Updated: Jun 27
This is the concluding stage of the Hero’s Journey. At this point the hero has returned to his ordinary world with the elixir, and solved the problems he set out to resolve. This can involve a literal solution, one that physically alters his world, or it can be a metaphorical resolution, one which changes the minds or relationships of the people in his life. This can be done on a large scale, effecting a nation, species, planet, or even a galaxy; or it can be personal, effecting just his immediate friends and family. This stage begins for him a new status quo, but one that is upgraded to a greater level.
Large-scale examples of this stage are easy to find throughout cinema, such as Luke Skywalker returning as a full-fledged Jedi Knight and starting a school to train others, or Neo merging with Smith so that the machines could purge him from the Matrix and reset the system. Small-scale examples, however, aren’t always as memorable, but one great example was in the film, A History of Violence.
After diner owner Tom Stall foils a robbery in his small mid-west town, a media circus ensues and he is discovered to be a retired hitman in hiding. The mob bosses he ran from quickly send goons after him and his new family, and when his wife and kids find out that it’s not a case of mistaken identity, they are mortified and want nothing to do with him. Still, in order to protect them, he leaves and travels to the city to confront the mob, and after some very well-choreographed and thoroughly brutal fighting, succeeds in defeating all the threats to his quiet life. He returns to his family who are just sitting down for dinner. Without a word spoken, he sits down in his usual seat at the table, beaten and bloody. After a few moments of silence, his daughter fixes him a plate, and the family begins their new life together, secure in the understanding that not only is their dad a fine provider, but a deadly protector as well. The result of his journey only affected three other people, but they were the only people that mattered to him.
When researching this stage I came across a phrase for which I can’t find an author, but it’s so incredibly powerful I couldn’t bear to leave it behind, “Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live.” By this point in the story the hero is able to experience real freedom. He is powerful and wise, with a vastly expanded skillset, giving him the ability to accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. He serves as the example for others to follow, enabling him to inspire future generations. In other words, he has become immortal, but that’s not why he is free from the fear of death.
Famed author and American treasure, Mark Twain has been attributed in saying, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Having been in recovery for a few years now I’ve noticed that people who embrace their sobriety have an unrelenting love of living, and the reason for this might not be so obvious to anyone who hasn’t had the same experience. Yes, it’s nice to clear the mind of the chronic, substance-fueled haze and experience reality in 4K HD. Being awake and having the physical energy needed to enjoy reality is an added bonus, but it’s more than the sudden awareness that life is an amazing discovery. From a crackhead living on the street, to a functioning alcoholic slowly poisoning the world around them, a person who spends years abusing mind-altering substances is living on borrowed time. Besides the physical and psychological damage it accrues, someone living such a life takes unnecessary risks, and it’s just a matter of time before their luck runs out.
Substance abuse is a vicious cycle in which you’re aware that you’re staring into the gaping maw of oblivion, so you take more of your favorite poison to forget that the Void is always there, beckoning you. However, once you break that cycle, learn to face your problems, and love process that that entails, the sharp contrast between one life and the other is overwhelming, and enables you to appreciate existence in a whole new way. As comic-book creator Jhonen Vasquez said through the voice of his beloved character, Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac, “Nothing quite brings out the zest for life in a person like the thought of their impending death.” A person in recovery may not walk around kissing the ground and hugging every stranger they meet, but there is a constant refrain of gratitude and love that cycles in the heart, as well as a deep appreciation for every breath. Additionally, once you become adept at confronting your problems with a clear mind you get stronger, through-and-through, and you’re ready to take on ever-greater challenges. It’s exactly as famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “No tree can grow to Heaven, unless its roots reach down to Hell.”
And that brings us to the exact point of the hero’s journey – that singular tale told many ways – is to successfully venture into Hell so that we may gain the strength to reach up to Heaven. Of course, reaching Heaven is never a guarantee, but it is in the very PROCESS of striving for it that the meaning of life is found, although Joseph Campbell himself would argue that there is more to it than that.
In the Power of Mythinterview he did with Bill Moyers, Campbell said, “People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about.” Now, keep in mind that “experience” and “rapture” doesn’t equate with “happiness” and Dr. Jordan Peterson makes that point quite clear on numerous occasions, such as his interview in The Guardian, published on January 21st, 2018 when he said, “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.” And what is the job? I think that was best summed up by the character of adult Peter Pan in the classic film, Hook, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”
Addicts of any kind have spent a considerable amount of time avoiding life, so much so that when we finally stop, we often become obsessed with doing the opposite. A lot of us discover a more natural and sustainable high through fitness, so we can often become “health freaks”, trading the pub for the gym, and many of that clan often get involved with biohacking as well. Others focus on making healthy, intimate bonds with family and friends. Still others throw themselves into their religion with some becoming priests, pastors, rabbis, etc. Regardless of the route one takes into sober living, for those that stay the course there are always two constants: Firstly, that they trade one unhealthy addiction for another, healthier one. Secondly, they take the focus off of themselves and their own pain, and work hard to help others to overcome theirs. For many that means becoming a sponsor, while some of us…start a personal development blog, vlog, and podcast. That’s because recovering addicts have come to appreciate just what it takes to go into the darkest caves and return with the most valuable treasure, and it helps everyone involved for us to share that. It certainly helps those that can benefit from the painful wisdom we’ve earned, but most notably, it helps us to find a sense of meaning in our lives.
