The Hero’s Journey: Starting Out  

Rev. Annie Foerster

Early in my ministry, I was attending a meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. The program was to be on “Story Telling.” The person leading the worship said that stories have many origins. They can come from an experience, a relationship, even a rock. Having said that, he passed a basket filled with a collection of stones. Each stone has a story in it, he said. Choose one.

As the basket approached, I could see a cluster of rather plain rocks, but on top of them glittered a piece of quartz—crystal, edged in translucent white. I wanted that crystal. I prayed to the fingers that hovered over the basket as it approached me, “Don’t take it. Don’t take it.” The basket arrived on my lap with the crystal unclaimed. I reached for it and watched with horror as my hand passed over it and selected a nondescript, unglittering, hunk of black rock. What had I done? And why?

I passed the basket to the person on my left and let the stone fall into my hand. Only then did I realize what my fingers must have known. The convex side of the stone exactly fit the hollow of my hand. On one side was an indentation where my thumb just rested. On the other was flat surface where the ridge of my palm beneath the little finger caressed and held it. It was a stone made for my hand alone, and as it settled in, it told me my story and the story was true.

I had signed up one day, a long time ago, for a continuing education class in geology. The teacher asked each of us to tell why we were taking the class. I heard myself explaining, “I’ve collected rocks all my life, but I realized just recently that I choose only pretty rocks. It occurs to me that I might be missing something.” I recalled that memory with a chuckle of joy, because, until that class, I had been missing a great deal about rocks, about our planet, about how the world works.  But as I held the black stone in my palm, it told me something new. It told me, “You have always liked choosing because you thought you were good at it. Now it is time for you to recognize and appreciate that which chooses you.” And I realized that the stone was telling me a story of a hero’s journey I had just completed or was just beginning. I wasn’t sure which. Somewhere, along the line of my life, I had let go of needing to be in control. I had deviated from my planned career path. I had dropped everything, gone back to school; gone to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Ministry chose me. I did not choose it. I chose the harder thing: to let it consume me. To let it lead.

That which allowed me to move from chooser to chosen was a transformation—deep and internal. Such transformations are not free. They are bought by life experiences we have come to call ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ They are defined in story and myth, but they are lived in real time as well.

This idea was put forth by Joseph Campbell, who’s amazing journey I read to you. He studied myths from every culture and found that this story of what you need to live the life of a hero is common wisdom with a common structure. Three weeks ago I told you about the call to adventure. And I told you what happens if you refuse or ignore the call—nothing; a whole lot of it. The journey takes you from the known to the unknown, it teaches you to seek helpers and mentors, it offers challenges and temptations, revelations that are as stark as death and rebirth—that transform you—and then it allows you to return with a gift. I’ll talk about each of these steps in turn, but today I want to explore ‘Starting Out,’ crossing that threshold from known to unknown. I want you to think of you own life with you as the hero, about the journey’s you have taken and the ones yet ahead of you. You, too, have stories to share.

The hero’s journey, Campbell said, is one of transformation. That may not be its goal, but it is the result. And once you have taken the first step, there is no turning back, no returning—you will be changed. That knowledge alone is enough to require courage, to demand heroism. “The passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation,” suggested Campbell.

As to your destination, you might know the general direction, but the way there and the adventures you will encounter are shrouded in a deep fog of mystery and unknowing. Quite possibly, you chose to go—a decision to marry, a new job, a relocation—and you think you are prepared for the journey. You are ready, but you are not prepared; the path is still indistinct. Perhaps you were thrust into the journey—an unplanned pregnancy, a loss of a job, a failure to connect your dreams to reality, or a change in your dreams like the changes Campbell experienced. You may not be ready to go, but the door behind you is closed. The way before you appears rock-laden and thorny. Not all beginnings are alike. I don’t mean to frighten or discourage. My intent is quite the opposite. Most of you know these truths already. Few of you are on your first journey; nor your last. My intent is to remind you to take courage; remind you that this is the point of greatest chaos, strongest doubt and darkest night. You may feel alone, without purpose, lost. You have not met new companions. You are alone. At this point, you are not yet being tested. You might feel aimless. You may have forgotten why you are here. You don’t know exactly where to go or how to behave or if you will be accepted or worthy. This is the heroic part—to begin. It is not coincidental that stories and myth, throughout history and across boundaries, tell the tale of the hero’s journey in almost formulaic terms—they tell of the call, the starting, the companions you meet, the trials, the gift, the transformation and the return. Each life journey contains different details, but the heart work, the soul work that all must do, can be described only in the larger metaphoric content of mythical story.

