By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 20, 2012
We’ve talked over the past weeks about the hero’s journey as myth, as movie or literature, as a blueprint in our psyches. But what is it in real life? What is the spontaneous hero’s journey?
One of our readers (and my friend) is a journalist named Andy Lubin. Andy has written in to our Comments section taking issue with the term “hero.” He feels such an exalted term should apply only to soldiers or Marines who save their comrades’ lives in combat, or firemen who run into burning buildings. The truth is, Andy himself is a hero in the sense that Joseph Campbell meant when he wrote about the “journey.”
Andy, when I met him a few years ago, was a struggling writer with a son in the Marine Corps. For fun and experience, and in solidarity with Phil, Andy unofficially embedded himself with several Marine units in Afghanistan and wrote short pieces about the experience. Today, only a few years later, Andy has literally dozens of embedded deployments behind him; along with Michael Yon and Bing West he has seen parts of Afghanistan that the generals in the Pentagon have never even heard of. He writes for Leatherneck magazine and the Huffington Post and numerous other print and electronic media.
But it isn’t the bullets he has faced that make Andy a hero by Joseph Campbell’s definition. It’s the fact that he has actualized his vision. He has gone from aspiring journalist to real journalist. From amateur to pro.
Andy may not admit it, but he has “heard the call” (and tried to avoid it); he has launched himself with trembling tread into the unknown; he has dueled monsters, received aid from unexpected sources, experienced All Is Lost moments, and at length returned home, bearing a gift for the people.
The gift Andy brings is his writing. His gift is an album of life as it is lived in Konar and Paktia, under the helmets of Marines in the field and in the shit.
The hero’s journey in real life begins in darkness. A seed burgeons, way below consciousness. This seed is the germ and kernel of ourselves-in-becoming. It is not us-as-we-are. It is who we will be.
We are pregnant with ourselves, as Andy was, and we feel it. We experience it as restlessness, dissatisfaction, anger, shame, irritability with ourselves and with others. We experience it as Resistance.
The hero’s journey in real life is personal. It is about us and us alone. Our gift—which is unique to you and me and which no one else on the planet possesses—breaks through the soil like a fiddleheaded sprout, which is ourselves-in-becoming. No wonder our knees knock as we launch on the journey. No wonder we feel fear and pain. No wonder the stakes seem like life and death. They are.
The hero’s journey can take place on a battlefield or in a cubicle. We can live it out amid public clamor or in the soundless vault between our ears. The demons we are dueling are always the same. They are our own fears of becoming who we are. No one who has ever lived—or ever will—has a journey like ours. And yet our journey is universal. It is every woman’s and every man’s.
Nor can we fail on our journey, because failure is part of the tale itself. It may indeed be the point of the tale.
It gets kinda mystical, talking about this stuff. But what could be more mystical than birth or rebirth? What could be more miraculous?
What do we achieve when we undergo a hero’s journey? When we “return home,” what have we got?
First, we have acquired a history. A personal history that is now tattooed on our innermost, secret souls. This narrative is ours alone. No one can take it away from us. This history differentiates us from others. It starts us on the path to becoming who we are. (If we undergo this passage as part of a group or platoon or gang, we acquire brothers and sisters who share our secret and will be bound to us for life, as we are to them.)
Second, we have changed. The definition of death is statis; the definition of life is growth. To change—and to know that we have changed—gives us the only power that means anything. We might not have money, we might not have found love, but our toes have touched the seafloor and we know we have not gone under. If we can do it once, we can do it again.
Third, we have done what we were meant to do. We have not shrunk or held back. We have answered the bell. We may be only an acorn (for now), but we have turned our face to the sun and started on the path to becoming an oak.
I believe in hero’s journeys. I believe we undergo them, one after another, throughout our lives. The human being was made for this. It’s in our DNA. The life of comfort and ease is not what we were designed for.
Andy, you have proved it by your journey—and I don’t mean the outer one. You have dueled inner dragons, and you’re still dueling them. That’s a hero in Joseph Campbell’s book and it’s a hero in mine.
Where the hero’s journey ends, the artist’s journey begins. We have returned, like Odysseus, to Ithaca—you and me and Andrew Lubin. We bring a gift, which is unique to us and is the product of all we have undergone and witnessed and assimilated.
Ah, but what is that gift?
We will spend the rest of our lives answering that question, as artists and entrepreneurs. And we will discover the answer one work at a time as the Muse precedes us and, following her, we bring those works into material being.