5 - Crossing the First Threshold
Updated: Jun 20, 2019
The First Threshold is the boundary between the hero’s ordinary world, and the special world. It is a point of no return; once crossed, the hero cannot go back to how things were. The threshold can be literal or metaphorical, internal or external, and crossed voluntarily or involuntarily. In all cases, the hero is exposed to a whole host of unknown threats, as well as blessings.
Literal thresholds are easy to visualize in stories. Colonel O’Neil and Dr. Jackson stepping through the Stargate, or Harry Potter running through the wall onto Platform 9¾ are two visually stunning examples of this tangible crossing. Metaphorical thresholds, on the other hand, are usually more abstract and are seen as the MOMENTS in a hero’s life that represents a more personal transition. These are usually marked by a ritual such as a graduation, wedding, or coronation ceremony, but not always. Sometimes a hero can begin their journey when they leave one life for another, or just quit what they’re doing altogether, such as when in the film, Network, Howard Beale told his television audience that he was going to kill himself during the next live broadcast, knowing full-well that it would mean the end of his career…one way or another.
When crossing the threshold is shown as a literal point of transition, the movement across it is either internal or external. The most common motif is represented as a cave, such as when Aladdin descended into the Cave of Wonders. An external crossing is a lot more dynamic, such as when Superman revealed himself to the entire world. It is my humble opinion that director Zack Snyder did the best job representing this in his tragically underappreciated film, Man of Steel. (Also, Henry Cavil is the best Superman ever, and you can literally fight me on this.)
Usually, if a story is structured typically, the hero would have already transitioned through the four prior stages and crossed the threshold voluntarily, such as when Neo took the red pill. However, some stories bother only to set the ordinary world up for the audience, and then skip stages two through four altogether, in which case the hero has the threshold thrust upon them, and they are forced to cross it involuntarily. When David Wong is inadvertently pricked by the syringe containing “The Sauce” in the film, John Dies at the End, he is immediately exposed to the horrors and wonders of the other dimensions that he was, up until that point, blissfully unaware of. Similarly, when Tyler Durden destroyed the narrator’s condo in Fight Club, it set into motion his descent into a strange world where he and Tyler (yes, I know it was the same person) lead a men-only cult in an attempt to plunge the world into a new dark age.
Sometimes a threshold has a guardian to bar entry, or to, at the very least, limit entry to a select few. The Gates of Hades, the realm of the dishonored dead in Greek mythology, with the giant, three-headed dog, Cerberus, comes to mind. Of course, the threshold guardians don’t always need to present themselves in a definitive form, but can exist in the story as an abstraction, such as the physical forces that make manned spaceflight so incredibly perilous.
For most of us in the real world, the crossing is going to be largely metaphorical, so that’s what we will focus on in this blog. Even when those of us with the patriotic tenacity to enlist in the armed services do so, it’s not a literal door crossing that marks the start of one’s service to their country, it’s signing the contract and taking the oath that symbolizes the point of no return. And that’s precisely what the crossing of the threshold is – a symbolic act, designed to make the audience keenly aware that the hero has left one world, and moved on to another, and stories that have the hero cross a literal threshold, do so for the sake of clarity. Although, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there are sometimes moments when a symbolic threshold crossing does in fact manifest in our lives in a very literal form. I’d like to tell you about mine so that you can reflect off of it and think on your own experience.
As I said in the first podcast, I not only had to cross a proverbial threshold before starting off on my own journey toward my personal legend, but I had to confront a pair of threshold guardians as well. I was about 24 years old, and I was setting out to leave my family’s faith, a mission that was reminiscent to Heracles’ twelfth and final labor. No, it wasn’t a life-or-death struggle to defeat the massive, three-headed hound guarding the Gates of Hades, nevertheless, I couldn’t successfully move forward in my journey, unless I did.
Heracles’ was charged with bringing Cerberus to King Eurystheus, for no other reason than the king thought the task impossible. For Heracles, this would prove to be not only a test of his strength, but of his mind, and spirit. Before this point, Heracles become an initiate of certain secret rites that allowed him access to the Underworld (aka: Supernatural Aid). Also, his pedigree enabled him to have an audience with its ruler, Hades. Once there, he told his uncle of his plight, and Hades agreed to let him take his prized pet from his station, on the condition that not only was Heracles to subdue the dog himself, but the animal was to suffer no lasting harm, and should be returned promptly after the king was satisfied; terms to which Heracles readily agreed.
In order to keep the peace in my home and not end up on the street (yes, really), I agreed to meet with two of the elders, or head ministers, of my congregation and discuss with them why I was exiting the faith. If I could get the elders to agree that I was making a clear and rational decision, my parents would agree to accept my choice and allow life to go on as normal. However, if they reported to my folks that it was not the decision of a thoughtful mind, but one unduly influenced by “external forces” (aka: Satan), then my parents would give me an ultimatum: Submit to reeducation or pack my bags.
