The monomythic journey, originally developed by Joseph Campbell, begins when the hero is pulled out of a place of comfort. There’s a call to action delivered by a herald, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. We, too, receive calls to action, and like the hero, we can react in a few ways. We can answer the call eagerly. We can resist the call until it’s so persistent that it can’t be ignored. We can ignore the call completely, leading to dire consequences. Or we can deliberately put off the beginning of the journey for some soul-searching first.
Place of Comfort
On the most basic level, the place of comfort is home. This is our typical coming-of-age story. It’s universal because we all go through it at some point. In every culture, no matter our gender, we’re expected to eventually leave home and make our way into the world.
The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.
In myths and fairy tales, the hero knows it’s time to set out into the world and seek his fortune. In the modern world, it’s time for young people to go to college, get a job, get married, travel before settling down to a routine, etc.
But that’s just one place of comfort. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves in many different places of “comfort” (which are actually places of discomfort) when we receive the call to action. A marriage goes bad. A job becomes unbearable. The place we’ve called home for years, possibly all our lives, suffocates us. The religion we grew up with no longer has meaning for us. Our material success leaves us feeling empty. The call to action makes us feel like we need to get moving and make a change in our lives.
Call to Action
The call to action is basically some kind of message or event that gets our asses in gear. Campbell tells us that the call to action is delivered by a herald, usually some repulsive creature who represents unconscious forces “wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unadmitted, unrecognized, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws and elements of existence.” In myths, though, and in real life, the herald isn’t always someone repulsive. Recall The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings where Gandalf can be seen (among other things) as a herald.
Sometimes, Campbell says, the call comes out of a mistake.
A blunder–apparently the merest chance–reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.
Take Bilbo Baggins, for instance. His finding of the ring was a royal blunder. We make mistakes all the time that force us to leave a place of comfort: get involved with an abuser, work for a corrupt company, move to a horrible place, pour energy into a project that’s totally wrong for us, and so forth.
The call to action can also come from some diversion. Our attention is caught by something seemingly trivial that blows up into something really important. How many movies have strangers meeting by chance and getting entangled in each others’ lives? How many people find their life purpose from a chance encounter with someone or a one-off activity they didn’t think they were all that interested in?
However we receive it, the call to action is always threatening on some level, even if we’re eager to answer it. My mother once said that not all crises are negative ones. Even positive changes like going off to college, starting a new job, and moving to a new place are crises and take a lot out of us because they suck us into the unknown.
Answering the Call
How we answer the call to action says a lot about who we are and where we are when we receive it. According to Campbell, there are four basic answers.
Let’s Do It!
The classic hero is eager to set off on the journey. He’s got his eye on the final prize (princess, gold, glory, whatever), never mind the obstacles he’ll have to get through. He’s usually young, full of energy, not terribly experienced in the ways of the world, ignorant of what’s really in store for him, and maybe even over-confident.
We may not be young when we eagerly set off on the journey, and we may have had plenty of worldly experiences. But if we’re eager then we’re full of energy. We might have some idea of the signposts, but we never really fully know what’s in store for us. Some of us are a little too over-confident for our own good. Reality takes care of all that. In general, eagerness to change, grow, and progress is something to celebrate.
Not Now. Maybe Later…
This is the conflicted hero. He likes the place of comfort and remembers the warnings given about venturing beyond it. And yet, the dissatisfaction of this place of comfort starts to grow heavy on him. Maybe he’ll dream about what it’s like in distant lands. Campbell tells us that the hero will keep getting calls to action, each one more insistent, until he finally gets off his ass and goes.
We experience this all the time. Our boss makes more and more demands on us until we finally reach a breaking point and figure anything has to be better than this. The same happens in a bad marriage. Maybe we’ve chosen to go to college, but our heart keeps drawing us towards another path. Opportunities pop up, one after the other, and we feel more and more trapped. If we’re meant to leave the place of comfort and go then it will happen.
This is where we run into serious problems in our lives. We feel too cozy where we are, no matter how stagnant or how destructive it is. The rhythm of life is moving us forward and we try to pull it back. Campbell tells us we’re serving the ego, not the greater good, when we fight the flow of change.
The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure.
Myths, Campbell tells us, show no mercy to such a hero. If we’re not constantly growing, we can’t become better people. If we’re not constantly trying to become better then we can only do damage to ourselves and others. Such a hero deserves no better than death (the uglier, the better).
We all know people who will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo. When we grow, we have to be willing to see what we’re doing wrong and badly, accept it, and change what we can. These people don’t want to go there, and they’ll manipulate, control, and hurt anyone they have to in order to avoid going there.
The answer “Never!” can also come out of fear. Sometimes, Campbell tells us, the fear of going into the unknown is so great that the young protagonist turns in panic to the guardians of the place of comfort (Mom and Dad). He’s talking about the coming-of-age journey where the young person needs to leave home.
In real life, we may stay in a bad situation forever out of fear. We may never divorce the abuser, leave the job that doesn’t pay us what our work is worth, get the degree we’ve always wanted, start the business we’ve always wanted to run, do anything with our creative abilities, etc. The greatest tragedy of the “Never!” answer is the death of potential.
Not Now. I’m Busy.
The final answer is, to me, the most interesting one. The protagonist is fully aware of the call to action and voluntarily resists it, but not from fear or inner conflict. There’s stuff they have to do first, though they may not realize that. They must go deeply into the psyche and explore the darkness there before they’re ready to face the trials of the journey.
The result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete…; but on the other hand, if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost superhuman degree of self-consciousness and masterful control.
If you’re an abuse survivor, you know what Campbell is talking about. Many of us reach a point where we’re ready to deal with the darkness of the past. Healing from abuse isn’t just about recognizing what was done to us, that it wasn’t our fault, and that it was wrong. It’s also about seeing the roots of destruction planted within us and uprooting them. This is ugly stuff, but we’re really not ready to move onward and upward until we’ve pulled up some of the deepest roots because we can’t even begin to find enough confidence to move into the unknown until they’re no longer holding us down.
It’s easy for abuse survivors to get stuck in anger, negativity, and a victim mentality (Campbell’s “disintegration of consciousness”). But if we can move past that, we become stronger and gain a deeper knowledge of the darker side of humanity because we’ve had to face it in our abusers and in ourselves. Then we’re ready to move onward and upward.
Obviously abuse survivors aren’t the only ones who find themselves delaying the beginning of the journey. Any trauma or circumstance can require this time of healing. It’s tough because the call nags us constantly, but if we try to leave too soon, we’re bound to fail. If we do the ugly work in the darkness first, we can succeed.