Updated: Jun 20, 2019
The stage that Campbell called the Road of Trials is where we get into the meat of the story, as it is here that the hero is truly tested. In the previous stage the hero may meet the monsters of the special world, and may have some rough encounters, but he is in no way pushed anywhere close to his limits. This stage is what separates the men from the boys; it’s where we learn who the hero really is, and what he’s made of, as he goes through serious and meaningful battles, both internal and external. It’s also one of the longest stages of the story, as it can essentially encompass most, if not all of the concurrent stages that take place within the Special World.
Now, in some analyses of Campbell’s work, the Road of Trials is seen as the point in which the hero climbs out of the darkness. I don’t think that’s accurate to most stories, and certainly not when it comes to the relation of the hero’s journey to our own lives because, as Tom and I have mentioned numerous times in the podcast, the monomyth cycle is comprised of many smaller cycles that interlock together like the workings of an old clock. This means that trials can come back to test the hero again and again, in between other stages, and sometimes within them as well. In the Lord of the Ringstrilogy, for example, the three groups of protagonists fought many battles at different points within the story. I will concede that there is a progressive element to the Road of Trials stage that often lends credence to the idea that it’s a focused climb out of the darkness. However, it is only through serious tests that human beings build the resilience necessary to not only survive, but to thrive in life, instead of melting under the slightest temperature increase. I think it’s actually pointless to list examples of what this stage looks like in our real world because…well…shit happens. From identity theft to sudden unemployment, from food poisoning to cancer, literally ANYTHING can go wrong in our lives, but it’s always in those times that we have the potential to develop the most as people. It’s not fun, and it’s never pretty, but it’s essential to personal growth.
The vicissitudes of the environment, both natural and artificial, ensure that only the best creatures, as well as the best ideas, are propagated. It’s a cold, unfeeling affectation of existence, but without it, our very planet would be a barren waste, devoid of any significant forms of life. Without the wild swings in temperature, bombardment of various extraterrestrial rays, geological upheaval, and so-on, our planet would be inhabited only by very simple, single-celled organisms. The wondrous, mind-boggling variety of flora and fauna that we get to enjoy on this precious, blue marble is all thanks to the tests that life itself had to endure and adapt to. By all accounts, humans would still be swinging in trees if not for a sudden climate change that forced our ancestors to become bipedal. It’s with such an understanding that I find myself grateful for the trials that I had to suffer through in my own life, although much of that wasn’t due to geological or atmospheric pressures.
My own opinion about life after death is a somewhat complicated mess of various faiths, but when it comes to realms of torment for dissatisfactory souls, I think none is closer to the truth than that of Naraka, from the Buddhist tradition. It’s much like the Hell of the classical Western belief systems, filled with demons administering various torments of every variety. The difference is that the souls who suffer in Naraka are not doomed to remain for all eternity, but only there until they realize that they don’t need to be at all. What’s more, each person in Naraka designs their own torment and creates their own demons to carry it out, until the day comes when the bad karma that they accrued throughout their life has been cleansed, and they can proceed on to the next life with a clean slate. In learning about this belief, I was immediately reminded of Campbell’s own words, “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.”
Once I was married and relatively acclimated to the new world in which I found myself, the real tests began, and my alcoholism took on a new, more insidious form. Instead of getting blitzed on the weekends, I started to drink every evening after the day was done. At first it was just a little, but as my tolerance increased, it became necessary to drink more and more. It would become a running battle for the next five years between my desire to live with a measure of self-control, and my desire to numb my ceaseless discomfort; one that I would constantly be on the losing side of. It got to the point that if I could manage to make a 2-liter bottle of vodka last a full week (not including all the little bottles I had stashed around the apartment) I felt as if I could honestly tell my wife that I was “doing just fine”. Of course, this wouldn’t be the only battle I would fight, nor the only failure, that I would sustain.
I drank from the moment I said “I do” because some part of me, buried not too far down in my subconscious, knew that Lauren and I weren’t truly right for each other, at least not in the long term. She was most definitely a positive influence and mentor in my life, and one that’s clearly meant to be a permanent fixture, but I was never in love with her, which is a secret to no one. Having grown up so disconnected from raw, human emotions, and forbidden natural human contact, I was completely clueless as to what love actually was, how to find it, or what it would even feel like if I did manage to come into its company. The only thing I knew of love and marriage was the practical advice talked about in the bible, or the fantasies that Hollywood shat onto the screen. As a consequence, I mistook the practical applications of love – the cooking, cleaning, bill paying, oil changing – as being what the core of love is all about. I was a faithful husband and a dutiful provider, so I could pretend that everything was fine…until I wasn’t…until I could no longer play that role. Then the script got dark, very quickly.