The darkness at the beginning of the story, the feeling of aloneness, the confusion as to where it will end are symbolic of the hero’s present ‘life horizon.’ They signify what we don’t know, can’t know, until we put ourselves in the way of new experience. This is where the people who don’t like change, stop and say, “I don’t like change,” and then move on, because change happens anyway.

What is often happening here in your personal story, is that you are putting your tribe in danger—your family, society, the institutions to which you have, until now, belonged and upheld. All the ogres, the demons, the dragons in the stories and myths threaten the status quo of the hero’s tribe, not the hero. Go away to college? the parents ask. What’s wrong with the college here in town? That is why, in the myths, the hero must journey, must leave the tribe, the comfortable community. “The usual person,” wrote Campbell, “is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored.” The hero goes anyway.

This part of the story needs to be emphasized. When you begin the journey, you leave the tribe behind. When you first went to school, for instance, you left your mother behind at home. It may have been exciting or fearsome, but it was, by virtue of that abandonment, a hero’s journey. When you married or started a family, you left behind the tribe of free, unfettered friends. You were no longer like them. When you quit your job to start a new career, you were no longer part of the old group. Though you might retain individual friendships, you no longer traveled with them.

For me, I acknowledge, this has always been the hardest part, causing the greatest pain. When I worked in business there were five us who felt our calling came from our ability to manipulate words. We were writers, all. Some of us, like me, already worked with words, but felt fettered because the ideas we clothed with them were not ours. They were assigned to us. Some of us worked elsewhere, with numbers, perhaps, or tools, and longed for the journey to use our language skills. We supported one another’s dreams of becoming great writers one day. We were close. We hung out. But when I quit my job, when I left to spend a period of my life devoted to writing down my own thoughts, I had thought they would all be happy for me—that they would send me on my dangerous journey with best wishes and encouragement. Instead, one of them told me of my inevitable failure. Another refused to say good-bye. The third never answered my letters. The fourth never let me read his stories again, and never asked after mine.  I felt so wounded by their seeming betrayal. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to look back and see the wounds I had created in them by my departure. From their point of view, I had abandoned and betrayed them. Worse, I had provided them with a model of possibility that said that dreaming and complaining were no longer enough. And each day that they did not open the door and leave on their own journey, each day they did not follow me, my departure made them feel like failures. I had betrayed my tribe.

Of course, that shouldn’t, couldn’t have deterred me from my own journey. My path was not to save them from their lives. Their paths included how they dealt with these feelings until they were ready to move on, just as mine encompassed how I dealt with being alone. I know this in my head; knew it even then. But one’s heart is never completely prepared. No matter how many hero’s journeys you take, you always grieve for the known you have abandoned. Carolyn Myss, in her work Why We Don’t Heal, wrote, “Don’t expect the tribe to thank you for going on your journey, even if you’re doing it for them. You just left them, and tribes don’t ever take kindly to abandonment.”

I no longer mind being lost as I once did. I find it exciting. “Where will I go from here?” “What will happen next?” The possibilities draw me out of my fear. But just as for me the pain of loneliness is almost unbearable, for some the greatest pain comes in not knowing where the next step will be, in not being in control of destiny and destination. To take that first step into nothingness requires, for them, exquisite courage. The same is true of those who fear the dark.

