Here’s this morning’s sermon, as written. Any speech or sermon loses a bit from the spoken word to the written – I think this one loses more than most. Still, I think the plain meaning of the words is pretty clear.
After church, someone asked me if this was planned for this time, when the nominating committee is (as always) struggling to fill next year’s Board of Trustees. My answer was (and is) that the timing is coincidental, but the content is not.
Thanks to everyone who had such nice things to say after the service, and to the Fellowship at large for giving me the forum in which to speak.
The Hero’s Journey, Part II
Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
April 19, 2009
Introduction – An Incomplete Myth
The monster has been slain, the ring has been destroyed, and the hordes have been repelled. The princess has been rescued – or the prince, depending on how you like to tell the story – and the evil empire has been defeated. Now what?
In his classic treatise on mythology The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s call, his trials, his helpers, his victories, and his return with the great boon that gives his people what they need. But even the great mythmaster failed to answer the question “what comes next?” Campbell simply says “the last act in the biography of the hero is that of … death.” Obviously, the myth makers skipped over a lot of living.
For the storyteller, “and they lived happily ever after” is a perfectly legitimate ending. Sooner or later the story has to end so the kids can go to bed – and the storyteller too. When Arthur returns to Avalon to sleep until he is needed or when Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name rides off into the sunset, it’s telling us that the magical story time has ended and it’s time for us to return to the ordinary world.
But what happens when we’re the heroes? What happens when our term as a volunteer is up? What happens when the marathon we spent a year training for is finished? What happens when the high-risk student we mentored graduates? What happens when our candidate is elected or the law we advocated is passed? What happens when the soldiers come home from war?
We know that “happily ever after” doesn’t last very long, and when we ride off into the sunset, it isn’t long before it gets dark.
So this morning, I want to look at Part Two of the hero’s journey – how did we get to where we are, and what do we do now that we’re here?
The Hero’s Journey – Repeat and Retire
We’re all familiar with the hero’s journey. It begins with a magical birth – I mean, how could Jesus have been presented to the Greco-Roman world as a god if he had an ordinary birth like any other person? Our legends are full of virgin births, mysterious conceptions, and signs announcing the entry into the world of someone who will do Great Things.
Many times the hero’s identity must be disguised during his infancy, which may include fostering with a relative or mentor. But sometime around puberty, his true identity is revealed: Arthur pulls the sword from the stone or Harry Potter receives his letter from Hogwarts. Then his job becomes to develop his powers and become the prophet, king, or wizard he’s destined to be. Sometime around adulthood, he goes out into the world to conquer evil, bring back treasure for his people, or do other great works and mighty deeds.
We see this same pattern in our own heroes – athletes, entertainers, political leaders, and such. They discover their special talents at an early age, spend their childhood and adolescence honing their skills, then go off to make hit records, score touchdowns, or win gold medals. The program is somewhat longer for those who want to be political heroes – there are constitutional age requirements to hold elected most offices – but the pattern is still the same.
The myth of the Hero’s Journey is so strong that even those of us who don’t normally think of ourselves as heroes follow the same formula: figure what you’re good at at an early age, pick a concentration in high school and a major in college, then go off to conquer the business world, make great scientific discoveries, or create inspiring works of art and literature. Think back – you’ve had invitations to do great things or participate in great quests. You may have never answered the call, or you may have taken off in pursuit of something you later realized wasn’t heroic after all. But almost all of us have been heroes at one time or another. I think we’re hard wired for the quest, or at least naturally selected for it. And we love the rewards it brings – the sense of accomplishment, the pride in a job well done, the acclaim that comes from without and from within when we stand up and stand out.
And so we end one journey and we start another. Another season, another campaign, another marathon, another something.
But no matter how great the rewards, eventually reality intrudes. The soldier who dreamed of defending his country finds that the other guys are shooting back. The years progress and the athlete who was always bigger, faster, and stronger than every one else finds the competition starting to catch up. Injuries, illnesses, and unexpected calamities intrude and the things that were so easy become more and more difficult. The sacrifices of the single-minded devotion of the hero grow larger and larger, and we question whether doing “whatever it takes” to win the games of the corporate or academic world is worth the costs to our families, and to our souls.
