“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” That was the late Joseph Campbell’s advice for us. A well planned existence provides the illusion of security, which can be very intoxicating, but truly transformative experiences are the product of agitation not tranquility.
Joseph Campbell was probably the greatest expert in mythology the 20th century produced. His books, interviews, and lectures served as consistent reminders that the hero’s journey begins with personal upheaval. Heroes may start out as couch potatoes, but they don’t stay on the couch for long. Some crisis or another, be it psychological or one imposed by the outside world, forces their ass off those posh cushions and into a reality filled with uncertainty, risk, and suffering. How we greet similar uninvited challenges will determine whether we will be admired for our courage or disdained for our timidity.
Ultimately there’s nothing special about the ordeals that push us to guide our boats into uncharted waters. As the Buddhists remind us in their first noble truth, all life is suffering to one degree or another. What’s unique about an experience isn’t the suffering that accompanies it, but how the sufferer reacts to it. Will we decide, like the Buddha, to slip past the palace guards to explore reality for ourselves and wrestle intentionally with the hard questions it confronts us with, or choose instead to withdraw from the world like a dragon guarding a cave full of treasures it will never use?
The title of hero is typically reserved for men and women made famous by some great deed or another. However, these individuals often seem too remote both in time and accomplishments for us to relate to. They shouldn’t. In each case they had their own demons to contend with, just as we do. By placing these figures on a pedestal we choose to emphasize their victories and minimize or deny their struggles, faults, and defeats. Often it’s in their response to their stumbles that the true lessons can be found.
During one of his famous interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell urged us to transcend our self-doubt. “But if you think ‘oh gee, I couldn’t do that,’ that’s your dragon locking you in. ‘Oh no I couldn’t be a writer. Oh no I couldn’t do what so and so is doing.” These dragons must be slain. Accepting the challenge to take them on is where we begin our own personal heroic journey.
Elsewhere in his interviews with Moyers, Campbell addresses the status our legendary heroes tend to have. “A legendary hero is usually the founder of something — the founder of a new age, the founder of a new religion, the founder of a new city, the founder of a new way of life.”
“But doesn’t this leave all the rest of us ordinary mortals back on shore?” Moyers asks in response.
“I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal,” Campbell replied. “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child…You might say that the founder of a life — your life or mine, if we live our own lives, instead of imitating everybody else’s life — comes from a quest as well.”
With all the inconvenience, anxiety, and pain that life hurls at each of us, it’s easy to forget that at the heart of these difficulties lies the spark that can ignite the fire of creativity. Try as we might, we won’t discover that spark anywhere else.
Late last August my wife and I were awaiting what we were sure was the renewal of our visa to remain in Canada. We had been living there for seven years, and the previous spring I had been accepted into the master’s program at a local university. That Canadian immigration might find any reason to reject our application and revoke my work permit hadn’t even crossed our minds.
Then the letter arrived informing us of the decision to deny our application and instructing me that effective immediately I was no longer allowed to work. Within three weeks I was back in the US staying with a friend while desperately trying to get a position with the company I had been working for in Canada.
My wife came down a few weeks later to help her ailing mother. When she returned she thought she had been approved to stay in Canada for six months. But then her mother died and she left the country again for the funeral. Upon her return afterwards a Canadian immigration officer told her that she too would have to leave the country until our visa situation was straightened out.
These dominos all began to fall because the university I had been accepted into had me down as a Canadian citizen instead of as an international student, but we didn’t learn this until it was too late. Since last summer the problem with the university has been resolved and we are now beginning the process of reapplying for our visa again.
The point of sharing this isn’t to make anyone feel sorry for us. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, it’s necessary to describe the cloud before I can get to the silver lining.
There was literally nothing I could do to cope during the initial months after our visa application was denied except throw myself into reading and writing like never before. I also began listening to podcasts more regularly during the long public transit commutes and walks to my job. Listening to one of these was how I happened to discover Medium.
This personal crisis also meant spending a lot of time with friends that I never would have otherwise. Though they may not have seen this as a fortunate turn of events, I now do. More recently this situation also brought me closer to family I really wasn’t all that acquainted with before, which has proven to be a completely unexpected source of inspiration. Now the possibility that things may turn out better than they would have had life gone according to plan isn’t nearly as far fetched as it was just a couple of months ago.
Life doesn’t come with any guarantees. Even when we embrace our own personal heroic journey whole heartedly the possibility of failure and disappointment still remains. But since that possibility will always be in the air whether we embark on the journey or not, why not go all in? At the very least life will be more meaningful. There will, it’s safe to say, be encounters with others along the way that share similar passions. These will create openings for new relationships we didn’t even know were possible. The more true friendships we form, the less sting our mistakes and heartaches will have when they come.
So if you find life isn’t going according to plan, try letting go of the plan so you can at least improve your chances of having the life that’s waiting for you. Or as Andy (Tim Robbins) puts it to Red (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying’.” Things turned out okay for both Andy and Red eventually.
Other stories by Craig Axford you might enjoy:
•Curiosity: Without It We’re Nowhere