13 - Refusal of the Return - It's the Pain That Directs Us
Once the hero has reaped the fruits of his struggles in the Special World, sometimes the desire to stay exerts such a strong force that he refuses to return to his Ordinary World. This can be because the hero finds a sense of meaning and purpose so compelling in Special World, that returning home seems pointless. Other times, the hero feels that he has become corrupted and in some sense unworthy to return to his loved ones. Still other times he is simply too exhausted to make the trip back.
The Refusal of the Return is a stage not always seen in stories, but some of the most stunning examples of it in recent times was in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and The Hurt Locker. In fact, Tolkien displayed this to his audience in two of the ways that it can typically manifest. Just when Frodo was about to achieve the Ultimate Boon, and fulfill his mission to cast the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom, Sauron’s sickening influence finally overtook him and he placed the ring on his finger, only to have it chewed off by Golam. Frodo then fights with the haggard little creature and he ends up falling into the lava along with the ring. Frodo is left hanging on to the cliff’s edge, exhausted from the journey, and shockingly aware at how close he had just come to failing in his mission. He resigns himself to falling when his faithful companion and conscience, Samwise Gamgee, reaches down and pleads with him to not give up. Inspired by his friend’s love, Frodo makes one final effort to live, and manages to reach Sam’s waiting hand. Sam then pulls him up to (relative) safety, and from there, the two set off for home. Despite his brush with failure, Frodo had done what no hobbit, and indeed what no person, could have ever hoped to achieve, and all things considered, he had grown so much in his journey that he deserved to see it through.
In contrast, bomb-disposal expert, Staff Sergeant William James, the protagonist in,The Hurt Locker, flatly refused to go home. Even though he cycles stateside to be with his wife and child towards the end of the film, he returned only in body, but his heart and mind were still in the desert, and before the movie is over he volunteers to go back to Iraq after just a few weeks. For him, the thrill of diffusing bombs in hostile territory under heavy fire gave him such a strong sense of purpose that he just couldn’t stomach a quiet, domestic life. Even though he was a gifted officer, capable of doing what very few could do in saving countless lives, his heroism was shallow, and his development was never complete. He never grew as a character, but instead allowed his inner dragon to compel him back to the battlefield where he could feel fulfilled while risking his life. If, on the other hand, he had returned to the United States and learned to integrate his shadow self, perhaps he could have put his skill to use as an instructor so that more people could benefit from his experience. In that case, he would have put his own desire for thrill-seeking aside and had a greater, more positive effect on the world by saving even MORE lives, and had a complete character arc. Without that cyclical story, however, he’s not actually a noble hero, but a thrill-seeking villain, whose gift will inevitably die with him.
When I first realized how Campbell’s work mapped to our lives I was immediately concerned about making a return trip “home”, since the ordinary world that I left behind, that being my family’s restrictive Christian faith, was a place unalterable, especially by a heretic such as myself. No one, not even Heracles, could manage such a labor, as nothing I could say or do, short of descending from a mountain with a glowing face, would affect that world in the slightest, and I worried that my path might too have a dead end, though to no fault of my own. Still, I set about the important work of growing into my best self, figuring that the solution would be revealed over time, and it was. Throughout the course of writing this blog series I discovered that when I ventured out of my ordinary world, I had actually crossed two thresholds, with the departure from my family’s faith being only the first. The second was from Collectivism, not just as a political ideology, but as a social norm. In that realm people are divided into groups by a range of different metrics, but none so pervasive than that of socio-economic status.
In Episode 7 of the podcast, I alluded to something that had recently (at the time) happened to me which would come up later, and this is it. Throughout the autumn of 2018 I had been experiencing an unspoken, almost imperceptible feeling of what I can only describe as a combination of anxiety and malaise. Since the Mind Program has made it nearly impossible for me to slide into a depressive state like it used to, I came to the conclusion that this new feeling was all my brain had left to let me know that I was off-course or stuck. So, I asked myself, “What’s causing this feeling? What missteps have I taken, or course of inaction have I succumbed to?” I kept asking these questions but I couldn’t get an answer until some external forces acted on my unconscious mind’s behalf, and showed me that I was trapped in the Refusal of the Return stage.