So eventually, whether we win the gold medal or reach the corner office, or if our accomplishments are more modest, we leave the quest. We hang up our cleats, turn in our BlackBerry, and put away our light saber. And there’s nothing wrong with that – heroes have short shelf lives and no one can stay on the quest forever. But then comes the challenge of trying to live happily ever after.
When I was a young adult, my greatest goal was to “get set.” I knew that if I could only find a better job, make a little more money, and get in better physical shape, I’d be set for life, and everything would be fine and easy after that – I’d live happily ever after. It was many years later I learned that Set is the Egyptian god of chaos and destruction, and most likely was a prototype for the Satan of the Abrahamic religions. I don’t think I want to be “set.” Fortunately, by then I had a little more life experience and I had learned that there is no “set.” Life isn’t lived linearly from one neat little stage to the next. In the words of John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Hanging On, Transcendence, and Avoidance
Some people are so addicted to heroic highs that they can’t leave the quest, and they’ll do anything they can to stay in the game. Some turn to coaching, but coaching and teaching is a quest of its own, and few truly great athletes make good coaches. How many great research professors are also great in a freshman lecture hall?
Some stop trying to change the world and instead try to transcend the world. Through contemplative practices we can turn our focus from the outer world to the inner world. There are many benefits to this practice and I highly recommend it, but unless we’re disciplined and focused, our attempts at transcendence can turn into avoidance.
All religions acknowledge that suffering is universal, although they differ greatly in their assessment of the cause and the remedy. I believe that, among other things, suffering is a powerful motivator to learn and to change and to grow. Sometimes, though, we don’t succeed in transcending our suffering; we don’t change the world and we don’t change ourselves. Sometimes all we do is to simply avoid situations that hurt us. And if we’re strong enough, rich enough, and sure enough, we move into a gated community – we build walls and put up fences and we keep out the people who hurt us.
We were hurt in love, so we vow never to fall in love again, and we close ourselves off. We gave our all to an organization and all we got was criticism, so we turn down requests to take on leadership roles. We were harmed by toxic religion, so we avoid religious language and forms.
Now, our clichés tell us that discretion is the better part of valor and a battle avoided is a battle won, but we also know that sometimes, avoiding a battle takes a little piece of your soul. And so we sit inside our houses, inside our gated communities, and we tell ourselves how great we were, how much we gave, how much we suffered, and how much we deserve our peace and comfort.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote of a prince who withdrew behind his castle walls to avoid a plague that was ravaging the countryside. While the common people suffered and died, the prince and his friends reveled in the luxury and security of the castle. But during a masquerade ball intended to distract them even further from the harsh realities outside, a mysterious figure in red appeared in their midst. The stone walls could not save them, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
We justice-minded UUs don’t like gated communities because of what they say and do to the people on the outside. But what do gated communities do to the people on the inside? How easily security walls become prison walls, isolating us from those who would bring some new challenge into our lives.
Real estate agents talk about “security” and “peace of mind,” but we all know gated communities are meant to keep out “them.” Likewise, the gated communities of our lives are designed to keep out the “them” who make us uncomfortable – people who might take their religion a little too seriously, people who might ask us to step out of our comfort zones, to do something in a different way… people who might remind us we used to be heroes.
The Limitations of Myths
Myths are essential for discovering and making meaning. They tell us who we are, whose we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and how to live a good life. And they do this by speaking to our spirits instead of our intellects; to our hearts instead of our heads.
But no myth or cycle of myths is complete – no one story can tell us everything we need to know about living our lives. The myths tell of the hero’s great deeds and sing of his mighty accomplishments. When they say “and they lived happily ever after” they ignore the fact that the hero may be injured and needs medical treatment. She may be so tired she needs to rest. He may be so burned out he wants nothing more than to sleep in Avalon for a few centuries.
Our myths don’t tell us when we need to stop, when we need to rest. But they also don’t tell us when to wake up, and when it’s time to listen for that special voice that calls to us, telling us it’s time to pick up the quest, to be a hero once again.
