Why don’t we live out our own hero’s journey? Why is the unknown looked upon as a place of defeat and something to be avoided? […] We live in a culture that has tried to clinicalize, euthanize and sterilize the innate rawness out of life. Ironically, shadow is an essential element that inspires human connection…
If I had fully entertained the thoroughness of the unknown, I never would have boarded that first plane to India. On the other hand, I couldn’t stay home and leave the world up to my imagination. I was encouraged to ponder the dangers, all the reasons why a 21-year-old female should not embark on such a foolish journey. I was cautioned, “It is not safe.” And then warned, “There is so much that can happen out there that is beyond your control! The rawness of it all will kill you.” And yet, I had to get on that plane. When I looked in the mirror to question whether there was an inkling of insanity informing my decision to leave, I knew there was no going back. There was a look in my eyes that told me I had made some sort of bargain with myself and was taking a blind leap into my own shadow territory.
Webster’s defines shadow as “a dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and surface.” Culturally, we are taught that light is good. It is our friend. It is predictable. In light-filled spaces we can see clearly. We know where we stand and whom we are standing next to. We are confident in saying, “I know.” But in shadow territories our “I know” quickly morphs into an “I don’t know,” or an “I can’t see, I don’t understand.” This inability to see, to place, to cognitively compartmentalize makes us frustrated and apprehensive. We are less capable of making immediate assumptions. We become vulnerable and exposed to discomfort. We are made to think that this is bad.
The point of this embarkation is to become disoriented, to make a descent into the dark underworld, to grow uncomfortable and humbled, and to then formulate a personal understanding of one’s own resiliency.
With a little bit of probing, we find examples the world over of the hero’s journey. In this voyage, whether it be explored through myth, art, storytelling, or performed ritual, the hero is encouraged, forced or willingly embarks on a crossing into an unknown landscape. The point of this embarkation is to become disoriented, to make a descent into the dark underworld, to grow uncomfortable and humbled, and to then formulate a personal understanding of one’s own resiliency.
So why do the majority of the people we know feel exempt from this process? Why does it feel unattainable? Why don’t we live out our own hero’s journey? Why is the unknown looked upon as a place of defeat and something to be avoided? Unfortunately for us, we live in a culture that has tried to clinicalize, euthanize and sterilize the innate rawness out of life. We have bought into the argument that things are supposed to feel good, not scary. Life ought to feel controlled, predictable and agreeable. We have perpetuated this assumption to the point where living things are not even supposed to die. Instead of honest exchanges that reveal the complexity of our humanness and give voice to the internal impulses that beg for a proper descent, we are reminded to stay safe, to only seek, or dig, or journey so far.
Ironically, shadow is an essential element that inspires human connection. It is the reason we can walk into a rural fishing village in Indonesia or Senegal and look strangers in the eye and feel a sense of compassion. “I too am searching,” we say. “I too have suffered and asked big questions and sometimes come up short.” Through a willingness to sit in the unknown, in the dark, we demonstrate a level of both vulnerability and courage that promotes compassion and acceptance for those around us.
Daniel Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist from UCLA, uses nature as a way to teach us about our own personal resiliency. He argues that organisms that are skilled at integrating a complexity of experiences and outside influences into their core function have the most robust and vital systems. Through exposure to a combination of both challenging and supportive stimulants and experiences, one sees an advancement of flexibility, adaptability, coherence, energy and stability in an organism. It’s interesting to apply this to the hero’s journey. For one could contend that personal vitality and resiliency are actually dependent upon and fed off of a conversation with the “shadow.” A turning towards indigestible or uncomfortable encounters might actually make each of us more of a hero, both physiologically and emotionally.
Travel is not the only way to take this journey, but it is, inarguably, a potent path.
Travel is not the only way to take this journey, but it is, inarguably, a potent path. In getting on that plane to India in my 21st year, I had to agree to sit in a place of foreignness and lose all of my internal points of reference. By eating unidentifiable food, working in the midst of stomach-churning and heartrending poverty, traveling on long 72-hour train rides, I slowly began peeling back the layers of what I knew to be “me” and losing myself to a new and eventually more fortified identity of “I.”
I felt small and out of control and rocked by answerless questions, and I realized that I needed to become a new incarnation in order to understand myself and life and integrate many irreconcilable moments into the core and unfolding story before me.
The hero’s challenge is to be humbled and disassembled and bewildered enough that we can relinquish the attachments or self-imposed limitations that hold us back from our evolved and resilient selves. Through the journey, the hero learns to find trust in, and the necessity of, conversation with the shadow sides of life. The hero knows that fear and discomfort are part of the digging, of the seeking and our eventual materialization into a more balanced and world-wise version of self. Our own resiliency and the integrity of our current culture depend upon people saying yes to this journey. Without it, in the end, we remain only euthanized versions of our most compelling selves.
ELIZABETH JOHNSON is a longtime Dragons instructor (Andes & Amazon` ‘07, Visions of India ‘12 & ’13). She is currently based in Bend, OR, where she coordinates Dragons Princeton Bridge Year partnership programs.
This article was featured in the Spring 2015 edition of Dragons bi-annual Newsletter, The Map’s Edge. Each newsletter explores a subject of interest to the Dragons community through the voices of our Alumni, Instructors, Partners, Parents and our International Staff and contacts. Feel free to view our archive of editions of The Map’s Edge or even submit a piece to be featured in our next issue by sending an email to [email protected].