Whether the hero is a saint, world redeemer, emperor, tyrant, lover, and/or warrior, if he is of the physical world, he must die a physical death. Knowing, however, the true nature of existence, Joseph Campbell tells us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he has no fear of it. This is the lesson the hero’s departure teaches us. Fear of death is the mind tricking us into believing in an illusion.
The Call to Death
As there is a call to action to begin the Hero’s Journey, so there’s a call to depart from the physical world. There’s a link between the two calls. The call to action invites the hero to metaphorically die to make room for rebirth. The call to depart invites the hero to let go of his physical presence and embark on a new adventure in another realm where the rules are different and strife doesn’t exist.
Sometimes the hero calmly answers the call, confident that it’s time for him to move onto a different experience. The Buddha, sensing his time to leave the physical world had come, comforted his despairing disciples and admirers, lay in the position of a lion (on his right side with one foot on top of the other, his head to the north and his face to the west), and quietly slipped into the final nirvana.
Other heroes, however, resist death’s call. Campbell tells of Abraham. He refused to go with Death, though Death came to him with a beautiful and glorious appearance. Then Death shows its real face, with two heads, one a serpent and the other a sword. Though all of Abraham’s servants died from the sight, it made no impression on him. Finally, God had to intervene and lift his soul to heaven.
It’s not that the hero fears death. He’s been through too much and gained knowledge that’s too deep for that. But he may be reluctant to leave loved ones. Or he may feel that he’s still needed. Psychologically, the hero who resists death fulfills the wish of many of us for most of our lives. When we’re healthy and satisfied with our life, we certainly don’t wish to leave it.
But even the great hero’s must succumb to death in the end. They have to overcome their attachments and pride. We all have to let go of everything, including love, eventually. And none of us are so indispensable that we can elude death forever. Not even the greatest hero.
Death and the Hero
The hero at death represents an ideal for us to follow. The hero, whether he accepts death immediately or resists it for a while, looks courageously into the face of death. The wise hero who accepts his death without struggle understands that although he was called upon many times to fight, the fight is now over. This is the right choice at the moment of department because it means he enters the natural rhythm of the Universe, which is ever changing.
This isn’t just relevant to myths. When I first moved into my apartment, a woman in her 70s lived across the hall. In the few months that I knew her, I discovered that she had led a colorful life. She was raised in a large family. She was an alcoholic but had been sober for many years when I met her. She taught young people in the local juvenile detention center for many years. She was a tough woman.
Then she had a car accident. It didn’t seem serious and she seemed to be recovering. But then suddenly she lost consciousness and her body began to shut down. The nurses said that although she wasn’t fully conscious, she would resist them whenever they would try to do anything for her. It took several weeks before she finally accepted death and could die peacefully.
We would be wise to accept death, when it comes to us, as the Buddha did. But the mind and body were created to survive. To accept death means tapping into wisdom that resides beyond fear. Perhaps the courage to accept death, when it comes, is the greatest courage we can show.