So the question for many of us is: have we been resting too long? Have we forgotten what it’s like to be a hero? Has our quest for transcendence turned into a quest for avoidance? Have be built walls around our lives and even around our church, to keep away anyone who might make us uncomfortable, might ask us to change, or might challenge us to be heroes once again?
The Book of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, who God called to leave his home in Mesopotamia for the land of Canaan. God promised him he would become the father of a great nation, even though he had no sons. Abraham journeyed into Egypt, back to Canaan, had that nasty incident at Sodom and Gomorrah that we’re still arguing about, but when God told him he was finally going to have a son, Genesis says “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said … ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’”
Now, with what we’re seeing from reproductive medicine, that story is looking less and less miraculous all the time! But Abraham and Sarah had a son and named him Isaac, which means “he laughs.” Their descendants became the Hebrews and later the Jews.
One of Abraham’s spiritual descendants was the prophet Muhammed, who was born into one of the prominent families of Mecca. But his father died before he was born, his mother died when he was six, and he was mostly raised by an uncle who was a successful merchant. As was the custom at the time, Muhammed followed his uncle into the family business and became a trader known from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranian Sea. I’m sure he felt like he had his hands full taking care of his business and his family, but at the age of 40, Muhammed experienced a call – an angel sent from God.
Muslim traditions differ on Muhammed’s initial response. One tradition says that he had been praying and meditating and so he expected the angel and welcomed him. But the more commonly held tradition says he was so frightened by the revelation he considered jumping off a mountain. It was only after his wife and her Christian cousin reassured him that Muhammed began preparing to go out into the world and preach Islam, submission to God. In overcoming his fears and hesitancy, Muhammed founded one of the great religions of the world.
Perhaps you’re thinking: “those stories are more legend than fact” or “that was a different time and a different world.” Then I’d like to remind you of someone from our world. Someone who was born into wealth and power, who wanted to lead. He graduated from Harvard, enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam, went to law school, became a Congressman, a Senator, Vice President, and were it not for an undemocratic quirk in our Constitution, he would have been President. Instead, Al Gore became the greatest environmental prophet of our time. Like so many of the prophets of old, his inconvenient message hasn’t been heeded by those in power, but an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize say that some people are listening.
My point isn’t that history will place Al Gore in the company of Abraham and Muhammed. My point is that here’s a person whose whole life was planned toward being President. He did some good things along the way, but was kept from reaching his goal by a combination of the Electoral College and some gross bureaucratic incompetence in Florida. If anybody had a right to say “I’m done with this questing thing” it was Al Gore. But he heard a call, and he said “yes.”
We can’t be heroes all our lives – the quest is too intense and we’ll burn ourselves out or burn ourselves up if we try. But if you’ve been out of the game for a while, how’s the view from the sidelines? Are you getting the itch to play again?
Magical births are a mythological device, not a job requirement. Real heroes aren’t born and they aren’t made; it’s not a question of having the right nature or the proper nurture. Heroes are called – called by God, the Goddess, Fate, our own better selves. A call doesn’t require special skills or training, doesn’t require a degree or a position – it just requires a response. You can say no. You can point to your trophies and your scars and say “I’ve done my share – somebody else can handle this one.”
But is that what you really want to do?
To quote Joseph Campbell: “the … hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo … the keeper of the past.”
What dragon do you need to slay? What quest calls to you, not in the distant past or the far away future, but right here right now? What quest calls to us as a fellowship, and as a church? What heroic things do we need to do and be to make our lofty ideals more of a reality?
We don’t have to wait for a burning bush or a flash of light on the road to Damascus… or the road to Decatur. We don’t have to wait for a droid to deliver a holographic message saying “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.” We only have to wait for the news to bring us a message of the world’s great needs. We only have to wait for a call from a friend – or from a stranger – who needs a hand. We only have to wait – and listen – for that still small voice that whispers “we need a hero. We need you.”
The call has been made and the journey awaits. How will you respond?
And now we leave this sanctuary, this place of refuge and rest, and return to the ordinary world, a place of trials and tribulations – but also, a place of quests and journeys and heroes. When Life calls, may we always say yes! yes! yes!