The Hero’s Journey Revisited
By Philip de Kock
I wrote this some time ago but maybe, given recent events (COVID-19, South Africa, the World) it is worth revisiting the essence of the archetypal Heroic Journey (as described by Joseph Campbell, Jung, and others).
The heroic journey is not only the preserve of a few. It is a journey that has the potential to make us rise or fall. It is a charge we all could, and indeed must undertake so that at the end of our lives we can say like the Roman philosopher “Life, if well lived, is long enough”.
In reflecting on this, specifically from an archetypal perspective, one needs to look at philosophers, scholars, authors, poets and even shaman’s for guidance. For example, it is not accidental that TS Elliot writes in his famous poem “we shall not seize from exploration,” Socrates states, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and reflecting on the trials and tribulations of life Dylan Thomas tells us “Do not go gentle into that good night…”.
Maybe it is the poem of Thomas Gray, who brings us back to the reality of the end of the era of men big and small:
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
For me, the choice is clear; it is either a meaningful journey, or one that ends in sadness. The sadness of the unlived life. In terms of this the archetypal “heroic journey” helps to clarify the path and the challenges we need to overcome:
– As a child we start with the known. As humans we are inevitably born premature, but it is also this that makes us special, with the capabilities to command our environment and indeed our world. To reflect about our place in the universe, to be spiritual and to reach out. It is the nurturing of the family that helps us through to adulthood, to achieve these higher levels of functioning.
– However, at some stage we might receive a calling, a charge. Maybe this is prescribed by the culture or our tribe. And in the early parts of our life, we often forego the calling from our heart “the inner voice” for this cultural imperative. But we also pay a price for this, if we do not give voice to this inner drive, and if we do not find a way to express it, we are in danger of living an unauthentic life.
– Accepting this calling brings us in contact with the trials and tribulations of life. While often difficult, these trails etc. can bring enlightenment and bring us closer to our purpose, our calling and transform us. This transformation enables us to really know ourselves, what is important to us and to reach out and share our uniqueness with the world around. The psychologist Erik Erikson refers to this as the Generative Phase of life. And it is not whether we fail or achieve great things. It is about how we are transformed.
Again, a quote from Dylan Thomas:
“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright,
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
However, if we do not rise to these trials and tribulations, life becomes despair, a self-destructive cycle of wrong decisions, and an inability to integrate experiences for the final stages of our life. It is Victor Frankl who said “suffering without meaning is despair”…
If our transformation brings meaning, the ability to be authentic and ensuring that the unlived life is not a source of longing and sadness, the proverbial “homecoming” is joyful. This is the time we integrate our life experiences when we really know ourselves and contribute because it is aligned with our inner voice and values. To get here the greatest challenge is maybe to really know and to accept yourself. In doing so we can also fully accept others. CG Jung was indeed right when he said, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”
Or to conclude, the words of TS Elliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.