We know the story well. Name a book, film or narrative of any shape or size, and there it is–the classic plot twist of a human adventuring though challenge and mishaps, and coming out the other side in the end. This reoccurring “Hero’s Journey” is a monomyth storyline that people like Joseph Campbell have analyzed and dissected from the gamut of traditions throughout history.
Why does this Hero’s Journey recycle and repeat in our stories? Timeless truths are wrapped in every fiber of its plot. Subconsciously and consciously, we identify. We’re drawn in, time and time again. We can’t get enough of it.
Here’s the thing. There’s a twist…
The twist cropped up a couple weeks ago when Greg and I went to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” at the Seattle Repertory Theater. It was my second time seeing it. I was literally rendered speechless after the first time, and after two weeks, I still hadn’t unpacked its impact. Some art requires a second (and third, and fourth…) view.
In this seemingly straight-forward, though left unresolved, Hero’s Journey tale–the protagonist does not fill the spotlight alone. Sure, “Amir” has some major identity issues he’s working through, but the spotlight really is shared. Actor Nisi Sturgis, who played Amir’s partner “Emily,” shared in a post-performance discussion (I paraphrase): “The play opened the same way the play ends. Three friends trying to help each other.” All characters evolved and developed in their journey together, because of their intersecting experiences.
The Hero’s Journey sounds like a solitary one. The twist is that The Hero’s Journey is shared. The complexity of intersectionality is undeniable.
Philosophers wrestle with what makes up an individual person’s identity. A few months ago, I encountered Julian Baggini’s “Is there a real you?” TED Talk (worth every minute of viewing) that has forever impacted my worldview. Summary: We don’t need to retreat into the wilderness and isolation to “find ourselves.” Our identity is a combination of our uniquely connected and related memories, beliefs, desires, sensations, experiences, and relationships.
In our own Hero’s Journey, relationships are incredibly important. Relationships impact our very identity, and how our identity evolves.
I’ll never forget stumbling on the concept of “differentiation” in college when I pulled a book from my therapist friend’s shelf. Psychologist Dr. David Schnarch says that “differentiation is a lifelong process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship….” The process of us becoming ourselves is completely intertwined in relationship to and with other people. Encountering this concept of differentiation made a huge impact on my life personally. I painted a two-panel art piece in honor of its discovery, and this summer I found that my friend Lindsay has it in her house to this day (pictured left).
When I think about relationships, concentric circles come to mind (as pictured right; source). I imagine that the outer, wider circles are acquaintances we meet along the way. The smaller and smaller the circles, the more intimate (and smaller in number of people!) are the relationships. The center-most point or nucleus of the circle is occupied by a life partner / most intimate friend. The deeper the circle, the higher the opportunity for profound impact on our lives and the higher the risk of hurt. Each and every level of relationship has its own unique place in our life.
The Hero’s Journey has all of these layers and layers of relationships. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho does a great job of showing relationships in his characters’ journeys. My favorite tales of his are “Eleven Minutes” and “The Alchemist.”
Often we do not choose the relationships that so dramatically impact our story and our identity. Sure, we think we have control of the people who influence us, but it’s often not the case. We ultimately do not control who comes in our lives and when. There’s magic to that serendipitous complexity.
Ok, so, some of us don’t like that we’re on a journey. We don’t identify as a hero, and we don’t value our relationships as integral components to our story. Well, that’s actually a thing. The concept of the “antihero” has recently been elevated in pop culture. Most Marvel Comics‘ characters as depicted in film nowadays are spun with antihero quality. Juxtapose a more recent Spiderman film against a classic depiction, and you’ll see what I mean.
We identify with antiheroes because they are real people. Sociologist researcher and author, Brené Brown, shares: “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”
I once watched an interview with actor Ryan Gosling where he said that he likes playing complex characters–antiheroes. People that have obvious good and bad in them. The shadow side and the light.
The best human beings I know are antiheroes. Whether or not they like the idea, they are embarking on a Hero’s Journey of self-discovery and actualization. They have something to say; they deserve attention and to be heard.
Greg (pictured right) is an antihero–humble yet bold. He is in the final leg of creating “Shareconomy,” a feature documentary film that taps into how our world is changing economically and socially (check it out, here). He and I have had many late night conversations this past month, exploring some of life’s plot twists while dreaming of where the journey might be going for us both.
Some questions that might be useful:
What does this topic bring up for you?
How are you the hero or antihero of your own life?
Trace your mind over your journey–it’s twists and turns. What are some big moments? What are some themes? What are some chapters, sections or eras you observe?
What do you feel drawn to in this particular chapter of your own story?
Who are the characters that are sharing your journey? What do they have to teach you?
In this context, I think of a Theodore Roosevelt quote that was inspiration for the title of Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly.” There’s something quite powerful and important about acknowledging yourself as the hero or antihero of your own journey. It’s possible then to be truly present in your own life and relationships.
I’ll leave you with those words here.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt