Whether the hero of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is supported in his return by the magical beings who’ve helped him throughout his journey, or whether they try to keep the boon away from him and he has to escape through a magic flight, or whether his family and friends come rescue the hero from the state of bliss, crossing the return threshold is more than a little shocking. From the world of magic and beauty, he has to go back to the world of mundane things. When the journey is a process of change, our emotional distance from having gotten through what had blocked us before (the boon) could get us into trouble on our “return.”
Knowledge of Two Worlds
At this point in the Hero’s Journey, the hero has gained knowledge of the divine world, whereas before he only knew the human one. We see them as two distinct worlds, but Campbell writes they’re really one and the same. That blissful state is within a part of our memory that the Hero’s Journey takes us to, and we remember what we’ve always known.
The hero learns of their unity, which takes courage.
The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness…. [T]he fearfulness of this loss of personal individuation can be the whole burden of the transcendent experience for unqualified souls.
Maturity and independence demand autonomy and boundaries. This is what the healthy ego is about. But to experience what Campbell refers to as “eternity in time,” we need to let go of that boundary of the self that makes us feel like we control everything in our lives.
This is initially a shattering experience, but the wise hero lets go of the boundaries of self in trust that he won’t be smothered into a state of nonexistence (call it a zombie or robot state where he loses the autonomy he worked so hard to gain). The “unqualified soul” doesn’t have that trust and thus can never let go enough to experience “eternity in time.”
The Hero as Teacher
How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark?… How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?
The hero’s task upon returning to the world is to make people “get” what he fought so hard to learn. The problem is that it’s like speaking a different language. Words belong to this world, the material plane. The bliss and the journey to bliss are all experienced wordlessly. The hero has to accept that a lot of people are going to think he’s insane at best, devilish at worst.
Then there’s the let-down of moving out of the divine world and back into the human one. This is a major bummer, not to be taken lightly.
The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.
In order to speak to people, the hero has to be on their level. He can’t communicate from some elevated state where he has no experience of the daily concerns of life: earning a living, health issues, relationships, the state of the world, etc. After his experience of unification of the divine and physical worlds, he basically has to jump back into a dualistic state of mind so as to see things from the perspective of those he speaks to.
The World as Temptation
However, there’s the danger of the hero getting sucked back into the physical world and thus losing the power he has. The hero has learned that all is illusion, yet on the physical plane, we can’t get away from what we’ve convinced ourselves is real. We must eat, have shelter, communicate with people, deal with each other’s issues, and put up with local and global problems. So it seems the hero’s trials aren’t over once he gets the boon. Upon returning, he has to learn to balance knowledge of the divine world with functioning effectively in the physical world.
Campbell states that many myths have the hero somehow insulated from the world around him, perhaps by traveling on a horse or in a chariot or walking on carpets so that his feet don’t touch the ground. This isn’t just to protect the hero, though.
And the myths…recount again and again the shocking transformations that take place when the insulation between a highly concentrated power center and the lower power field of the surrounding world is without proper precautions, suddenly taken away.
So the threshold of the return is no laughing matter. The hero can’t let everyday things draw him away from what he knows to be true and has experienced, though there may be no validation for it except in his own memory. He also can’t blast people all at once with his wisdom. They’ll think he’s crazy and won’t listen, or it’ll be misunderstood and misused because it brings realizations that are too extreme for people to handle.
The Problem of Emotional Distance
If the Hero’s Journey is seen as a journey of change, we face similar challenges upon our “return.” First, there’s the problem of validation. We gain such a distance from our previous state or situation that we might begin to doubt it was as life-shattering as it felt at the time we were going through our process of realization and growth. We obviously can’t be effective teachers if we have doubts about the veracity of what we want to teach.
Take, for instance, the experience of childhood abuse. A survivor goes through counseling and heals. She tries to communicate with her siblings the extent of the pain their abusive parents inflicted on them. “It wasn’t that bad,” her siblings say. “You’re being over-sensitive.” The abuse survivor may well question her experiences, having healed enough to gain some emotional distance from them and being challenged by the “real world.”
Emotional distance from the situation we left and are returning to can also lead to less empathy for those still suffering from what we’ve managed to free ourselves from. This can come as a shock if we were motivated to “pay it forward” and believed we could do it better than those who’d never been through it. A recovering alcoholic, for instance, may eagerly become an AA sponsor only to find he has little patience for the same stories he used to use to justify why he couldn’t stop drinking.
The return is a growth process within itself and invites us to rise even higher than we were before. It’s easy to remain in the land of bliss, never bothering to try to make others understand what there is beyond what they’ve experienced. But if we cross the threshold of the return and catch ourselves from getting sucked back into what’s destructive or let emotional distance separate us from those we want to communicate with, we’re on our way to giving the world something precious.