The Hero’s Journey: Why Go?

Rev. Annie Foerster

January 14, 2018

A friend recently sent me one of those lists that reduce the world’s wisdom into a few pithy words. This one was called 25 thoughts to get you through almost any crisis. A handy list to have. My favorite was number 25: The trouble with life is, you’re halfway through it before you realize it’s a ‘do it yourself’ project. I thought, that’s  a great summation of the hero’s journey, although I’d say that it comes a little earlier than halfway—maybe three-eighths, a quarter if you’re very lucky, probably one-third. I figure that at whatever point you come to the realization, is the beginning of your first true hero’s journey, and you have at least three choices:

Obviously, I am promoting the first option or I wouldn’t be developing a whole series of sermons on the topic. However, it does occur to me that this sermon could be considered a substitute for the book option. So if you are on the cusp a journey of your own, don’t let me keep you. But I think it might be right to start with an exploration of what happens if you choose option three.

You may well be asking, “Who, me?” or “Do what?” even, “What do you mean by journey?”  My response today will be in answer to the question, “Why Go?” You are comfortable, you are accepted, you’ve come to terms with what life has dealt you. Why would you want to change that?

In fairy tales, one of our most pervasive set of mythologies, it is the kingdom that is threatened or there is a lady in distress. A dragon is at the gates, a wicked spell has been cast, time has stopped. A hero is required to save the day. How, you ask, do myths like this, of impossible situations, relate to our own individual lives? Myths, you see, have to be unraveled. The journey is simply a crossroads in your life.

Campbell says that the mythic journey always begins with a call—a setting forth of the problem. Someone or something comes to wake you up. “There’s a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being,” it says, “that’s not being attended to.” You may think you’re at home where you are, but the call says there is more to you than that. That’s how it starts.

For me, my first clear call to the hero’s journey—which I didn’t recognize as such at the time—led me to the realization that by relying on other people to make me happy, whether it was my parents, my spouse, my friends or my children, I was almost consistently unhappy. The things they wanted for me were not the things I wanted for myself. But I was enculturated to believe that if I made others happy, I would be happy. At times I thought simply running away would make me happy—all those demands to be happy for someone else were exhausting. As it turned out, my journey consisted of learning to take charge of my own happiness. But the call never includes the outcome. It never does. The call just says to us, “Something needs doing here. Something needs exploring.” You step out of the habitual, the comfortable or the ordinary, and the journey begins, into the darkness of unknowing.

Most heroic journeys, mythic and real, begin out of sorrow or emptiness, out of fear or loathing, out of loss or alienation, out of need or desperation. They begin on a path of unknowingness that seems to lead only into darkness. No wonder you might question your going. Recently, and I’m not making this up, I heard a radio announcer make an allusion to his own mythic journey by suggesting that he was “on a search for the holy braille.” I laughed. My first reaction was a sense of my own intellectual superiority. “It’s holy grail, you idiot,” I shouted to the radio. But I reconsidered. Perhaps he was being profound, intentionally or not. The journey begins in darkness and unknowing, and you have to feel your way into it blindly, as if reading your story in braille.

Let’s explore the mythic journey of Jonah and the big fish. It isn’t a story about large sea creatures. It’s a story about the darkness required for the journey. Jonah was consumed by fear when he first received a literal call from his god. This part of the story is often forgotten in our haste to get to the belly of the fish. Yahweh called on Jonah, saying, “Up! Get thee to Nineveh, the great city, and inform them that their wickedness has become known to me.”  Jonah knew what people did to prophets who named the peoples’ sins. He decided instead to run away from his god and go to a town where other, less demanding gods, were worshiped.

Jonah gets on a boat, but no sooner are they set sail, but there is a great storm. Each sailor begins to pray to his own god to save them all. Someone finds Jonah asleep in his bund and asks, “Why aren’t you praying. We need all the help we can get. It might be that your god is creating the storm, or that he has the power to stop it. Apparently this was not an ordinary storm. It could only have been sent by an angry god. The praying doesn’t help. The next step is one of divination, to cast lots to see which of the sailors has angered his particular deity. The lot falls to Jonah. He know it is Yahweh. His fear is overcome by guilt. He is about to get a whole boatload of guys killed on his account. But he still doesn’t want to go. He invites the sailors to throw him into the sea. Just get him off the boat. But they are not inhumane. They try rowing hard. The storm gets worse. The sailors are so impressed with Yahweh’s strength, that many of them convert on the spot and they do, in the end, offer Jonah as a sacrifice to his god. Into the sea he goes.