I spent Thanksgiving at my ex-wife’s house where a little family drama acted as a catalyst to stir up some issues that had been left lying for too long. Although it was at first a bit jarring for all concerned, the incident ended up having a net positive effect. Towards the end of the night, while Lauren and I sat and ruminated after dinner, we finally had the chance to speak on socio-political matters in a calm, rational fashion, and much to my surprise, she started it! She asked me where I stood on certain key issues (key to her) and I did my best to not only keep the conversation on track, but to keep my responses to answering JUST what she asked, NO nuance. What’s more, I didn’t make any attempt to “win”, I just wanted to TALK. There was some moderate debate about certain issues, and while nothing was resolved in terms of “changing” anyone’s minds, the event made an impact on me, in so far as it woke me up from a trance that I had fallen into.
When I went out from the realm of collectivism, I left behind people who never thought that I was wrong to have blamed the “One Percent” for all of my ills. Like me, a lot of them believed people are strictly components of a group, and since we were in the “have not” group, the only course of action was to rail against those evil “haves”. Time not spent at our jobs was spent watching movies, playing video games, and scrolling through social media as consumers, all while complaining about the life we wanted to live, instead of actually working to create it. On some level I think we knew that the hours expended distracting ourselves and complaining could be better spent educating and improving ourselves, but it just seemed like too much effort with too little chance of success. What we didn’t know was the real value was in the PROCESS of self-development itself, and the rewards gained by working through the pain. This is something that I eventually learned, the hard way, of course.
The Road of Trials that I walked was paved with my irresponsibility, and the hell that it led me through was constructed out of anger and blame. Getting myself out began with an honest self-examination, followed by the acquisition of proper knowledge, and the shifting of my perspective based on that new understanding. Once all three of those steps were completed, the way out was clear, and I had only to walk it, as my demons vanished from before me. But to get that invaluable knowledge in the first place I had to journey into the Special World and allow myself to be transformed by it. To get there I had to venture far away from my world of distractions and blame-sharing to this far-off land called “Reality”, where that narcissistic dragon within me had little power. It was a harsh realm, where tangible effects meant significantly more than expressed desires or intent, and it was there I found my treasure: Stoicism, rugged individualism, and meritocracy. The very terms that I had once dismissed as “the fairy tale of the One Percent” actually helped to make me a better man; I am living, sober, responsible proof of their effectiveness. Once I had that treasure, I used it to gain (relative) mastery over my shadow self, and began to allow my true potential to become tangibly manifest.
Now, while it’s true that I’m not yet largely successful, I’m well on my way, and I’m happy because I’ve learned to enjoy the process of self-improvement. I’d love to share the value of what I’ve learned with the people I left in what was my ordinary world, but it’s incredibly difficult to convey, especially since a kind of tribalism has swept over the land, and everything has become political, even if it’s not. Over the last few years it seems that the values of hard work and personal responsibility have been ensconced in one socio-political camp, while the other side has laid a claim to compassion and understanding. That’s the perception anyway, while the reality is that NO political faction can actually have a monopoly on any of the core values that have enabled humanity to survive thus far, nor can they insist, with any honesty, that their opponents bear sole responsibility for our society’s problems. This is what I had neglected to keep in mind, as I allowed my baser instincts to take over.
According to Jungian philosophy, I’m a Warrior Archetype; some of the cardinal traits of which is a fierce loyalty to my tribe, as well as a simple, polarized world-view, and a rigidly fixed moral compass. My first instinct is to act on a simplistic premise that what’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong, and someone is either a friend or a foe. Once I became accustomed to the Special World, and I had made a range of useful allies who taught me so much, I found myself identifying more and more with them, and only them. Thus, as the “Culture War” raged, my penchant for combat, compelled me, even unconsciously, toward one side, when that was never my true destiny.
