We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell
I have been a “fan” of mythologist Joseph Campbell for a few years now. Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey,” which is the story not just of great mythical or legendary figures throughout time but is a metaphor for the journey that each of us is invited – by the universe, by God, by life – to take. If we are to experience life fully, and therefore if we are to be happy, we must accept the call and the adventure that proceeds from our acceptance.
Campbell, who taught at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, wrote numerous books and articles on world mythology, and participated in high-level academic conferences and gave lectures throughout the world during his career, only became known to the larger public in the last two years of his life through a series of interviews with journalist Bill Moyers broadcast on PBS as The Power of Myth. The interviews took place for the most part on the ranch of director George Lucas, whose Star Wars films, it turns out, were based on Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey.
Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, first published in 1949, was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, an enormously rich and difficult study of the hero’s journey in world mythology and in Jungian psychology. I have attempted to get through this work on a few occasions but have so far only made it about half way. Other Campbell books include A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, and the three-volume series The Masks of God.
Filmmaker Patrick Takaya Solomon has taken the messages to the world inherent in Joseph Campbell’s lifetime of work and presented them in a film that is both highly personal and wonderfully accessible to a general audience. Through a series of delightful but meaningful vignettes, as well movie clips and interviews with contemporary philosophers, writers, psychologists, sports figures – and Robert Walter, the funky and plain-spoken president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation – Solomon brings down to earth Campbell’s key concepts, which the Master often presented in complex mythological stories or in language difficult for the ordinary seeker of enlightenment to comprehend.
A charming feature of this film is the director’s employment of children (including his son as the main actor) to act out, usually in contemporary urban settings that we are all familiar with, scenes and mythological vignettes that illustrate aspects of the hero’s journey. In one such story, several children are dressed as sheep while one is dressed as a tiger cub. The tiger cub thinks he is also a sheep and acts accordingly until a real tiger comes along and asks him what on earth he thinks he is doing; the little tiger can only bleat in response. The big tiger grabs him and takes him to the water’s edge so that he might see that he is indeed not a sheep but a tiger, then forces him to eat a slab of raw lamb (which in the film is actually a page from a book called TRUTH). The young tiger manages to swallow the meat/truth, thereby gaining tiger-like energy. Soon he becomes the creature he was born to be.
Robert Walter: “I think the moral here is self-evident: if you’re a tiger and you’re living among sheep, you’re a pretty poor specimen of a tiger. And we are all tigers living among sheep. We are all individuals with a self that we don’t even begin to understand. And unfortunately – you can open the metaphor out – the food we get from the culture around us is maybe food for sheep; it’s not food for tigers.”
The film illustrates the point that most of us fail to recognize the call to embark on our journey because we have been immobilized or hypnotized or distracted by the “shoulds” and “should nots” imposed upon us by parents, teachers, the corporate world. We do not recognize the fact that these imperatives – to make money and to consume, to get good grades and achieve – are part of a grand illusion and not reality at all.
Robert Walter: “I tend to think that people wake up to the fact that they are the hero of their own life when they get tired of being the victim of their own life. At the point that you say, ‘Enough. I don’t want to listen to my parents any more, I’ve had it with my boss, I’m really having problems with the sermon I’m being taught, you can either surrender to victimhood – and a lot of people do – or you can surrender to a fundamentalism – you can basically give your responsibility to someone else and say, ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ – or you can say, ‘I have a choice here and I’m responsible’. Now what does it mean to be the hero of your own life? It means to be responsible for your own adventure.”
One of the key aspects of the hero’s journey, which the film clearly illustrates, is the hero’s willingness to die so that the new life can begin, to put aside the old in order to embrace the new – the metaphor, found in many myths, of death and resurrection. Tai Ji master Chungliang Al Huang: “If you want to have new birth, new revelation, new insight into life as you grow as a human being, you will learn to keep dying.”
Another important feature of the journey is the necessity of choosing a path that has not yet been trodden, to enter the forest at its darkest point, which is simply a metaphor for discovering who we really are. Philosopher Brian Johnson: “The hero’s journey for me is having the courage to look within yourself and say, ‘What am I here to do? What am I most passionate about in my life? What are my greatest gifts? How do I give them to the world?’ And Joseph Campbell captured it with the phrase ‘Follow your bliss.’” This is “the essence of the hero’s journey” and each of us is capable of letting go of preconceived notions and following our own bliss.
The points made in the film that resonated most with me were about fear and courage. Brian Johnson: “Why do most people not follow their bliss? One word: fear.” We fear the reactions of others when we decide to break out of the mould; we fear the danger involved in slaying the dragon of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” We need to summon the courage to confront these fears. The interviewees recommend that we develop our “courage muscles” by regularly doing the things that scare us.
Writer Allen Cohen: “There’s always a gift in battling demons and overcoming them because that’s what a soul’s journey is about; it’s about facing fear and growing beyond it. And as we overcome our fears we gain power.”
The final message of this profound film is that our journey is only complete when we return and share the story of that journey with the world. This sharing is the gift that Finding Joe offers us; it is a gift that can be appreciated and used for a lifetime.
“Joseph Campbell circa 1982” Wikipedia
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)