The Hero’s Journey is one of transformation; the hero must change, and he must do so in a way that benefits the world, specifically the world that he came from. It’s no good for the hero to gain power and wisdom if he cannot share that with the people he loves, thus he must return to his ordinary world with the Elixir, and fix the problems that he set out to solve when he left. However, just as there was a threshold to cross when he left his ordinary world, there is a threshold to cross when he returns, and there may even be threshold guardians to contend with. As I said in blog 13, once he returns to the world he left, the hero must eventually become the person who can live between both worlds, either in a literal sense, or in terms of the valuable insight that he brings back with him from the Special World. Objectively speaking, I don’t think there’s a hero in modern story-telling who does that better than Tony Stark, and although he is arguably one of the most flawed heroes in the entire Marvel universe, Tony’s story arc in the 2008 film, Iron Man, not only mapped to the Hero’s Journey perfectly, it was also drenched in rich symbolism.
What makes Tony Stark unique, is that while many superheroes have to strike a balance between their hero persona and their “normal lives” by keeping their true identity a secret, Tony chooses not to do so for a number of reasons. For one thing, being at the helm of a multi-billion corporation meant that he didn’t have the usual 9-5 woes of working a job that other heroes do. And because the Iron Man system is powered by a reactor that’s housed in his chest, Tony is essentially one with the suit, and to compel him into service to the government, or to take the system from him, would be tantamount to indentured servitude, which is the point he argues to Congress at the beginning of the sequel, Iron Man 2. Tony Stark sits in a unique position as a superhero that lives completely out in the open, and he uses his special place to, as he put it in Captain America: Civil War, “reshape the future”.
Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson have proven that a billionaire can indeed leverage his position to do a lot of great things in the world, but as Iron Man, Tony Stark proves that he is willing to go above and beyond writing checks and posing for photo-ops. Throughout the MCU films in which he’s featured, Iron Man risks his life for others, even the entire planet, which not only earns him an increase in fame and notoriety, but endears him to the public. More than that, when Tony stood in front of the press conference at the end of Iron Man, he had been given one last temptation, the chance to return to his ordinary world as if nothing had happened, and as he pointed out, he had a number of serious character flaws that didn’t make him a good hero. Still, Tony proved to be a truly great hero, because as we’ve already discussed, a hero is supposed to give himself over to serve as something greater than himself – a symbol of the best that a flawed human can potentially become, and Tony did that to the superlative degree.
Tony went into that desert cave as one person – a narcissistic, thrill-seeking playboy who never considered the consequences of his actions, and he came out as another – a narcissistic, thrill-seeking, playboy, philanthropist that cared very much for the world as a whole, and carefully considered what his legacy would be. He had been through a cycle of development that had permanently altered him, so when he crossed the return threshold back to his world of fame and luxury, he did so as a changed man. He proved that he understood the “terrible privilege” that came with the responsibility somebody like him bore when he chose to drop the government cover-story and declare, “I am Iron Man.” He was at that point the Master of Two Worlds, and he integrated the roles of both human being and heroic symbol seamlessly into one life, which is what we should all strive for in our own lives.
There’s a reason that Joseph Campbell called the monomyth as such, because it’s ONE story that encompasses ALL of existence, and can be mapped to our lives as a whole, as well as to the individual dimensions of living. Additionally, there is no separation of “us” as individuals, or as a society, or as a species, because the same story exists underneath it all. That is precisely why it can be so helpful for our own personal development to consider the people and events of our lives in relation to the key elements of the stories that humanity continues to tell. What’s more, we can even use the true accounts of other people in the real world as additional points of reference in this regard.
When I went into my own dark cave, I did so as one person – a narcissistic, blame-slinging, drunk loser who never thought he was wrong, and emerged as another – an interconnected, self-motivated, sober achiever who humbly owns his mistakes…and only comes off as a little narcissistic. The lessons that I absorbed from the very long and painful process which transformed me from one individual into another, is the very elixir that I had to bring back with me across the return threshold that I had, for a time, hesitated to cross. Once I made the decision to return, and I learned to properly pace my approach, I realized just how quickly the “Master of Two Worlds” phase occurs after the return threshold is crossed. The crossing itself is almost instantaneous, like Alice opening her eyes once her time in Wonderland was over. From that point on the hero needs to be prepared to immediately serve in his new role as exemplar, just as Tony stood before the world as a flawed man, doing his absolute best to help humanity.
As I spoke about in blog 14, I’ve had a trying couple of months, when it seemed that everything was shrinking and the gods were determined to test me. But instead of running into a bottle, or acting out in anger, I stayed with the intense emotions I was feeling. I had already been through this exercise before, but as my partner Tom likes to say, “the hero’s journey is comprised of cycles within cycles”. It became clear that I was dealing with a higher-level boss battle, which meant that I couldn’t deal with it the same way I had before. This time, when I would feel the waves of anxiety and fear rise within me, instead of using one of the old coping mechanisms which I had developed to give myself a sense of control, like distracting myself with a task (which for me is a substitute for a drink), or lashing out in anger, or attempting to immediately devise a solution, I first stopped and really felt into what was overwhelming me. Getting back into the habit of consistently meditating was starting to pay off because now, instead of learning to be still when everything was quiet, I had to learn to be still when everything was loud and scaring the fuck out of me.
