For me yesterday was one of those days when difficult thing piled upon difficult thing. I already felt challenged and then something happened to challenge me more. And then something else happened to challenge me more. Life was not conforming to my desires or expectations.
But I had just been reading about the hero’s journey and I heard myself think, “So yeah, I’m in the trials and tribulations phase of the hero’s journey.” That thought helped, a lot. So I share it with you here. If you aren’t familiar with it, the “hero’s journey” is the basic architecture of the story under most of the movies you see and the novels you read. It shows up so ubiquitously and is so compelling to us, the theorists believe (and I agree) because in some sense we’re all on a hero’s journey, or many hero’s journeys, in our lives.
Sometimes, it’s helpful, calming, healing even, to simply remember that, and put whatever you are experiencing in that frame. Here are the stages of the hero’s journey, with commentary from me on the life phase I associate them with:
THE ORDINARY WORLD. When life feels routine, when the status quo feels stable, but also a little dissatisfying, empty, or shallow.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. As Christopher Vogler puts it, “Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.” In our lives, this might be a call to an external adventure (“I feel called to run for the school board” or “I feel pulled to move away from this place.”) Or, it might be a call to a more explicitly inner journey, to finally heal the wounds of your past or change old behavior patterns.
REFUSAL OF THE CALL. This is important! The next phase of the journey is that the hero refuses the call! This is the part when you doubt, deny, fret, want to run away, say “no not me there’s no way I could do that,” and so on. Isn’t it comforting to know that’s a normal, built-in phase of the journey?
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. Then, the hero finds some kind of mentor. Maybe suddenly you notice that an acquaintance is ahead of you on the particular journey you’re on, and can provide a model and some guidance. Or maybe an author becomes your mentor through the books she’s written. I can think of so many women authors who have been mentors for my journeys over the years—Marianne Williamson for my first journey into having a spiritual practice, Geneen Roth for the journey into letting go of emotional eating, and so on.
Then, in the next phases, the heart of the journey happens, the in the trenches part. You cross the threshold, away from your familiar status quo and into a new and special territory of the journey. There are trials and tribulations and tests. The hero encounters many challenges and one peak challenge—”the ordeal” in which she confronts her greatest fear. We can’t skip the trials and tribulations phase, or the ordeal. It’s part of the journey.
And then, the final phases begin. There’s some kind of treasure or reward that the hero gains after overcoming the ordeal. If the adventure is a career change, maybe the treasure is the new job. If the adventure is reclaiming your long lost love of painting, the reward is your renewed painting practice. If the adventure is forgiving your ex, perhaps the reward is that relief and release.
In the hero’s journey, the hero then works to bring the treasure home, back into ordinary life. In our lives, this phase is about moving toward integration of whatever new experiences, learnings, or external changes the adventure has brought. Interestingly, this is usually a perilous mission during which there’s a risk that the treasure will be lost. Maybe in your first week painting again your self-doubt or crazy schedule causes you to almost stop. Or you show up at the new job and it’s not clear its the right fit, or that you can do it. There’s some sort of other test, giving the hero the opportunity to recommit, in some sense, to the new way. It’s like the gaining of the treasure has to be reconfirmed, underlined, restated.
And then there’s the return, back home. Back to everyday life, back to more of an equilibrium. The hero returns with, in Vogler’s words, “some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.” I love so many things about that sentence. First, that sometimes we don’t bring back the whole treasure, but only some element of it. And second, that what we bring back—a lesson, an insight, a creation—can then be used in service.
We are all on the hero’s journey. Click to tweet.
I know for me, sometimes it helps to see my life through this lens. (Some people view the hero’s journey as a masculine journey, and there are some great thinkers like Maureen Murdock, Jean Bolen, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes writing about the heroine’s journey—a different map of growth and change. I think we take both kinds of journeys—that the distinction is more about inward looking vs. outward looking journeys than men’s vs women’s.)
Where are you in the hero’s journey now? Are you hearing but refusing a call to adventure? Are you in the thick of the adventure, facing trials and tribulations? Are you in the phase of the return, re-integrating what you’ve learned or what’s changed into your ordinary life, and letting it be of service to others?