The hero’s journey

22nd May 2017

The hero’s journey is the bread and butter of storytelling. It’s a formula that applies to pretty much any well constructed story and the foundation of the archetypal narrative. In this post, I’ll be exploring how we can see ourselves as the hero in our own story. As a result, we can start to take greater control of our own destiny.

In previous Story Lines posts, I explored how we can look back over events with hindsight and make sense of the things that have happened to us, and how we’ve changed. But there’s another way that applying the story arc to our own lives can help us. We don’t need to wait for experiences to be over before retelling them. In fact, by recognising the narratives we’re engaged in right now, we can start to influence the ending of our various stories while they’re happening.

It’s your life

Engaging in the story arc as it happens does allow you to control your response to events

Engaging with the hero’s journey of your own life doesn’t give you the omniscient powers of an author – or mean you can predict what will happen. As Samuel Johnson observed, “He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts.” Attempting to plot the course of our lives in the way we want them to play out isn’t about controlling others, or the wider context of the world we live in. We can’t. But engaging in that story arc as it happens does allow you to control your response to events.

Here are two examples of life stories that demonstrate this principle in action. The first is of ancient stock, while the second comes from more recent, terrible history. But both share the same approach to rewriting their life stories.

Epictetus – the acquisition of freedom

We are affected not by events, but by the view we take of them

A name can be revealing. For Epictetus, it certainly was. His meant ‘acquired’. Born into slavery in the first century AD, he wasn’t looking forward to a particular rosy future. And yet, his name echoes through the centuries as a great philosopher. How did he achieve this? Well, luck played its part. His master, Epaphroditus, was himself a former slave granted his freedom by Emperor Nero. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the curious boy, or knew how it felt to be indentured to another. The reason is lost in the mists of time, but we do know that he allowed the young Epicthetus to be tutored by a great philosopher. The young slave impressed his master so much that he was granted his freedom upon adulthood and went on to found his own school.

What was so influential about his teachings? One anecdote that survives from his youth is telling. Epaphroditus, a fickle master, was one day torturing Epicthetus by twisting his leg. In this situation, most of us would cower, and beg for mercy. But Epithetus believed that our greatest power was the ability to control our response to events. As such, he did not succumb to fear or pain, only telling his master that his leg would break if he continued. When it did, he calmly said, ‘There, didn’t I tell you that it would break?” Although injured, his unwavering refusal to be affected by what was happening, made him the master of his situation.

hero's journey

Victor Frankl – the space to choose

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist. As a young man, he was already writing to Freud. The workings of the mind fascinated him. But it was during the Holocaust, that black mark on humanity of the 20th Century, that he truly developed his theory on life and our purpose here. During his time in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he observed that those who were able to keep a sense of meaning in their lives fared better. That wasn’t to say they were able to escape their fate, but that their state of mind granted them happiness, even in that darkest of places. When we take full responsibility for our response to events, rather than focusing on the events themselves, we become truly free.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

The story starts within

There’s no coincidence that both of these individuals found the inner strength to rewrite their stories while subjected to complete loss of liberty. Their physical lives were bound on all sides. It’s not rare in such a situation that the power of the mind comes to the fore. It was really all they had.

Storytelling was crucial in their ability to reshape their responses. The story we tell ourselves about who we are determines our response to events. Epicthetus was told he was subjugated to the will of others. He told himself he exercised his own will. Frankl was told that his life was worthless. He told himself that it had integral meaning which no one could take away. From these powerful, inner stories, came actions of strength and grace.

Rewriting it your way

Few of us, thankfully, will have to endure such extreme circumstances. But it doesn’t stop us feeling trapped, or under the control of individuals or events. Rewriting our hero’s journey scripts as they happen can change that.

Consider a few of the different areas of your life. One might be your romantic attachments, another your professional life, and another your family or friendships. Within those, you could start to consider the stories you’re engaged in right now. To do this, first try to identify the starting points of a relationship or the beginning of a new situation.

For example, one of my story arcs is the trip I’m on right now with Anton. Another, is a new phase of my professional life which, ironically, started with me leaving my job. Both of those phases run parallel. Another story I might consider over a longer period of time are my relationships with friends or family, and how they’ve changed in different phases of my life.

In identifying a starting point, I can start to think about how I’ve arrived at my present destination. What are the events that have already shaped the narrative? Let’s look at an example from my professional life.

hero's journey

Writing the hero’s journey so far

First, by establishing the ‘home’ situation, it’s easy to see how I was able to ‘leave’. But a new situation always brings challenges. Journeys are characterised by this, and by the development that follows. We have to change, and adapt. In my case, I faced obstacles and developed by responding to them. It’s a path that led me to my treasure – a change of focus for our blog and a decision to pursue this. But, clearly, that’s not the end of this particular tale.

So let’s say I’ve decided this is where I am in my story: half way. I’ve figured out something important about what I want to do. But there are still so many unanswered questions. I don’t know where this is going to take me. I still don’t know exactly where it’s going to lead. How does conceiving of things as a narrative help me to move forward?

The power of the pen

We are the writers and editors of our own stories

Just like a reader turning the pages, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Still, it doesn’t stop me guessing, predicting or wishing. But here’s the great thing. We are the writers and editors of our own stories. True, I don’t know what will happen with the words I put out into the world, or how the blog will be received. But I can already start to plan my response to different scenarios, and start building the blocks that will lead to the success I see.

Just as Epicthetus ceased to be a slave by refusing to react like one, and Frankl found life and purpose in a place of senselessness and death, we too can shift the course of our responses. We can’t control the turn of events that be around the corner, but we can decide how we might react to their affronts.

Become the hero

Start taking the steps that will bring you closer to the ending you know you want

So try it: pick one of your own stories. Sketch it out, objectively. What have been the major incidents so far? How did your responses to them shape the course you took? If you’re just beginning on a certain path, what are the obstacles you might have to overcome in the first part of the journey before you can find your treasure? If you’re much closer to the end, what do you need to do to get yourself back “home” and close the narrative loop?

Then, think about the ending. Envision multiple endings. In your mind, write the happy one. Write the tragic one too. Write the funny one. The ridiculous one. The unexpected. And then, choose. Start taking the steps that will bring you closer to the ending you know you want.

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