I began by telling you that I no longer need to make every choice. I did not mean to say that we must ever abandon choice completely. Philosopher Dan Millman tells us, “We are both burdened and blessed by the great responsibility of free will—the power of choice. Our future is determined, in large part, by the choices we make now.” And here is the part on starting out: Millman says, “We cannot always control our circumstances, but we can and do choose our response to what arises.” To those who fear being lost, the choices are two: stand frozen in fear, turned to a pillar salt like Lot’s wife, or be transformed into stone like those sailors who listen to the seduction of the sirens—or to take the first step into what you can only imagine.

Energy follows thought, Millman wrote. “We move toward, but not beyond, what we can imagine. What we assume, expect or believe creates and colors our experience. By expanding our beliefs about what is possible, we change our experience of life.” It’s a good philosophy for starting out.

The myths of the hero’s journey all speak of courage. One would think that the greatest courage must be saved for the trials yet to come. But closer examination will discover the truth that bravery in the beginning will take us farthest. I want to share with you one of the parables out of the Buddhist tradition. It is the story of a prince, a prince who was later to become the Buddha.

 The prince completed his military studies with great skill and honor. He was named Prince Five-Weapons, because he had mastered all of the weapons he was given. He left the school and went to the edge of the forest where he was warned, “Do not enter there. An ogre lives there named Sticky-hair and he kills everyone he encounters.”

The prince did not wish to make a long detour and he felt confident and brave, so he entered the forest. As predicted, an ogre presented himself, tall as a palm tree, two tusks at his mouth and the beak of a hawk for a nose. All over, he was covered with hair. “Where are you going?” he asked the prince. “You are my dinner.” 

 The prince knew no fear. “I will pierce you with an arrow steeped in poison,” he told the ogre. But the arrow merely stuck to the sticky hair that covered the ogre’s body.

“I will run you through with my sword,” said the prince, but the sword, too, simply stuck to the ogre’s hair. The prince smote him with a club, but the club stuck to his hair, as did the spear that followed. “Ogre,” shouted the prince, “I am called Prince Five-Weapons and I will now unleash my most terrible weapon—myself. I will pound you and stomp you into dust.” The prince struck with his right hand, which stuck in the ogre’s hair. He struck with his left and was also stuck. He kicked until both feet were stuck to the horrible hair, and then butted with his head, until that, too, became stuck. Yet the prince did not succumb to fear. He began to shout and taunt the ogre.

“This it not a mere man,” thought the ogre. “All the others have been reduced to jelly by now. I have never seen one so unafraid.” He asked the prince what gave him his courage.

“Why should I be afraid? The worst you could do is kill me and in one life, one death is absolutely certain. Now or later, I must die. What’s more, he continued, “I have in my belly a thunderbolt. If you eat me, you will not be able to digest it. It will explode and tear you to tatters. In that case we’ll both die. That’s why I’m not afraid.”

The story-teller then reveals that the prince was referring to the Weapon of Knowledge that was within him—his sixth and mightiest weapon. The ogre, not as brave as the prince, was terrified by the thought of death and decided to let the prince go. The future Buddha taught the ogre the doctrine of the right way and transformed him into a spirit of good, entitled to receive offerings in the forest. Then he continued on the journey he had begun.

Campbell tells us that the five weapons symbolize the five senses that glue us to this world. They signify the pairs of opposites, life and death, good and evil, light and darkness—that crush us between their extremes. The weapon of knowledge is the invisible weapon that allows the hero to go beyond the realm of names and forms and to pass unharmed between clashing rocks of opposites. It allows the hero to pass through the door where he or she has been safe and protected, and to begin the journey into the unknown unharmed.

As my attraction to ‘pretty rocks’ blinded me to the more subtle gifts of earth’s creations, so do our attractions to narrow and familiar pathways of comfort or belief blind us to the possibilities of the new paths before us. We can pile the pretty stones of our lives around us as a wall of protection, or we can construct with them a sign that reads: I went this way. I took this path. In the end, none of the stones belong to us anyway. We can’t take them on the final journey.

So, if you are at the beginning of a journey, take courage, and take that first step. Remember that possibilities and transformations lie before you. The path you cannot see now will one day be revealed to you. The life you are about to lose, you would have lost eventually one day; the life you are to gain awaits you. You are the hero of your own story. That is all you need to know.

First Jefferson Church