Once the hero on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has the boon, whether it was dropped into his lap or he had to get it through trickery and courage, he has two choices. He can party for eternity in a state of nirvana or he can “pay it forward” by returning to the world he came from to help others. The “refusal” is really the choice to remain in a state of bliss and let others struggle through their own journeys without his help. More interesting is an examination of the refusal of the return when we see the Hero’s Journey as a process of change.
Campbell states that the monomyth proper requires that the hero return to the place he left with the boon in order to bestow renewal on the community, the land, or the world. However, the hero doesn’t always return as he should.
Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.
If we just see the Hero’s Journey as a story structure then the “refusal” isn’t difficult to understand. Getting the boon was the climax of the story and everything afterwards is anti-climactic. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Aragorn’s story ends once the ring is thrown into the fire. He reigns over Middle Earth peacefully till his death. (Frodo is the second hero of the story, and he makes the conventional return.)
For those who achieve spiritual enlightenment, they face the same temptation. One may have risen so far above material existence that nothing but that bliss matters anymore. It’s difficult for many Westerners with our culture of desire to really understand how that can happen. It would appear to be giving up on life, but it’s really giving up on the falsities of life and dwelling in that state of eternal bliss.
The Refusal to Pay It Forward
In real life, however, the “refusal” of the return gets more interesting. When the Hero’s Journey is a process of change, the question whether we’ll pass our wisdom onto others or not is a real-life decision we have to make.
The goal has been reached and we’ve grown. In some cases, there isn’t really a return. For instance, a career change is made and the person remains in the new land. We essentially become like the heroes who remain in an eternal state of nirvana (assuming, of course, that our new career is “nirvana,” because if it isn’t, there begins a new journey!).
But what about something like leaving an abuser, overcoming an addiction, or escaping an oppressive country? We’ve learned about a process that’s very difficult for anyone who hasn’t been through it to understand. If we refuse to return, we essentially put the past completely behind us and move on in our healed state. We might make only discreet references to our past, or we might push it aside altogether.
The journey may have been so painful that this is the best we can do for ourselves and others. Many Holocaust survivors, for instance, made life-changing moves to other places and absolutely refused to even mention the place they had come from by name. They’d refer to it, when they absolutely had to, as “over there.” Elie Wiesel, in fact, never intended to write about his experiences until he was encouraged to do so by Nobel prize winning French author Francois Mauriac.
Many people choose to become advocates, mentor others, or even create a new career out of their experiences. I think there’s a natural human tendency to share our journey of triumph, even if it’s just locally or to a few others in our immediate environment. Anna of Wonderland Wanderer mentioned in a comment to my post on the eighth week of my dream incubation experiment that we don’t know who will be touched by what we give. We’re moved by personal pain that touches our pain, and it may well be worth the “return” just for that.