In the overture of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Peterson said, “It is possible to transcend slavish adherence to the group and its doctrines and, simultaneously, to avoid the pitfalls of its opposite extreme, nihilism. It is possible, instead, to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience. How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.” That path doesn’t really have an end. Once a person assumes the hero’s journey they stay on it until they die, and that’s where the story ends for that one person, but it doesn’t end for the whole of humanity. The Freedom to Live is not the end of the story, it’s only a return to a new, elevated “normal” which will inevitably yield to the perturbations and vicissitudes of Life, so as to become the backdrop for the next problem that will require heroic effort to solve. The place to which the hero returns to find rest shall inevitably become the place from which he must venture out from as the Call to Adventure is again heeded, and the cycle is restarted. In this way life takes on not so much the appearance of a journey, but a dance.
Educator, author, and philosopher Alan Watts said, “The existence, the physical universe is basically playful.There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at. But that it is best understood by the analogy with music. Because music, as an art form is essentially playful. We say, ‘You play the piano’ You don’t ‘work the piano’. Why? Music differs from say, travel. When you travel you are trying to get somewhere. In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord… Because that’s the end! Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
Comic legend Bill Hicks described life in a similar way when said, “The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, ‘Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?’ And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, don't worry; don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ And we…kill those people. ‘Shut him up! I've got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.’ It's just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok…But it doesn't matter, because it's just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love.”
In this way the last two stages of the monomyth almost blend together. As I said in my last blog, I’ve found recently that I’ve been forced to overcome my propensity for avoidance and distraction, even when utilizing healthy and productive diversions. When I was married I worked my ass off to get nowhere. I closed my fist and struggled to keep every dime I made. In so doing, my marriage decayed to the point that when another man came over to take my wife on dates I rejoiced and gave him a hero’s welcome, because then I didn’t have to hear, “We never go anywhere.” It’s not that my ex-wife was insisting on lobster dinners or anything expensive, but I couldn’t bear to part with a few dollars to even take her ice skating or to the beach, like she begged me to do. She just wanted to do SOMETHING together, and I couldn’t be bothered. I was in a panicked state of “survival”, and oddly enough, we could never seem to survive. Even now, this Pagan can still hear Jesus’ parable of the gold talents ringing in my ears, specifically the words in Matthew 25:29, “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” I could have chosen to let my love for my ex-wife compel me to squeeze some small enjoyment out of life, but I didn’t. Instead I chose to let fear consume me until everything I had was gone. I’ve since sworn that I will never go back to being that man ever again.
Over the past few months I’ve had to get used to feeling terror and dread as my bank account dwindled, and then breathe a sigh of relief when dollars rolled in to cover my expenses, only to roll out again with the next wave of bills and debts to be paid. I work, I toil, I hustle, the whole time allowing myself to feel my emotions, and then choosing not to let fear control me. I don’t go throwing my money around, but I no longer close my fist and fight to keep every last dollar because, as hippie as it sounds, that kind of energy will dictate my life and cause things for me to shrink. And do you know what happens when I just relax and enjoy the ride? Clients come. Blessings come. Somehow or another I always figure it out, and while I’m not yet living in a mansion with ample economic room between myself and the proverbial pavement, I still get to enjoy living with incredible freedom. I not only KNOW, but I can FEEL that I am one with the very process of living. I am an expression of the Universe’s never-ending refrain, “Everything is connected, and everything will be all right.”
The Freedom to Live means the freedom to die with grace. This is only achieved by living an authentic life with patience and gratitude. This requires us to go down into our own dark caves, where we are stripped of the external trappings comprised of the expectations placed upon us, and then confront the parts of ourselves that we would rather hide or destroy in order to realize who we truly are. The entire time we must stay fully conscious and present, savoring every agonizing step of the process that is designed to refine us to be the best versions of ourselves that we could possibly be. Then, it is up to us to CHOOSE to live with the boldness we had as children; to savor life in all its extremes, and to exist as the stable center between them. It is the continued mastery of our ability to maintain our place between order and chaos – fear and love – that allows us to remain as a hero for as long as we are here on this planet. And when the day comes that we must shuffle off this mortal coil, may we do so with the satisfaction of knowing that we leave behind an example for others to follow, immortalizing us in this incredible story.
I hope that this first lap around the Hero’s Journey has been as helpful to you as it has been to me. The time that I’ve spent recounting, analyzing, and openly discussing the twists and turns of my adventure through this life has been incredibly therapeutic for my heart, mind, and soul. I can only hope that it has served to give you something that you could reflect off of, as well as the needed context with which to frame your own life. I hope that being blunt about my failures, fuck-ups, and fears has allowed you to see that none of them are truly fatal. If you’ve been unable to get started on your own journey, I hope you’ve been inspired to action. If you’ve been on the path and gotten stuck, I hope you’ve found renewed strength to carry on. And if you, like me, are nearing the end of one cycle, I hope you can take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come, breathe in the rich air of earned success, and ready yourself for the next cycle. It never ends; this life, this adventure, this Hero’s Dance, and may we always remain grateful for that fact.
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