During my first semester of college, I had a wonderful English professor who introduced me to some of my favorite thinkers and helped me change the way I see, analyze, and interpret the world around me. My final paper in that course was titled “Perception, Reality, and the True Source of the Shadows”, taking together Plato’s allegory of the cave, Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey, and Carl Jung’s relationship to his mentor, Sigmund Freud.
Twelve years later, I still think about that paper often. The idea of the hero’s journey has been a recurring theme in my life ever since.
When fear crops up, I have conditioned myself to turn around and identify the source of the shadows instead of cowering in their wake. I’ve slowly discovered that my imagined shackles are non-existent. I can simply walk away from whatever I may find unsettling. Any perceived cage encasing my world is a figment of my imagination.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ― Joseph Campbell
As Campbell so eloquently states, building up the courage to enter the dark recesses our metaphorical caves offers us the opportunity for the most valuable treasure of them all–self-awareness and personal growth. All of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations are separated from your current situation only by a shoddily-constructed, self-imposed obstacle course: a barrage of “I can’t” and “I’m not good enough.”
Similarly, everything you desire lies on the opposite side of failure. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” To attain any level of success, we must follow Edison’s lead and embrace our missteps as lessons learned. Whether tying out for a sports team, gunning for that promotion, or dating in search of your soulmate, interpret the inevitable rejections and criticisms as helpful feedback. Perhaps you need to boost your agility, work on your presentation skills, or refine what you’re looking for in a partner. Each of these bits of feedback is a tool to help you better yourself.
“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.” ― Joseph Campbell
In summer 2012, I attended World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon where hundreds of unconventional thinkers converged to find and share inspiration. Disenchanted by my career prospects one-year post-gradation, I attended a small breakout session with Sarah Kathleen Peck, where she discussed how we are all on our own hero’s journey. In essence, the journey entails abandoning comfortable circumstances in favor of adventure, facing and overcoming obstacles, making sacrifices and, finally, obtaining freedom.
That was the first time I realized that the hero’s journey is not limited to warriors, philosophers, and leaders. At 23 years old, I understood that I had just as much opportunity to set out on my own journey and bravely face any obstacles that stood in the way of my freedom; I knew then that I had the power to write and re-write my own story, and that I could always choose to be the hero.
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy. ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
Everyone has a story, and I’ve found that the best stories are littered with anecdotes about failure, adversity, and struggle. Everyone faces challenges that shape their lives, whether they live in the ghetto with their single mom or are being raised by a nanny while their wealthy parents traveled the globe. While some individuals may choose to view themselves and victims of a broken system, uncaring parents, or plain bad luck, others seek to overcome these obstacles.
Each of us, in one form or another, has experienced devastation. A medical student can’t pass his board exams, a teenager is sent to prison for selling drugs to support his family, a young couple loses their toddler to cancer, or a women experiences sexual harassment in the workplace. In all of these instances, pain and loss can become the catalyst for setting out on one’s own personal hero’s journey.
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Embarking on a hero’s journey requires bravery, but even fleeting moments of courage can be enough to build up the confidence and momentum necessary to keep going. Bravery requires showing up and speaking your mind; it’s having honest conversations with yourself and knowing how to say “no” to things that don’t feel right.
Setting out on a mission doesn’t require slaying dragons, but instead taking that scary leap or swimming upstream. The struggling student may quit school to develop a successful study tool for medical students; the drug dealer may change for the better and then return to his community to mentor youth; the young couple may start a nonprofit to support pediatric cancer; and the woman experiencing harassment may quit her toxic job.
Bravery is putting one foot in front of the other, slowly by surely making a change for the better and, oftentimes, helping others to do the same.
“Heroes are made by the path they choose, not the powers they are graced with.” ― Iron Man
Choosing the hero’s journey means continuing to press on when your stomach drops in fear and your hands shake in nerves. No one with born with special abilities that pre-qualify them to become a hero or make waves in the world. Rather, the bravest individuals feel a stirring in their soul–a voice that tells them, “I have to do this.”
Every day, we are gifted the opportunity to choose our path. We can retreat back to the familiar cave in which we can watch terrifying shadows dance across the walls, or we can venture out into the uncertainty of daylight and hope for the best. By making the intentional decision to face our fears–however small they may be–we are preparing ourselves for the day we will be called to embark on our next hero’s journey, if that day has not already arrived.
“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” ― Heraclitus
Several years ago, I ran a blog that amassed a healthy following and met a friend and mentor who repeatedly shared the above Heraclitus quote with me, encouraging me to embrace my personal journey. I have returned to this quote repeatedly over the last seven years. What does it mean to be a warrior? What does it mean to “bring the others back” and how can that be achieved in the modern paradigm?
It’s my understanding that the true warrior not only knows how to handle himself physically, but also understands the mental and moral aspects of the conflicts he finds himself in. He knows when to fight and when not too, and spends is time refining his skills and educating himself in new areas. The true warrior makes decisions based on strategy and tactic versus emotion. He does not take shortcuts of fall into complacency, but rather rise above his peers in an ongoing evolution.
“You don’t have to be what other people want you to be. You don’t have to be interesting or agreeable or entertaining. You don’t have to tone yourself down, quiet your voice, or hide your feelings. You don’t have to be outgoing or spontaneous or sociable. You don’t have to be thin or beautiful or anyone’s definition of attractive. You don’t have to be anyone other than who you authentically are, and you sure as hell don’t have to spend your time and energy trying to convince people that you’re worth keeping around. The right people are going to recognize your worth. They are going to respect you, appreciate you, and accept you, without forcing you to compromise who you are. Life is too short, and your happiness is far too important, to make room for anyone who treats you otherwise.” ― Danielle Koepke
To be human is to connect with one another, and one of the ways we do this is through storytelling. We are born storytellers and continually seek out ways to impress, empathize, and motivate those around us. In friendship, work, and romance, human beings long for a sense of acceptance and appreciation. We must realize that the right people will accept you just as you are, so never settle for less.
After building trust, the warrior can leverage her influence to “bring the others back.” She has the opportunity and the obligation to share what she has learned, in hopes of inspiring others to set out on their own personal journey towards wholeness and fulfillment. The beauty of the world wide web is that the warriors now have a platform on which to guide others to thrive and eventually lead others in the battle of life.
“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.” — Anais Nin
We must recognize that very few things happen all at once. In order to do something new, you often have to let go of something old and familiar. Humans are creatures of habit and starting something requires different behavior, yet we also originate from a linage that is the product of continuous change. Be kind to yourself in your quest for bravery.
Whether you choose to be the hero of your life, a warrior leading his troops into battle, or merely take that first small step out of the cave of ignorance, know that the world is anxiously waiting for you to evolve into the next version of yourself. You may not always feel brave, but action the truest measure of success.
“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” ― Joseph Campbell
As you creep closer to your dreams, fear may loom large like a raging dragon reminding you of all the ways you might fail. If you’ve ever waiting to go last in a room full of presentations, you know that the scariest part of doing anything is wallowing in thought instead of taking action.
The best way to accomplish anything is to simply do it. If you’re afraid of starting, break down your goal to make it smaller and simpler. Want to talk to your partner about something you’re frustrated about? Don’t gossip with your friends and let it fester. Simply say, “Hey, I have a few things I’d like to talk about,” and go from there. If you want to write a bestselling novel, start by writing two crappy pages and slowly build up from there.
We all have the power to be heroes and warriors, but we make the commitment to take action daily. Growth cannot take place without intentional and willful actions; we’ll rot in stagnation if we never choose to leave the cave of our ignorance and recognize the true nature of reality.
Always look for solutions. Always choose to be brave.