The Hero Myth in 2020: How Understanding Stories Can Help Us Cope
In my personal life, I've often looked to books and cinema for inspiration and advice—sometimes to my own detriment. I was a sucker for fables and fairy-tales as a kid, and I often wondered how characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter would handle situations I faced in my youth; bad grades and bullies. Sometimes I expected real-life to turn out the way it does in the movies, and of course, it doesn't always. At least not in the way one expects. But there is a reason some stories stand the test of time, and in some cases, generations. Perhaps, while real life may not follow the path of the stories that inspire us, there are lessons to be gained by looking back on them in times of uncharted waters.
THE HERO'S JOURNEY
In 1949, American professor, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, popularizing the hero myth pattern or the “monomyth” which he noted dates back thousands of years; repeating itself in numerous cultures and points in storytelling history. This narrative can be found in texts about Buddha, Jesus, Moses, and more. He describes it as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on [their community].
I'd be pretty hard-pressed to describe what we are all going through as a “region of supernatural wonder.” There is nothing whimsical or wondrous about our current situation, it would seem. But in looking at how the Hero's Journey is used in storytelling, we can try to draw upon various coping mechanisms, strategies, and reassurance to get us through the day-to-day of uncertainty and wavering hope.
George Lucas has stated in numerous accounts—and it's easy to see—that he used Campbell's model of the “monomyth” almost point-by-point in his crafting of Star Wars: A New Hope. And even broader, it's easy to see how he used The Hero's Journey structure to model the journey of Luke Skywalker over the course of his original trilogy. If we follow Campbell's model, which he breaks down into three “acts”:
Initiation (or trial period)
we see all three films of the original trilogy. In the departure narrative, the hero receives the call to adventure—often reluctantly (Lord of the Rings and The Matrix also come to mind). The initiation narrative finds our hero thrust into the vast unknown, facing tasks or trials—quite often alone. And then, of course, there's the glorious return narrative. Our hero has undergone a change or metamorphosis; gaining wisdom and strength.
Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash
If I were to look at the world as it is today, I'd say we're in The Empire Strikes Back right now. Some would argue we have been since *cough* 2016 *cough*, give or take. All that's bad seems to have the upper hand, we're separated from our friends, and the outlook, at times, is bleak. Our training and the tasks of inner-work and patience seem daunting as we look back on the old ways of life we're leaving behind. We can't yet pull our collective X-Wing out of the water and things will perhaps get worse before they get better—perhaps for some time after this. We have waves of frustration, moments of peace, nights of anxiety, and in general, we find ourselves all over the place with our emotions; productive one day and binging hours of Netflix the next.
Some are refusing the call-to-action more than others and it's safe to say we've been thrust into this state of affairs without wanting it at all. Day by day, we are becoming more acquainted with the red pill while some still choose to take the blue and live life as normal, to the frustration (and, frankly, risk of safety) of others.
THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
There is a point of no return in The Hero's Journey; a final separation from the known world and self where the protagonist gives in to the current situation and agrees to undergo a metamorphosis. We see Jonah in the belly of the whale in the Old Testament, Pinocchio (just prior to transforming into a 'real-boy'), and even, once again, in The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gives us a wink and a nod to the story structure as Solo and Leia descend into a cave which just happens to be the belly of a grotesque monster.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash
With each passing news briefing, things seem more and more uncertain as we adjust to the new normal (like Geppetto fishing for his dinner in Monstro's stomach). We are asked to do our part and stay home; certainly a task not everyone is privileged and able to undertake. In that, our personal trial is to give in and let go of what we knew before. This can, of course, be challenging in its own right. Sadness, longing, loss of hope—these are real emotions that we will all face the longer this unfolds. And that's okay.
APPLYING TOO MUCH MEANING
There is, of course, the risk of applying too much meaning to what is going on. I have a tendency to do this in my personal life. I must be going through this for a reason. After all, the heroes of literature and cinema went through their trails for a reason. What is ours? This can prolong the pain as we search to see why this is happening rather than experience it for what it is. Feeling like there is a reason to the suffering can make us feel like we need to be doing something; and there is anguish that follows when we discover we can't. People handle global trauma differently. Some create art. Some delve deep into self-care through meditation, working out, inner-work, cleaning, and more. Some find any task at all to be daunting and, some nights, impossible.
Perhaps things are just happening around us, without reason or cause. The randomness of life and the universe is simply doing what it has always done. But, at a risk of applying too much meaning to that, there is another character of literature and film we can look to for guidance here:
LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES
In Forrest Gump, we see our protagonist thrust into a world of unknown, spanning decades, many characters, and many, many changes. (To everything, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn.)
His willingness to effortlessly push through every obstacle is, perhaps, something we can learn from as we accept an increasingly sobering reality. We're in this for awhile it looks like, and there will be many, many changes as a result. Life really is like a box of chocolates. You don't know what you're going to get—and it's been quite bitter as of late.
As the world changes around Forrest, he becomes an observer and active participant (his only source of a compass being his beloved Jenny). Our compass can be our need to simply stay safe, keep others safe, bend the curve, and be good to ourselves and each other.
People will interpret that compass differently. They may post an influx of self-recorded songs on their feeds, some will provide minute by minute news updates, struggling theater companies and artists may produce under-prepared work in the form of virtual table reads and monologues, some will post hilarious stories and tiktoks of #quarantinelife.
Some will remain completely quiet.
Some will do these things out of ego, some out of comfort. All of it is okay. Because once again, this is new to all of us. And rather than critique the ways in which people cope, we can observe how fascinating human behaviour is in all its many facets. We can participate by posting our own videos and stories and live feeds and jokes. And we can also step back, avoid social media, or even collapse into ourselves. There is no one person to be in this. Like Forrest, we can be the soldier, the shrimper, the ping pong champ, or just the person sitting and waiting (practicing social distancing, of course!)
Part of finding peace is being asked to be like the feather featured at the beginning and ending of the film. Be resilient in the way a tree bends in the wind; its roots firmly planted. Trust that we will land gracefully like Forrest's feather no matter where this takes us.
THE RETURN OF THE HEROES
One of my favourite memes of late stated, “we're in the part of the movie that would normally be a montage right now.” (Zero to Hero, just like that!)
But real life isn't like the movies. There's no sweeping score to inform us how to feel. Moments of heroism are often quiet and understated and at a cost. Front-line workers are under a great deal of strain; they come home exhausted, they're separated from family. People have lost loved ones. This is not like the movies. It's not as fast-paced and dramatic, and yet in some ways, it is. It's real. The world is complicated with shades of grey everywhere. How we wish a title card could pop up right now and say, “18 months later...”
For me, my peace ebbs and flows. I choose to let music and literature and film comfort, inspire, and inform me. It's my coping mechanism. I have moments where I want to share art, watch the art of others, read articles, comment, engage. And others, where I want to stay away from all of it. My moments of art are not a call for others to be productive. And for every day I feel productive, there are perhaps two or three others where I don't. For now, I try to ride the wave of those feelings, honour them, and accept them for the ever-changing things that they are.
But there is one thing I would like to believe; and it may be my folly of applying meaning to that which can have very little meaning attached to it. I believe our Return of the Jedi is coming. Balance will be restored. Suffering will not be for nothing. Our Empire Strike Back period may be for some time; years perhaps, as the world adjusts, reacts, and responds in varying radical ways to a silent enemy. But things will be okay. We know that. We trust that.
That said, I try not to focus on it too much. Waiting for the return narrative of our Hero's Journey