Marginalia: Becoming Heroes of Our Own Self-Narratives

A historical moment when two great world leaders first met. Political persuasions aside, this film vignette of the first time that Bill Clinton, as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, met his personal hero, John F Kennedy, has never failed to provoke strong reactions (mostly positive).

And, clearly, Clinton fulfilled the promise that he made to his friends at the time of, someday, getting to JFK’s position. It took him 30 years (he was elected US President at the age of 46), but he made it.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall describes how stories shape us and how, like all our other deep-rooted behaviors, storytelling has also evolved to ensure our survival and progress. As he puts it:

Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens—murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.

So, life-defining narratives, as this one has been for Clinton, are the most critical of all the stories we tell about ourselves – essential to our survival and progress. They often acquire almost-mythic proportions. Ultimately, of course, we are the heroes of our self-narratives even if the various other people who feature in them greatly influence how we see ourselves and our eventual successes/failures. We cannot blindly follow their paths but, rather, wake up to and create our own possibilities as Clinton did. Simply trying to follow JFK’s path, even though he meant to get to the same milestone, would hardly have been possible for him, given his non-political, working class background.

But, what does it really mean – becoming the “hero of one’s own self-narrative”? This is an old question, but one that has been and will continue to be answered in many different ways as our cultures evolve and our collective intelligence grows. Presently, for me, the key ideas of 3 scholars, summarized below, resonate the most.

First, a definition: The word “hero” comes from ancient Greek mythology and folklore and used to refer to demigods (men and women born of a God and a human being) with superior physical, intellectual and moral attributes and achieving difficult feats for the greater good of humanity – all of which earn them large cult followings. Today, “hero” refers to everyday human beings who, nevertheless, are on some quest – large or small – that leads to both an individuation and a greater, common good.

Joseph Campbell, American scholar and mythologist, further explored this Hero archetype – the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization – in his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His basic premise, building on Jung, Freud and many others, was that all storytelling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories can be understood in terms of the hero myth – the “monomyth”.

The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.

………

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, then further described Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in 12 distinct stages:

The hero’s journey, once more: The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where he receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE. He is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where he eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES. He reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where he endures the SUPREME ORDEAL. He SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and is pursued on the ROAD BACK to his world. He is RESURRECTED and transformed by his experience. He RETURNS to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or ELIXIR to benefit his world.

Carol S Pearson, another scholar and author, also built on Campbell’s (and James Hillman’s) works by defining 12 different sub-archetypes of the Hero archetype and described how they are important for the Hero’s Journey in her books, The Hero Within and Awakening The Heroes Within. She went so far as to identify how entire organizations can represent each of these 12 sub-archetypes through their collective journeys as well. With regard to the individual hero’s journey and how to build lives around a purpose/quest, she wrote:

We take our journeys to develop our souls. Collectively, we are making a world soul. The macrocosmic kingdom we live in reflects the state of that world soul. Whatever else we do to try to improve the world we live in, our fundamental duty is to take our journeys. Otherwise, instead of bringing more life into the world, we become like black holes, voids that take from life, and no matter how much we try to give, we sap the life energy of those around us and leave our worlds diminished and less alive.

The hero’s journey is not a linear path but, as I suggested earlier, a spiral. We keep circling through its archetypal manifestations at different levels of depth, breadth, and height. It is not so much that we go anywhere, but that we fill out. You know how some people feel shallow to us, as if there is not much there. Their souls are thin, anorexic from lack of nourishment. The journey fills us out and gives us substance. People who have taken their journeys feel bigger even if their bodies are thin or they are small of stature. We feel the size of their souls.

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