Now many people assume that Yahweh arranged for the great fish to swallow Jonah as a punishment. That isn’t the three days and three nights he spent in the belly were for, and Jonah knew this better than anybody. “Out of my distress I red to Yahweh,” he prays, “and he answered me.” The distress of which he speaks was his own earlier fear, not the distress of being in a fish’s stomach. His god had sent him into an even darker place than his fear, to give him an opportunity to come to himself and to see how paltry his earlier fears really were. He was given the gift of separation, which is the first, and possibly the most part of the journey. Jonah got separation from land, and from light, so that he could stop and think clearly about the call, and about the journey. At the end of the third night he says, “With a song of praise I will go.” And Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah on to the shore. Back on land; back into the light. Why a song of praise? Because he realized his god was right. His call was right. Someone had to do something about the human rights violations happening in Ninevah, to put it into more recent terminology.

Jonah is successful as a prophet. He has other adventures in this story that few of us remember. He comes through it well and has something to offer to others, but those are stories for another day. The point is that a new journey, in stories as in life, is often fearful. It begins before we know what will happen next—if I go to college to get a degree will I really get a job? If I marry this man, will I be happy in my life? If I have a baby, if I move to a new location, if, if, if, and we don’t know. But we go forward because it’s the only way.

As a child I always thought of myself as a writer. It turned out that all my vocations used my love of language in some way or another, but when I began to prepare for that part of my life’s journey I decided to become a math teacher. I would have been a good math teacher , I think, but it wasn’t my bliss. Why did I not study to become a writer? Because I was afraid. But eventually I came to a crossroads on my journey to becoming an adult that made me choose—math or language—and in the great fear that I would never be good enough, I wisely chose words. With a song of praise, I chose words. That was one of my heroic journeys.

There is another problem with beginning the hero’s journey. What if you don’t recognize the call? What if you don’t hear the ‘voice still and small’?  You may know the story of the devout man who was caught in a sudden flood. His family had all left when the flood warning was sounded. But he said, “I’m a praying man; God will save me.” When the water filled his first floor, he moved to the second. He heard a policeman outside calling, “I’ve got a row boat. I can get you out.” Be he looked out the window and yelled, “I’m a praying man; God will save me.” When the water filled his second floor, he climbed out onto the roof. There he saw a helicopter with a ladder lowered on which he could climb to safety. He waved the helicopter away and folded his hands to pray. Just then a wave, knocked him off the roof and he drowned. When he got to heaven, he saw god and he was furious. “Why didn’t you save me?” he cried. And god answered, “When you wouldn’t listen to your family, I sent you a policeman in a boat and pilot in a helicopter. Why didn’t you quit praying for a while and save yourself?”

Sometimes the call is almost too obvious, quite rude, in fact. You lose your job. You lose a loved one. You fail at something. You don’t achieve your goal. These, too, are calls to another journey. But sometimes the call seems so ordinary it couldn’t really be a call, could it? You wake up one morning to discover that you are no long young. Coming into adulthood was such an exciting journey, but is that all there is? Unless you answer the call, you can’t ever know how exciting the journeys to middle age or wisdom age might actually be. And, of course, there are journeys you can never refuse. We will all die; we all take the ultimate journey of life. Some will do it as they lived, as heroes, and some will leave never learning life’s precious lessons.

What happens to the people who successfully refuse their calls? According to myth, their lives are dull or they live in a prison of their own refusal. Sleeping Beauty, I think, could have thwarted her curse if she’d gone on her own heroic journey. Instead she was forced to sleep for a hundred years before someone else came along to rescue her and we have to ask if she was ever her own person after that. When Apollo pursed Daphne, the beautiful daughter of the river, she begged her father to destroy her beauty and he changed her into a laurel tree. Safety and security were hers, forever, but not freedom, because she feared the journey into womanhood.

Campbell wrote, If you refuse to go, then your life is not your own and you are someone else’s servant. There is a kind of drying up, a sense of life lost. Everything in you knows that a required adventure has been refused. Anxieties build. What you have refused to experience in a positive way, you will experience in a negative way. . . . If you are ready, doors will open where there were no doors before. You must have courage. I is the call to adventure which means there is no security and no rules.

Campbell called the journey ‘following your bliss.’ He did not mean doing whatever you please for pleasure’s sake. He meant answering the call to adventure; the call that is just for you, whether it is about love or work or spirit or mystery.

The hero’s journey awaits us all. It always awaits, whatever your age, whatever your circumstances. I cannot tell you what it looks like, for yours is quite different from mine. But I can tell you my stories and you can tell me yours. Our paths cross and run parallel for a while, and this is the way we learn the outcome of refusal and the ultimate measures of heroic lives. We can discover from one another’s stories that life is both about relationship to what is outside ourself and relationship to what is within.

I cannot tell you to be unafraid. The darkness is real; and you will encounter it. Fear is a traveling companion we cannot outrun. But it can harm us only if we reject it. Not go? I have warned you of the outcome, but the choice is yours. Where will you get the courage to face your feasr? By ceasing to look for heroes out there and facing the trembling of your own heroic heart. What is the proper response to a call? Laughter. Gratitude. Jubilation and thanksgiving for the adventure that awaits.

First Jefferson Church