Saturday, July 14, 2018
The Hero's Journey of Transformation
written 7 July 2018
published 14 July 2018
Joseph Campbell is known for his lifelong research into myths from around the world. Shortly before Campbell died, Bill Moyer interviewed him, available in a DVD series "The Power of Myth", which we recently viewed.
Myths are metaphors, like poems, meaning more than literal interpretation of the details, alluding to deeper relationships and wisdom. After studying thousands of myths, Campbell found a common theme of an individual heroine, or hero, challenged to transcend self-interest, to risk their life for the good of a larger system, of which they are already a part. Some individuals go seeking adventure, some inadvertently fall into the adventure, and in some cases, the adventure sweeps them up. No matter how they became engaged, the quest demands they expand their sense of "self" in order to heroically recognize and embrace a larger context.
Watching the video, it struck me that our current moment in US history is the hero's challenge. Trump can be seen as a symbol of the isolated individual, acting without regard for anyone else, the state of the hero before the transforming adventure of myth. In Trump's mind, America is a solitary player on a dog-eat-dog planet. He acts with no regard for the consequences of his actions, because he believes everyone is against him and looking to take advantage. The border wall is a good example of the illusion of this view, as if walls can really keep out the problems that come with an interconnected world.
One of my favorite metaphors from biology is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. After a time of focused eating and growing, the caterpillar begins to change, producing the hard shell of a cocoon around its body. The soft body inside the cocoon dissolves into a featureless goop. Within that goop, numerous small groups of cells, called "imaginal buds", begin to come together, forming the butterfly. However, the caterpillar's immune system is still functioning. Being narrowly defined, it attacks these growing imaginal buds as foreign invaders. Because there is a holism between the caterpillar and the butterfly, this attack actually stimulates the growth of the imaginal buds, hastening the completion of the emerging butterfly. The butterfly breaks out of the cocoon, contributes to other life forms by acting as a pollinator, mates, lays eggs, and the cycle begins again.
Like a caterpillar, the American economy has spent decades in focused consumption, living without awareness or regard for the rest of the world, other than as raw material. With less than 5% of the world population, we consume 24% of the resources, and produce 50% of the solid waste. This economic form, having run its course, is now collapsing. Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a mythic adventure, challenged to transform into a new form, which acknowledges and contributes to the larger connected planet. Nothing less will really do at this point.
The American experiment with democracy is a testament to the powerful potential of inclusion. When American was founded, a nation based on democracy and equal rights for all was considered a naive utopian fantasy. While imperfect in practice, the fact of democratic America's duration has inspired oppressed people all over the planet. America is now being tested to see if our vision is still strong, or whether selfish greed will destroy our inclusive democratic experiment.
This national myth challenge illuminates our personal myth challenge as well. The old cultural stories based on fear and separation are strained by the explosion of connective technology, which disrupt the familiar social order by opening powerful links to the whole world. Global immigration patterns, the rise of individual rights in the form of voting, gender equality, sexual preference, and race, appear as threats to an isolated individual, rather than expressions of the diversity of the unity that includes us all. Trump's attacks on compassionate democracy are calling us to become heroes and heroines engaged in an archetypical adventure of transcending our selfish perspective, and embracing our connection with the unity of the world. This is our work. This is our human potential. This is our birthright.