I've been fascinated lately to discover the work of Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell's life work involved analysing the myths, legends and stories of every nation, culture and religion to identify common themes and patterns between them. He found a striking commonality between the stories of different cultures and identified a pattern which seems etched in the human psyche that he called The Hero's Journey. Think of any major blockbuster movie or movie franchise like Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars, and you'll see elements of The Hero's Journey. I also see a remarkable parallel with the adventure that every man is called to in growing from a frightened boy into a confident man.
The hero of every man's story is ourselves. Not necessarily who we are now, or who we think we are; but our real self that only emerges as the journey progresses. It's the journey from boy to man, but also the journey of self-knowledge, stepping into our own power, being more authentic and ultimately being free. So here's how I see men growing up fitting into the framework that Campbell identifies for the every man hero:
Initially, we live in the protected world of childhood. We go to the school our parents tell us to, and follow most of their instructions. When we disobey authority figures, we get punished; we begin to learn that it's not OK to want what we want, and we learn to submit to other people. In the process, we learn not to trust ourselves. Part of us feels there's something greater for us, but the message from the society we grow up in is “Don't take risks” and “Stay small”. We learn to make do with the mediocrity of our authority figures through submission, or perhaps we rebel; either way we're at the mercy of adults who presumably are supposed to know better than we do. We know that there's a bigger world out there and occasionally head out to explore it, but always return to the safety of our family and culture of origin. We never venture too far afield. For the most part, we're reasonably content initially like Frodo Baggins in The Shire.
Then along comes the Call to Adventure: we see the advantages of being a “grown up”, of “manning up” or of getting out of our own way. Perhaps our relationships with women give us a wake-up call, or we feel disillusioned and just want more out of life. Freedom, independence and adventure all call us from being a child in a man's body to true adulthood. We want the influence of Mum and Dad will be off our backs. We're keen to get out and live our lives free of interference from all the authority figures who keep telling us what to do. I was pretty keen to get out of high school and on to university, and then I looked forward to finishing university and moving out of home. I was always looking forward to the next thing that I thought would solve my current set of problems for me and give me a new start.
But accepting the call to grow up means leaving behind old patterns of behaviour that has kept us feeling safe, so initially we Resist the Call. For me things like my childhood religion, my assumptions about family expectations, messages I got from other people about who I was supposed to be, the stories I made up about myself, low self-esteem, a lack of confidence and the general sense that I was supposed to have a nice safe career in computers all caused me to resist really growing up. We can only partly imagine the bounty that awaits us if we accept the call to adventure and succeed in the quest of growing into our full masculine power, and we fear the loss of the childish safety that we'll be giving up. So we resist.
Many men resist the call forever. However, once we accept the call and commit to the quest, help arrives in forms that we never would have expected. Often such unexpected coincidences happen to support us that Campbell refers to this as Supernatural Aid. Perhaps a mentor shows up to guide the way, other men appear who are ready to come with us on the journey, or women start treating us differently as we start developing our masculine strengths for the quest ahead.
Then it's time to Cross the Threshold into the unknown. It's exciting now that we've let go of childhood norms and are on our quest. It's dangerous too: the route ahead is unclear and the path precarious. We don't even know if we'll be able to complete the quest, but we step across the threshold anyway. Taking action even in the face of uncertain results builds the confidence we need for the journey as we go.
Life is never plain sailing as we follow the Road of Trials with a series of challenges and obstacles to overcome on the way towards our goals. Many men give up and settle for less than what they really wanted in life or resort to drugs, alcohol, anti-depressants or addictions to avoid the pain they feel about settling. But the heros persist. Some of my personal challenges have been self-doubt; negative thought patterns; being highly sensitivity; constantly wanting approval from others rather than giving it to myself; overcoming the effects of a controlling mother, dominant older sisters and a passive father; negative religious programming; overwhelming anxiety; emotional repression; fear of what other people think; shame about being sexual with women; Nice Guy Syndrome; chronic illness; lack of direction and general insecurity.
Faced with our personal challenges we wonder whether we can go on, but we also know that we can't go back. Fortunately, just when we need them a series of mentors arrive to guide us through each challenge that lies in our way. I've had many mentors on my journey, and can attest to the old saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I can also see that for the student to be ready means being out there in the world on the quest; the teacher never appears while we're sitting around just waiting and haven't accepted the call yet. The most important teachers appear only when we're faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Along the way, our relationship with women changes profoundly. Some become allies, others temptresses. We Meet with the Goddess in women for the first time, as we stop treating all women as mother figures and start experiencing the full beauty of their true femininity and sexuality. We also experience the Woman as Temptress trying to distract us from our ultimate quest. Do we give up on our goal of complete personal transformation just because we meet a woman, fall in love, declare her to be “the one” and shack up together? If our sole goal of journey towards authentic confidence is based on snaring the girl of our dreams, we're likely to give up when we think we've found her. Then we start backsliding and she loses attraction for us once she's got us. Everything goes down hill if we get distracted from our ultimate quest of truly growing up. We need to do this for us, not just so we can get women or get laid.
