are supposed to mark the achievement of the American Dream: a family, a home, stable employment. I was supposed to be happy and fulfilled.
Yet, I wasn’t happy. There was nothing wrong with my relationships, my house, or my job. I wasn’t struggling with any major outward problem. But inwardly, I was filled with uncertainty, self-doubt, and sadness.
My upbringing had been tumultuous. There hadn’t been a lot of money, but what we lacked in finances we made up for with chaos. My parents’ marriage was terrible, and cracks spread from that unstable foundation to undermine me and my siblings. We were never given much guidance about how to seek out and discover purpose and satisfaction in life. There was only the harsh struggle of existence, and no suggestion of life skills to overcome that struggle.
By the time I was well into adulthood, I had waded through decades of directionless turmoil. I had basically sleepwalked through my 20s. Behind me was a meandering trail strewn with unfocused career choices, bad relationships, and unaddressed mental health issues.
One of my few saving graces had been a deep exploration and experimentation with different religions and philosophies. In the absence of inner resources that should have been instilled in my youth, I turned to the study of the humanities, especially world literature and mythology. I consumed book after book, desperate for answers about how to live life well.
But by the time I was 33, I had lost my grip on everything I had learned. All of that knowledge had been crushed under the weight of my hopelessness. It would take most of my 30s to reclaim the bits of wisdom I had accumulated, along with a lot of painstaking work to build up my mental well-being and resilience, before I had the idea to create what I call Live The Hero.
The Hero’s First Journey is Within.
I initially created Live The Hero for myself. It was born of my deep need for a path forward, a way to bring some order to the chaos within me.
In many heroic stories, the protagonist starts out much as I did: uncertain, unhappy, and unready for the challenges of life. Like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit when his life is turned upside-down by a wizard and a bunch of dwarves, I was unprepared and reluctant. I needed to do some serious introspection.
As I mentioned earlier, I sought answers from a wide range of disciplines and sources, but especially the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. He created the concept of the “monomyth,” better known as the hero’s journey. He studied how the world’s cultures created heroic legends that follow a similar cycle of challenge, struggle, and achievement.
The human race has repeated this story pattern for millennia to pass this wisdom forward. It is a time-tested way to teach new generations what it means to be a resilient participant in the daily communion of life. Lessons are imparted through the clever packaging of exciting and engaging tales. From Hercules to Superman and beyond, we are reminded to strive toward self-mastery and helping others.
There’s a now-famous diagram of the hero’s journey that became a talisman for me. It is a circle, along the edge of which are milestones encountered along the way. There’s the call to adventure, the encounters with wise mentors and other helpers, the “abyss” of the hero’s lowest point, then the transformation of the hero into a more capable self before the return to the world with new abilities and knowledge.
I seized upon the hero’s journey to anchor me, to give me direction when I felt lost. If I encountered a problem, I would use the monomyth’s circle as an instruction manual. I used the inspiration of heroic stories as they were intended, to serve as metaphorical examples of inward exploration. The monomyth became a toolkit for uncovering and building up my mental and emotional health. It has given me an arsenal to fight back against despair and doubt.
The Hero’s Blueprint
Because of what the hero’s journey did for me, I wanted to share my experience with other people. Live The Hero is my personal conception of what Campbell’s monomyth can do as a mindfulness tool. I want others to benefit from using the “monomythic circle” as a framework, a blueprint for living a dynamic, purposeful, and fulfilling life.
This is what our ancestors wanted to pass down to us. This is why we still create heroic stories today. Live The Hero isn’t about a quest to call oneself a hero for shallow self-aggrandizement. It’s for anyone who feels they want to exercise more conscious, positive control over how they perceive the world, how they interact with others, and how they face the internal and external challenges of life.
Let’s look again at Dante’s words: he found himself within a dark forest. We can take “found” to mean “discover who you are” instead of simply locating ourselves in space and time. This adds a new, hopeful dimension to things, and illuminates something vital in the hero’s journey. It means all of us have the ability to discover something powerful about ourselves in the depths of harrowing events.
When the path before us becomes unclear, there are great things to learn if we muster the courage to press onward and find our way again. There is a beautiful dual purpose to the hero’s journey within: inevitably, when we take time to care for ourselves and nurture our own humanity, we realize others are also worthy of such care and nurturing.
I believe the world is ripe for a positive revolution for the human condition. I believe more and more people, every day, feel the same way. I believe the hero’s journey has become more important for our collective future than it was in our past.
If we can take inspiration from the monomyth and emulate the heroic mindsets and actions found in our greatest myths and our most noble real-life heroes, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish, within us or in the world around us.
A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.
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