By the end of the story the hero must become the person who has integrated his dark side, and can walk between both the Ordinary and Special Worlds. Like Sergeant James, who never overcame his personal limitations, I found a sense of purpose on the battlefield that was, like the corrupting influence of the One Ring, so hard to resist. Whether my personal leanings, are “right” or “wrong” is irrelevant, because for me to fall into a particular camp and remain there is to fall off MY path towards MY personal legend, where I can live a life of freedom, and work to leave the world in a better state than I found it. For me, battling half the country in ideological warfare was a more appealing course to take than fighting my own impulses. It was easy to dig into the trenches, defend my allies, and “fight for truth”. However, every time I shared a post on social media that built up “my side”, or tried to “red-pill” the other, the more I was distancing myself from my old friends, and making it harder to go back to the world I left. I believe that my subconscious mind told me so in the form of a nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away, so that when my conscience, Lauren, reached out her hand, I took it. That night she reminded me about what makes Captain America such a good role model for people, and why I have always been particularly drawn to him.
Dr. Jordan Peterson refers to Christ in his lectures a lot because, psychologically speaking, Christ is the ideal. As he put it, “The ideal is not only compassion, the ideal is a judge…because you don’t live up to it, and so your ideal is always looking at you like you’re not what you should be.” Captain America is my ideal, not because of his suite of abilities, but because of who he is as a person. Much the same way the Venom black suit amplified Peter Parker’s worst traits, turning him into a grandiose villain, the serum that turned sickly Steve Rogers into a super-soldier amplified his best traits, turning him into the world’s greatest hero. Even when he’s horribly outmatched, Steve Rogers does not flinch; he has never failed to embody the best of what humanity, and America, has to offer. Likewise, my Road of Trials, my “serum”, brought out my best traits. Because of my Ordeal, I found courage, conviction, and the value of sacrifice, but I also found humility, compassion, and the value of listening so as to understand others. I set out on this journey to become the ideal, or as close to it as possible. It was in my discussion with Lauren that I realized I had stopped working towards it, and was helped to get back on track as I made my way for home.
For the young hobbits of Tolkien’s masterwork, they knew that once they got back to the Shire, nothing would ever be as exciting or as challenging as the battles they fought, the mountains the climbed, or the death they faced down. Once they got back to their ordinary world, the vast difference between the adventures they experienced and their usual lives would become starkly evident, but that’s kind of the point. It was when Samwise Gamgee realized that fact, that he finally found the courage to approach the barmaid that he had, up until that point, only stared at, longingly. He would go on to marry and raise a family with her, leading an ordinary life, filled to the brim with chores, and diaper changings, and squabbles, and celebrations, and tears, and moments of sheer wedded bliss; on and on until the day he died. In the moment before he stood up to talk to her, it was obvious that he knew that sometimes his life would be consistently dull, and other times frighteningly jarring, and yet he’d still find moments so rapturously engaging it would be as if time had stopped to allow him to enjoy it just a little bit longer. All the doldrums and thrills of life itself were there, exactly where he had left them, in the Shire, smiling back at him from across the pub. All he had to do to begin a new adventure was traverse the expanse of well-tracked wood paneling, and search out each and every one of those fantastical moments, together…with her.
I’m not exactly sure what the future holds for me, but I do know that I will not allow myself to fall back into the old, familiar pattern – the one where I constantly look for battles to fight. I say that, knowing how hard it is for me to completely disengage, because I love a good brawl, but that’s not what life is about. I choose to keep my ideal fixed firmly in mind and work hard to attain it, which is really the best that any of us can expect of ourselves. I know that I will never become that ideal, but it is in the process of trying to be that gives life meaning. It is for that reason that I admonish you to pay very close attention to the feelings you get that indicate where you may be stuck. Most important of all, stick close to the good people in your life that help you to see and understand not just what you’re doing, but who you really are, and who help you to become, and remain, the best version of yourself.
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