Another key step along the quest is what Campbell called Atonement with the Father. This is where we change the relationships we have between ourselves and other men, and with power. We stop seeing ourselves as a wounded boy at the mercy of older kids in the hostile playground of life, and start seeing ourselves as a truly powerful man with the potential for both enormous good and enormous evil. We confront whatever holds the ultimate power in our lives and take it back. In doing so, a part of us dies: the part that has been holding us back in fear. For me, this ultimate power was the image I had in my mind of my mother and the fear I always held towards her. Dealing with this involved connecting with my father and getting support from other men so I could access the masculine power within me that I needed to accept my mother the way she is without being overwhelmingly triggered by her. This is still a work in progress for me but dealing with these issues is profoundly transforming my relationships with both women and men.
The journey continues as we conquer each successive obstacle that lies between us and The Ultimate Boon where we gain the spoils of the final challenge of our quest. Luke Skywalker had to destroy the Death Star; Frodo Baggins had to throw the ring into the fires of Mordor. All the proceeding challenges in life have been leading up to give us the strength we need for this. I don't know exactly what your ultimate challenge is in becoming a man, but for me at the moment it is reconciling what goes on inside my head with the outside world. Being more authentic with other men, and especially with women. Sharing how I really feel and what I really want rather than a sanitised version watered down to match what I think other people want to hear. Letting go of the old judgements about myself and others that keep me isolated. Getting the help and healing that I still need from other people. Overcoming the insecurities that stop me from being the truly confident man that lives in the vision I've created for my life. Setting my true self free.
To gain the ultimate boon, we need to step up and slay the personal dragons that keep us tied to a limited, childish view of ourselves so that we can be free. Our ego faces the choice between annihilation and liberation. The stakes have never been higher. On the other side of the battle lies everything we've ever dreamed of. We're scared, but by god we're going in with all guns blazing.
I don't know what slaying your personal dragon will mean for you. It might mean asking out the girl of your dreams and accepting whatever happens whether she says yes or no. It might mean years of torturous therapy while you heal your emotional wounds from the past. It might mean forgiving your controlling mother so you can say “I love you” to her (and actually mean it) before she dies. Or reconciling with your sisters or brothers, or with other men in whom you still see the likenesses of the bullies that made your life hell at school. Or making peace with the father who wasn't what you would have wanted. Perhaps it will involve changing careers or leaving a wife you don't love any more, or sitting down with her to be honest about that affair that you've never had the guts to fess up to. Or starting your own business that might be wildly successful or might fail miserably after years of hard work. Maybe it'll involve reaching out and asking someone for help in a way you've never done before.
After the final conquest, you get to return home a different man. Perhaps you feel like you don't want to go back to your old life because it doesn't suit you any more: you Refuse to Return. Or you need to escape with the wisdom you've gained in what Campbell called The Magic Flight. Sometimes the route home is just as perilous as the journey to adventure. You may need guidance from others here too: Rescue From Without in order to Cross The Return Threshold back to your old world without regressing back to childhood and losing the benefits of your quest.
And on returning home, you find that something is different: You. The Hero's Journey is a journey of transformation. When we complete a quest, the process of overcoming the obstacles and the wisdom we learn along the way leaves us irrevocably changed. The homecoming isn't necessarily easy because we don't fit into the old ways any more. Our old friends might not recognise us, or may expect us to fit into patterns that don't suit us any more. The way we relate to our family will be different; they may like it or they may not. We are our own man now, so it will be more important to do what's right for us than to follow orders from someone else. We have greater respect for authority now we know what it entails but we also have less fear of it.
Returning back home after the quest, we are now The Master Of Two Worlds and face a choice: stay in the limited confines of our old world while sharing the wisdom we've gained with others, or cross the threshold again and return to the wider world that we discovered on our quest. Once a man has grown up and learned to slay the dragon of the fear of women, for instance, he's not likely to be content in the old friend zone or around women who he's not really all that interested in. When passion and life purpose become more important than the security offered by money, we want to step out and do something more meaningful with the 8 hours a day we were sitting in the office surfing the net. There's always something pulling us back to the security of The Shire we once knew, but once we've stepped out into the wider world we can never see our old world the same again. Plus we start attracting other men beginning their own quests who need help and guidance. Where do all those teachers come from after all? Us: other heros who are further along in their own personal quests. When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.
At the end of The Hero's Journey lies the Freedom To Live the lives we were meant to live. Freedom to really be ourselves and to have our lives function with less stress and greater authenticity. Sounds pretty appealing to me. Personally, I can't wait! I can see it coming closer every day and the sheer possibility is exciting.
The Hero's Journey is a metaphor for life as much as a metaphor for growing into a man. Of course life is never as neat and linear as this; it doesn't operate in neatly defined phases. I'm still in the process of slaying my dragons, but I've been making some serious progress lately which gives me a lot of hope for the future. Also the journey isn't just a lifetime thing; it also operates on smaller life cycles too. Many of us resist the call to get out of bed and face the day some mornings. Perhaps the quest we're on isn't really the right one for us, or maybe there are just those days when it's hard to face the world. We often shy away from adult responsibility without realising that with responsibility comes the power that we've been craving all along to have our lives go the way that we decide.
Every man has a hero inside waiting to cross that threshold and take the journey required to grow into a confident, powerful man. Both challenges and bounty await on the other side. So where on the journey are you?