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A Reason for Hope: Framing Today’s Challenges as a Hero’s Journey

It has been perhaps nearly a century since humanity has experienced an upheaval on the scale of our current climate change and pandemic threats. Unlike the world wars, we have no “enemy”, but rather a microscopic predator on one end, and macroscopic Earth needing care on the other. Both micro and macro scales are hard to comprehend and so we displace our sense of hopelessness and helplessness onto those we are accustomed to blaming: each other.

Yet these tactics are only making things worse, not better. Our infighting and blame game has us avoiding the real issues as well as any chance for meaningful solutions. We seem to be spiraling downwards; we can only hope that we’ve already hit rock bottom, but I fear things will get worse before they get better.

Here’s the good news: this is all part of the cycle of learning and growth for us, individually and collectively. Understanding the cycle can help us more efficiently and effectively move through this ordeal into a more generative, healing stage.

There are many models and frameworks to describe our current learning opportunities. The one that I find most helpful and inspiring is the Hero’s Journey, a framework proposed by Joseph Campbell in his book A Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell has identified the Hero’s Journey as the most pervasive theme among the stories, legends, fables, and religions across time and culture. We know it from the beloved tales of heroes and “sheroes” such as the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings. Their familiar story line deeply resonates with us, since in each case, the s/heroes heed the call of their destiny and in so doing, feel fully alive as they triumphantly live their life’s purpose.

Campbell also makes clear that, though the antagonist is often a bad guy, bad gal, or challenging external circumstance, the s/hero is called to rise to the challenge by becoming bigger from the inside out. In other words, it is really an inward journey, where the s/hero must transform to rise to meet the challenge.

There are predictable elements of the journey, both difficult ones like Tests, Enemies, Ordeals, and the Innermost Cave, but also rewarding ones like Mentors, Allies, and eventually what makes it all worthwhile, Reward, Return, and Resurrection. The latter Campbell describes as doors flying open, supernatural help becoming available, and a sense of flying on the wings of destiny. However, this exhilarating phase where we feel fully alive is only available once we successfully traverse the challenges of the Cave, Enemies, Tests, and Ordeal.

Which brings us to the modern era.

I have been through this cycle several times. I know from personal experience that embracing the challenges and opportunities means a less painful and more efficient transition to the Rewards, Resurrection, and Return phase. There are no shortcuts, or ways to avoid it. These elements are difficult, painful, and at times, soul-crushing.

The part we can influence is the degree and duration of pain.

Resisting and denying the needed inner transformation prolongs the sentence and intensifies the penalty. It is, after all, the law of natural consequences that we repeatedly suffer the same or worsening outcomes until we improve our behavior. No one is “doing it” to us. We are doing it to ourselves. And we will stay in “time out” until we learn our lesson.

Though there are no shortcuts through the Cave and Ordeal, I can share what I’ve learned there. Perhaps some insight here might help you move through your Cave less painfully and more quickly.

Our minds keep us stuck in fearful, negative thinking – As brilliant as our minds are, IMHO its use should be limited to specific tasks, not the only tool we use for making major decisions. We should balance thinking with feeling and intuition. The three together are powerful and help us navigate complexity in a more humble, flexible, and creative way. Our feelings and intuition also give access to our transcendent selves, which is the one that travels on this excursion.

We are neither separate nor alone – Not only do we tend to believe that we are separate, but in America, the idea of rugged individualism is a virtue. However, individualism at an extreme can lead to a sense of isolation and pitting one against another. This climate crisis will not be solved by each of us ensuring our own survival. In fact, it’s teaching us that we sink or swim together in a way that is inextricably linked with Earth. We either align to support her healing and survive the climate change threat together, or we risk extinction.

Our hearts and intuition reinforce this notion that we’re all connected. If we focus our brains in service of that belief, we can heal much of what is troubling us.

My perception of reality is a reflection of my inner world – My view of the external world really reflects the internal world that I’ve created for myself. If I see others as virtuous, lying, controlling, dangerous, or kind, it’s because that reflects my own tendencies, even if only in my shadow. This is called projection, and we do it all the time. Therefore, if there is something we dislike about the world or another person, our Hero’s Journey invites us to change it from within first. That change allows us to rise to the external challenge, usually in ways we cannot anticipate from the perspective of our smaller selves. In short, the Enemies, Tests, and Ordeals are really our teachers.

Again, this approach calls for introspection and humility. Our sense of self and separateness is important, and also benefits from balance with our connection to each other and Earth. Individually, we are no more virtuous or flawed than the collective; we’re here to learn and grow together, each of us doing our share in our own, unique way.

We are here to connect to something greater than ourselves – We are constantly being beckoned to journey by connecting to the desires of our heart and souls. By following the flow, positive energy, excitement, passion, joy, and curiosity, (“follow your bliss” – Joseph Campbell) we empower our hearts and evolve into the person we are meant to be. The outcome can be greater than anything you can imagine, so let it unfold.

I am quite hopeful, because when we hit the collective rock bottom, we will be forced to confront the beliefs and habits that got us there. It will either crack us open to healthier, more realistic, and accurate perspectives, or we will perish. We are a resilient group, so I bet on the former.

Earth is also resilient. We saw how she bounced back during the early stages of the pandemic. It’s more a question about whether, or when, humanity figures it out and partners with her for our mutual healing.

Campbell also talks about the Call to Adventure. Accept the Call, and we embark on the journey where Rewards, Resurrection, and Return are available on the other side. We learn the lessons of the Cave, and move through becoming wiser each time we cycle through the phases. Refuse the Call, and we risk psychological crucifixion.

And here we are. It’s time to embrace this thing so we can move to the world we are all dreaming of.


To:                   You and humanity

Event:             Hero’s Journey party

Outcome:        Our destiny

Location:         Here

Time:               Now

Response requested