By our third wedding anniversary, the financial strain of having a child and living in New York had completely taken its toll on our marriage. Massage and Pilates weren’t paying our mounting bills, and I was no longer capable of being a provider. I now know that if I had acquired the proper mindset I could have turned things around, but I had yet to learn any of the essential concepts of business, nor a true appreciation for the free market. By that point I was no longer a socialist, but the old Marxist programs were still running in my head. I still blamed the world for my failures, and I still espoused select feminist doctrines, none of which helped our marriage.
After going to my parents to borrow rent money for one month, and then two, and then three, I started to face the very real fact that I would soon have to quit my careers in the health and fitness field to get a “real-job” pulling a 9-5. By March of 2014 I was working a dead-end position as a clerk in a law firm. I was grateful to have a job at all, but I was commuting over an hour each way, barely paying the bills, and was not, in any way, working towards living my personal legend. On top of that, it had been over a year since I self-published my book, which by that point had a whopping 13 downloads, all of which were family and friends.
My drinking was at its worst, and if not for my daughter, there would have been no love in the house at all. Even with her, there was still plenty of frustration, anger, resentment, and disgust to go around, though very little of it saw the light of day. Those negative feelings stayed mostly buried under the surface, occasionally managing to escape in a handful of noisy, yet pointless fights that brought no lasting solutions. I hated myself for breathing, and I resented Lauren for ever having loved the preeminent failure that I was. Needless to say, the sex had long since stopped. To put it in perspective, I remember having bumped into my wife in the hallway once during this time, and feeling almost the same kind of embarrassment one feels when bumping into a stranger on the train.
One night she approached me with the idea of an open marriage, and I promptly agreed. To my mind, most relationship therapists often turn to that as a solution when all else was failing, and I figured we’d save a few thousand dollars that we didn’t have and skip right to the “common solution”. Now, although it’s true that neither one of us actively pursued another relationship, within a couple of months, she had found herself not just another man, but a much better fit. After seeing how much happier she was with him, and acknowledging that it was more so than she could EVER be with me, I bowed out. I told her to stay with him, both for her sake, and for the sake of raising our daughter in a house with as little hatred or resentment as possible. We made some verbal agreements and decided it would be best to hold off on any legal proceedings until she was in a more stable position with this new man, as their relationship was still just blooming at the time. And while I know that I did the right thing, and I have zero regrets when it comes to dating, marrying, impregnating, and divorcing Lauren, it was just one more failure to add to the stack.
By now I had two careers, a book, and a marriage in the toilet, as I was working a pointless, dead-end job, all while alcoholism thoroughly kicked my flabby ass. Oh, and as my wife was happily enjoying new found love (who she would later marry; it’s funny how things work out), I was savoring the fruits of loneliness on the pull-out couch, since her and I couldn’t afford to live apart. I did make a few attempts at coupling with another human being. Three attempts, to be precise, with two women. Not at the same time, of course, but it won’t take you long to figure out that the math here is way off. My inevitable, soul-crushing heartbreak was easy to predict in both cases.
We had a roommate at the time too; a best friend of mine from college. When we met, him and I connected on the basis of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, urban exploring, video games, abstract and/or dark humor, philosophy, and other nerd-focused activities. By the time my ass was scraping the proverbial bottom, him and I hardly spoke. It’s not that WE were drifting apart. He has always been one of the most honest and consistent people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I was the one changing, and not for the better, and it was obvious to everyone. Our apartment used to host gatherings of friends on the regular. Not orgiastic parties, but more of a standing open-door invite to our kith and kin who would often wander in after a long, frustrating day to come by and recharge their batteries by playing with our cats and petting our tiny human. By this point in the story, hardly anyone came by anymore, and often not without a reason. As I looked around at all of the unpleasant changes occurring in my world, one inescapable conclusion crept upon me, stalking me in both sobriety and intoxication. It would find me in the quiet moments and leap upon me like a tiger, over and over again until I looked it in the eye and said to myself, out loud: I am in Hell, and I put myself here.
Admitting to myself that I was in a hell of my own design did not make the agony go away, if anything, things got a bit worse, as I had made a serious mistake at my shitty job that not only guaranteed I wouldn’t see a raise any time in the foreseeable future, but it very nearly put me on the unemployment line. However, saying the truth, and facing it honestly gave me a new starting point…a clean, karmic slate. It gave me the chance to take stock of where I was and how I had gotten there, which is the first step in figuring out how to get myself out. I cannot remember if my confession came before or after I got sober, but I do know it came right before I made it to the next stage in my journey, which I will discuss in the next blog.
I only have two questions for you to ponder this week:
Are you in Hell?
If you are, when will you start to get yourself out?
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