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The Downside of The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey has become a prevalent part of our cultural awareness of how stories tend to work. I think there's a lot of value to The Hero's Journey both in terms of structuring a good story and in terms of embracing life's challenges and journeys of growth and self-discovery. In fact, I highly recommend this series of podcasts on the broader life and spiritual applications of The Hero's Journey that Horatio put out a year ago. Check out parts one, two, and three.

If you find you need a quick primer on what exactly is The Hero's Journey, here's a really good video essay that does a great job explaining it.

A while back, I even borrowed some of this thinking and created a video for a speaking engagement in which I took the concept of three-act structure and tried to broaden it for how we think about life--particular life's biggest challenges. Take a look, if you're curious.

Facing a moment of real adversity and even defeat is a part of The Hero's Journey and three-act structure. And I definitely find this stuff really valuable and helpful in a lot of contexts. But is there a downside to all of this? Are there limits to this Hero's Journey business?

The Potential Downside

What if I'm not a hero? What if I'm not even the main character of the journey? Sure, I guess I'm the "main character" in the story of my life, 'cuz, you know ... it's my life. But the reality is that none of us lives in total isolation. While our American individualist culture tends to encourage us to think of ourselves as the heroic main characters of our lives (Who would you want to play you in the movie of your life?), the truth is that we are always part of larger stories. We have families, we live in communities and countries, and we all tend to have worldviews we share with some people but that at times clash with other worldviews out there.

I've been wondering lately if I've been too hung up on myself. Spoiler Alert: I think the answer is yes. Possibly even being so fixated on that question is an indication of my inherent self-absorption. It's easy in my head to think of myself as the misunderstood or under-appreciated hero of my life's story. But lately, I've begun to suspect that maybe the only person misunderstanding me is ... well ... me!

The problem with thinking of myself as the hero in my own story is that it can be easy to think of myself only in terms of MY journey, MY narrative. But what about being part of a larger narrative that involves the whole of the human race? While storytelling is my first love, I'm also part of a church and I'm on the board of a non-profit. Both organizations work to raise awareness of and combat human trafficking. So I hear a lot of stories about what happens to people who are enslaved and abused. And I have had to ask myself some really tough questions about my sense of entitlement.

First of all, if you happen to know the Enneagram personality types at all, I'm a Four. That means, I'm naturally prone to thinking I'm special stuff. Because of this, I can feel pretty frustrated when I don't experience the level of success I had envisioned for myself as a writer or filmmaker. But when I really slow down and start asking these tough questions about myself, things start to shift for me.

After all, who am I that my life and my dreams and my happiness my and fulfillment are somehow more important to the universe or God or the human race than the life, dreams, happiness, and fulfillment of a real young boy who was sold into slavery, tried to escape, and then was captured and had his hands cut off as an example to other would-be fugitive slave boys? Am I entitled to a better life than the girl forced into prostitution? Do her dreams and hopes matter less than mine? This is humbling for me and is helpful when I find I need to recalibrate my view of things (which is way too often, if I'm honest).

A quick clarification: I do not mean to suggest that because there is evil in this world and many people suffer that then none of us should have hopes or dreams or long for personal fulfillment. Not at all. I still am filled with dreams and hopes and desires to live a meaningful life and to create wonderful stories. What I am saying is that I'm not entitled to any of that.

As I just wrote about recently, I think I'm prone to caring about wrong things. Whether or not I manage to have a successful career as a creative person cannot be the determining factor of my joy. So I find myself having a slightly early mid-life crisis of sorts. What if I'm just not a three-dimensional person yet? What if there are other things I need to care about as well or care about more than what I've focused on so far?

Richard Rohr addresses this type of life-shaping crisis in his fantastic book, Falling Upward. It's been a while since I read it. I think it might be time to revisit it. In the meantime, I hope I can learn the lessons and grow just as the hero archetype does in The Hero's Journey. But I hope that a significant part of that growth is discovering the humbling joy of knowing I'm just a small part of a much bigger story and the things that tend to seem so important to me in the moment are probably not the things that matter most in the long run.

What about you? What helps bring perspective to your life, your dreams, your aspirations? How does your Hero's Journey interact with the broader story of the Human Race?

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