In the moments when I felt the most fear and overwhelm, I did exactly what Joseph Campbell told us to do; I went down into the dark cave where dragons dwell, and stared into the void that Nietzsche warned us would stare back. Beyond the metaphors, I did this in a literal sense by acknowledging what I was feeling in that moment, and allowing those feelings to have their place in my mind. This may sound like the clichéd admonition of a half-baked yoga instructor, but it has validity. I then allowed my innate, stoic, rugged individualism to cut into my internal dialogue, and I reminded myself that no matter what happens, I’m strong enough to deal with it. After that the fear would subside and I could get back to doing what needed to be done.
I have managed to take the air-fairy, feel-good, utopian clichés that I was fed in my collectivist Ordinary World, and balance it with the hard-fought, real-world, tangible lessons that I learned in my journey through the gritty Special World. This enables me to move forward through life with a greater level of proficiency without the need for unhealthy coping mechanisms, or succumbing to bursts of anger. Of course I know it’s only been a few weeks, but the more I’m tested, the more opportunities I’ll have to get better at it, and the more I’ll be tested, which can only help me to increase my proficiency, and so on. This makes me, quite literally, the Master of Two Worlds, as I’ve proven my ability to intermediate between Order and Chaos.
Describing what these two ever present forces are in his masterful book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Jordan Peterson said, “Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity. The state of Order is typically portrayed, symbolically—imaginatively—as masculine. It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression.
Chaos, by contrast, is where—or when—something unexpected happens. Chaos emerges, in trivial form, when you tell a joke at a party with people you think you know and a silent and embarrassing chill falls over the gathering. Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover.”
Beyond the easily understood categorization of these two abstract, universal powers he adds something useful, “We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice – it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.”
In a livestream Q&A that he did on April 28, 2018, Dr. Jordan Peterson clarified what this means to our lives when he said, “You’re order and you’re chaos…But, you’re also the PROCESS that mediates between the two…you’re the force that confronts Chaos and casts it into Order…that’s the basis for the Dragon Myth, or at least part of the Hero Myth… And you’re also the force that confronts Order when it becomes too tyrannical and restructures it back to Chaos, and then restructures the Chaos back into Order.”
When I was in Naraka, one of my fellow office-bound prisoners said that life is like moving across a massive checkered board that you can’t see, and all the boxes are different sizes. When things are going well in your life it means you’re on a white box, but when things are going poorly it means you’re on a black one. The objective of the game is to survive as long as possible, and the only rule is that you can’t stop moving. Of course most people will try to either stay on a white piece, or they’ll fight like hell to get off a black one as soon as possible. That’s how NPC’s live; eking out a living while trying to avoid pain. Villains try to kick others into the black. A hero, in contrast, handles things differently.
To mediate between order and chaos means that when things in life shift to the black, we act like Captain America and bravely face down our problems, no matter the odds, while at the same time borrowing from Tony Stark, integrating our flaws into our identity so that we present to others, not a perfect soldier, but a good man, and an example to follow. We allow ourselves to feel the fear, and we find the strength needed to overcome it, not just for ourselves, but for everyone who depends on us. When we’re in the white we must take the time to pause and appreciate the good we have while we have it, rest if we truly need it, and do as much as we can to prepare for the next storm. No matter what happens in life, as heroes we stand up straight with our shoulders back, and we walk tall across the board, proving to others that that they too can get through anything. A hero is the symbol for the very process of growth and development, and it’s not a position to take lightly.
Like all stages of the monomyth, Crossing the Return Threshold to be the Master of Two Worlds is going to manifest differently in each person’s life. For me it was an internal barrier which, once traversed, allowed me to blend the philosophies of the obnoxiously sensitive and the blatantly callous into a mental framework that empowers me to overcome my personal limits without unhealthy coping mechanisms. For some people it may have a more literal expression, such as when a soldier returns from a warzone and manages to not only acclimate to civilian life, but lives in such a way so as to inspire others to be a better version of themselves. However it appears in your life, the result is the same; you have to bring your treasure home and give it away.
There was a time in my life when I thought the greatest gift I could give to the world was a way for society to operate without chaos or conflict, but I realize now that only megalomaniacal tyrants would dare attempt such a thing. Conflict cannot be avoided in either the Natural world or the Human realm – which is still part of Nature no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from it. The greatest aim in life, then, is not to end conflict and its associated chaos, but to learn the successful management of it. And by management, I don’t mean to keep it to the fringes of our existence, but to manage our REACTION to it.
Saving damsels and defeating dragons is all well and good, but that merely gives the hero something to do with his muscles. The real test is, and always has been, found in the moments when he faces true fear; the fear of what he doesn’t know, or what he can’t control. The acceptance of that ignorance and impotence, combined with the understanding that life will always go on, makes the hero what he is. Existential threats will come and go, heroes will rise and fall, but the process of BECOMING the hero will remain, and the potential to be that hero lies not in one man, nor a group of men, but in all of humanity. As the mediator between Order and Chaos, imparting that truth to others is the hero’s true purpose.
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