I recently attended a writers’ workshop where The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was discussed. Campbell identified a pattern of events while researching stories and myths involving a person embarking on a journey. The general pattern can be illustrated by drawing a circle with a person starting (at home) at the top. Moving clockwise along and down the circle as time passes, events happen which result in the person beginning a journey. During the journey more events happen, including a number of challenges the traveler most overcome and fears he/she must conquer. During these events the traveler moves through the bottom of the circle and starts up the left side. Finally the traveler returns home (back to the top of the circle) and is a changed person. Not only is the traveler transformed, but he/she returns with what Campbell calls the elixir – meaning some sort of knowledge, or awareness, or potion that helps transform the world into a better place.
The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good illustration of Campbell’s pattern. In the movie Dorothy unwittingly takes a journey to Oz, a strange place with unusual characters who either want to help her or harm her. Dorothy wants to return home but discovers she must first accomplish several tasks. In the end, she successfully returns home with the realization, “There is no place like home.”
Most people wouldn’t necessarily call Dorothy a hero nor is her epiphany that there is no place like home all that enlightening for adults. Nonetheless, the movie shows how the pattern can be generalized in more than a few ways. There are some individuals who even suggest the pattern captures the meaning of life: that is, each of us embarks on a journey through life that hopefully results in new knowledge that helps human-kind.
Fiction writers have said that all they need for a story is for a stranger to come into town. When you think about it, this scenario is just a different slant on the journey pattern. It is the stranger who is the one on the journey.
The pattern can be generalized to include journeys that don’t involve physical movement. Any major life event can signify the start of a journey: high school graduation, getting married, joining the military, getting a college degree, getting a new job, joining a convent, having a baby, and getting divorced. Some of these activities involve physical travel, but the journey they represent is bigger than simply getting out of Dodge.
Two key aspects of this pattern are that the traveler: 1) confronts fears, and 2) undergoes change. The change can be anything from a transformation to an epiphany. Further, a journey (and a life) can be comprised of a series of smaller micro-journeys with each one beginning when an event occurs. Presumably, at least some of these events are prompted by decisions the traveler made based on what was learned in a prior micro-journey. The event can also be in the form of another person’s influence.
While Campbell’s findings were based on studies of stories and myths, I think their application to real life is undeniable. This suggests that the stories and myths themselves contain insights into the human condition.
Anyone thirty or older can point to events and/or decisions they’ve made that have had a major impact on their lives. In my case, the first big life-altering event that occurred to me after high school graduation was receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It prompted my enlistment in the Air Force, from which I received an honorable discharge four years later. My transformation from this micro-journey included not only much-needed maturity but also being able to afford a college education.
Do each of life’s micro-journeys take us from a place of stress and put us in a better place? For the most part I think they do. Of course, much depends on the makeup of the person/traveler. If it didn’t, why would anyone care about the story?