Debunking the hero myth
You don’t really have to do it all
It’s always funny how the smallest things — a certain song, a commercial on TV, or just a phrase from a book — can make lasting lifelong impressions on you.
For some reason, I will always remember sitting in my AP Literature class on one of the last days of senior year, the hot air and sunshine from outside beating on the window as the clock ticked steadily towards 3:15 p.m. as we all counted down in our heads the hours and minutes until graduation.
We had all maxed out on studying for our AP exam so our teacher turned on Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” a PBS documentary in which the scholar discusses his ideas on the presence of myth in modern-day society.
At first, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to assume the ever-favored blank-faced stare of the daydreaming student and while away the last hour of school. While Campbell sat perched on a chair in a seriously lame 1980s office and chattered on about various mythological heroes, I thought long and hard about how to have a party at my house without my parents noticing.
But, as much as I was trying to totally tune out Campbell’s monologue, something from the film we watched that otherwise unremarkable day stood out to me and has been stuck at the back of my mind ever since.
There is a point in the documentary in which Campbell discusses his idea of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey. At the risk of sounding like I’m writing an English paper, I’ll briefly summarize it in layman’s terms. Basically, in order to truly make an impact on society and those around you, you must be willing to abandon feelings of security and comfort. After encountering great and terrible obstacles, overcoming them and returning home, you can relay the experience and knowledge you have garnered.
For some reason, those five minutes of Campbell’s discussion seized my attention. At 18, I had worked hard in school, done well in my classes and was involved in my fair share of extracurricular activities, but overall I was rather unremarkable — just another student whose resume was dotted with various school club presidencies and community service work.
I felt a sense of stagnant complacency within my life — a feeling of having accomplished things that were just fine enough, but nothing definitively meaningful or impactful on me as a person. Campbell’s reflection on the monomyth immediately seemed to strike home, and I realized that I, too, wanted to embark on some sort of challenging journey or experience that would draw me out of the comfort of my current existence, pushing me to become the image of wisdom and understanding I hoped to one day embody.
While I obviously did not plan on undertaking anything on the scale of ancient mythology, I did believe that I needed to do something drastically remarkable and sensational to accrue such a change within my life, such as teaching in a foreign country or working for Greenpeace — something that seemed honest, noble and eye-opening.
This thought has been at the back of my mind the past four years. I have at times undertaken less-than-noble pursuits and often found myself choosing the less challenging, safer option rather than going after the extraordinary. But that day in my old high school English class would come rushing back to me and I wondered when I would find my own hero’s journey — the experience that would present me with the chance to make an impact.
I have come to realize that all the grants received to build schools and all the foundations created to help the less fortunate don’t do a thing to the person behind them unless he, in day-to-day practice, embodies the ideals he is supposed to support.
I could volunteer as many hours as I wanted to or give away all my money to charity, but at the end of the day, if I’m not practicing what I preach, what’s the point? I think I’ve made a mistake in focusing on this monomyth idea for so long — it’s not in fact anything I need to search for, but rather it is right in front of me, a part of my everyday life which must be developed internally.
Every day should be your own monomyth, an opportunity to challenge and push yourself to be the person you want to be. Every day should be an opportunity to grow in kindness, to share something with another, to be a little more understanding. We shouldn’t have to wait for some big “This is it!” moment on the horizon, because frankly, it might never come. Instead, we have to live in the here and now, and embrace the journey which is already happening. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Mimi’s column runs biweekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.