To be blunt, even at that young age I was significantly smarter than both of these “wise men of the congregation” and I could have bludgeoned them with logic both secular and scriptural. I could have left them questioning their own position in the church and the validity of their beliefs. I could have gone off on them when they reprimanded me for having an ounce of self-esteem and espoused a belief in my own abilities as a competent human being (I seriously wish that was hyperbole but it’s not). I could have just sat there and stone-walled them, and not have played any of their attempted mind games, and given them one-word answers. I didn’t do any of that. I went into a small office at the church and, like something out of a bad detective movie, sat at a table under a hanging lamp to defend my position as someone who could no longer abide by the stifling confines of a faith that was too small to fit me, and as someone that was no longer afraid to fail on my own.
I was, like all heroes at that point, decidedly uncertain about what the future would bring, but I knew two things for sure: If I didn’t do SOMETHING I would not develop into who I could potentially be, and never achieve my personal legend. I also knew that no matter what I did, I would be facing hell; the only choice I had was if it would be a hell of my own design, or someone else’s. I could either toil in the fields with the thorns and thistles to bear fruit by the sweat of my brow, or die pale and languid in the artificial sheep pen of someone else’s tyrannical machinations.
To make my challenge even more Herculean, I had to make my case to people who not only had a vested interest in keeping me where I was, but could cover their tyranny in a cloak of sheep wool by claiming that they “want what’s best for me” and that it’s all done with “Christian love”. Regardless of their personal feelings towards me (which was null, to say the least), to them every parishioner that didn’t gleefully bound in lock-step with the collective was seen as a lost little lamb, about to be devoured by Satan’s wicked world. For the adults who came into the fold of their own accord this was not that applicable, since that’s the place they came from, but for the children raised under the church’s regime of mental and emotional isolationism, this was a thoroughly accurate assessment. This was, of course, by design, and kept most of the church youth in place, for fear that they couldn’t handle life without the collective (to speak plainly, most cannot). So, despite the fact that I was a smart kid, at all of 24 I was still just a kid in every way that mattered. I had very poor social skills, little practical understanding of the world, and absolutely no sexual experience of any kind. Still, this internal call to adventure pulled me over unknown horizons. How was I to survive? How could I survive? I surely couldn’t rely on my own wits. What did I have to depend on?
Tom, my partner on the podcast, recently went skydiving for the first time. He paid his fee, signed the waivers, got in the plane, strapped himself to a trained professional, and once at altitude he stepped out of the door, tumbling down to the ground below. A lot of components had to come together to ensure that he came home alive, and most of them were beyond his sight or understanding. Did the man he was attached to really know what he was doing? Did he pack the parachute correctly? Could he figure out what to do if there was a problem? Tom had the drive to cross over from his safe, reliable world into an unexplored realm where he was not in control, and to do that he needed faith in both the human and mechanical systems into which he was placing his life. Some heroes, on the other hand, need to put faith into systems much more abstract.
For the ancient Greeks, the gods commanded not only the tangible aspects of nature like the sea and the sky, but also the abstract forces which held sway over their lives, such as love and conscious thought. During his labors, the goddess of wisdom came to her half-brother’s aid, offering him advice and guidance, rather than direct, physical intervention. Athena’s presence, especially in such a capacity, indicated to the audience that no one, not even the son of Zeus, should expect to surmount considerable obstacles on their own merits. Instead, they were advised to approach problems with thoughtful consideration of not only the things that they know they can do, but with the humility to learn new skills and ways of being that they hadn’t considered before. Athena’s supernatural aid represented the act of paying attention to the abstract things in life which we cannot know until we venture into the unknown in the first place.
In truth, we cannot get anyone to see our perspective if they are not willing, or not ready, especially when they have a vested interest in what they believe to be right. Church administrators could not bear to lose a parishioner on their watch, so whatever I said would have little, if any bearing on what they would “advise” my parents. What I had to do, was get my parents to see the truth – that those men never listened to me, and that I was walking into a no-win scenario. My parents, to their credit, have always been fair with me, and I knew that if I could get the church’s ministers to make it obvious to them that I was in an impossible scenario from the start, that they would consider the game rigged, and thusly the results invalid. It was quite the task, and while I was up for the challenge of carrying it out, I could never have been so arrogant as to believe that I could have managed it on my own. The elders might not have believed that God was with me that afternoon, but they don’t have to. I don’t remember everything I said, or how I said it, nor do I know precisely what they told my parents, but I came out victorious. I lost the initial contest with the guardians, but I crossed the threshold nonetheless, and was able to not only maintain peace in my home, but to retain a stable platform from which to launch the ship of my life toward unknown shores.
I hope my story has given you something to reflect off of. Have you gotten to the threshold yet? Is there a clear line of demarcation between the known and unknown worlds for you? Are you ready to cross it? Did you have a choice in the matter? I advise you to ponder these questions carefully in consideration of your own life.
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