The Hero’s Journey seems to have totally taken over our culture, and it’s starting to drive me crazy.
It’s not a bad myth, as myths go, but I’m tired of seeing it applied to every single facet of human life, large and small. Even and especially in the world of personal growth – so much rhetoric about improving ourselves. One can continually improve until… what? Until one plateaus? Until one peaks and starts to deteriorate? What happens when “improving” stops? Is it allowed to ever stop?
The Hero’s Journey provides a convenient frame for a personal sense of things changing and getting better over the course of our lives. And we have, via this mythology, some sense of personal agency – we have choice, we have the ability to work to make things better. This is reinforced by the entire culture industry, which gives us tale after tale of redemption, of learning, of perseverance toward the goal of wisdom and fulfillment.
But there’s another dimension to the world we live in, which is, in a word, Death. The therapy version of the Hero’s Journey is (in my experience) thoroughly sanitized because, since it’s an inner journey, all of the death is of the symbolic sort. The Hero always survives.
In the movies, the fictional cultural landscape is similar – there may be plenty of death, but it always happens for a reason – someone was in the way of our Hero’s journey, either literally or symbolically. Enemies fall by the legion, and our heroes walk over their bodies without another glance, and when a friend or comrade dies, it always serves a purpose – the hero learns something, his resolve is strengthened, etc..
The fact that every single one of these dead enemies could have been on their own hero’s journey is… impossible. It doesn’t fit the framework that two heroes could even conceivably be in the same story, working at cross-purposes. In terms of a cultural mythology, they would collide and open up a rift in the space-time continuum, sucking all of the western world into a narrative black hole.
So, we learn the Hero’s Journey skill-set in therapy, this framework for looking at things, and it’s quite useful and valuable up to a point. It’s by nature an adolescent worldview – i.e., “Me and my journey are the center of the world, around which everything else is organized.” To try to take it beyond adolescence, however, causes a subtle but persistent cognitive dissonance that progressively becomes unbearable.
A world with many heroes, thousands or millions or billions of them, each acting out their own Hero’s Journey into adulthood WILL explode, or implode. And I think that’s a relatively simple way of describing where we are today, the sorry state of the environment, the economy, international relations, politics. Just too many damn heroes.
When people talk, on Facebook or in the news or wherever, about this global mess we’re in, lamenting the gridlock, the impossibility of progress in any direction, they make the elementary (and perhaps understandable) mistake of wishing for… a hero. Another one. No matter which side of any issue one is on – Progressives want a Human Rights Hero or a Sustainability Hero, Conservatives want a Fundamentalist Hero, everyone has their ideal hero in mind, who could show up and Fix This. And of course I think we all grow up with the question, “am I the hero that the world has been waiting for?”
When people talk about how cool the 60s were, I think maybe they were experiencing a world on the verge of Peak Hero Saturation – Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy for some, Castro, Lenin or Mao for others, the Beatles or Gandhi or Timothy Leary for still others.
Even though a number of those heroes were killed off, by whoever for whatever reason, it wasn’t enough to stem the burgeoning tide of everyday heroes, using new forms of media to share their messages with the people, save souls, offer a way toward Utopia.
Historically, before this era there have never been a lot of heroes, it seems – people may have had a few to choose from, in any given culture, to get excited about – real or imagined. Whether you’re into King Arthur, Winston Churchill, Napoleon – there was a short list of acceptable figures to get behind.
And, in the real world, some led their people to greatness, and some to disaster – but regardless of who you’re talking about, there was generally a lot of Death involved. A lot of non-heroes getting killed, and/or martyrs getting killed alongside the questing heroes, for the sake of the Journey.
Today, per our cultural mythology, everyone is on the Hero’s Journey – so we are all heroes. But without acknowledging death, killing, the underworld, we experience utter paralysis. Hero Collapse is upon us.
There can be no Hero without Death. The Hero kills, and eventually is killed. Death ends the hero’s story, necessarily, to make space for the next story. The death(s) can be tragic or profound or utterly meaningless – it doesn’t matter. They are an essential part of the human landscape.
Death is its own story. It’s not a lack of story. But it’s a profoundly different story, with different logic, than the Hero’s Journey. You can’t apply the Hero’s Journey formula to the Death story – it doesn’t work. They’re the opposite poles of a magnet, or oil and water, or matter and anti-matter.
These stories have to balance somehow or everything falls apart. And we’re culturally averse to the death stories, or at least we think we are – because we’re so invested in the Hero. We want the Hero to overcome Death – but he can’t. By definition.
I think this is absolutely why everything is about werewolves, vampires, outer space, superheroes, and other metaphors for immortality these days. It’s the last spasm of a culture that has to face Death, and is unwilling.
But Death is coming for us all. That may not be cheerful, but with the baby boomers retiring by the hundreds of thousands, you better believe, it’s right around the corner. And I don’t know exactly what form the Death Narrative will take, but I’m genuinely looking forward to the rise of the Journey to the Underworld, the Mythology of the Dead – because I’ve had it with the heroes.