MythBlast | The Boon of a Well-Furnished Mythic Toolbox
This past week, from Sunday, July 23rd through Friday, July 28th, Joseph Campbell Foundation President Bob Walter led a workshop called, Your Hero’s Journey® Redux: A Mythological ToolBox® PlayShop. Bob is a theatrical playwright and director, an educator, a publisher, and he was Joseph Campbell’s friend and editor for a decade or more. Through a range of deceptively playful exercises, participants in the workshop remember and explore significant life events and by recognizing the tendency to mythologize aspects of their own lives, they gain a deeper understanding of the similar ways in which myth grows, evolves, and often coalesces into one singular narrative. Participating in this workshop, one sees that the way one became oneself—how one was shaped and the patterns one’s life formed—isn’t accidental or a kind of supernaturally assigned destiny. The “self” is formed by a narrative woven together from a unique constellation of biological manifestations and personalized perspectives.
Throughout the workshop the theme of questing, a crucial element of the hero’s journey, is ever-present, and at first the quest is merely a personal one—a quest to discover oneself, to attempt to understand why I am who I am, and transmute that understanding into greater self-mastery. But a larger realization grows that in order to be truly heroic, the discoveries one makes, the boons one receives on the journey, must be shared somehow with the larger community; the hero’s journey culminates not in personal gain, but in the melioration of an entire civitas. Research suggests that through service to others one finds a stronger realization of purpose, meaning, and significance in one’s own life.
In the universe of the Grail Legends it seems that everything and everyone is connected, and in Wolfram’s Parzival this is particularly so, and through recognizing those connections, Parzival receives help at every turn. In the beginning, Parzival is utterly helpless, it’s true, but it is precisely that helplessness which becomes the greatest tool in his toolbox; helplessness inspires magic—another way to say this may be to say that helplessness catalyzes creativity—and is the activator of enchantment. Perhaps it is helplessness itself that desires and searches for the Grail. Helplessness is also the spring from which morality flows, it helps us recognize the good, the just, and even love. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud saw helplessness as “…the primal source of all moral motives” and we learn through the experience of helplessness that what’s good for us is often good for others. I need to be clear that I’m speaking of a particular kind of helplessness, a generative helplessness, a helplessness that is curious and determined to learn, helplessness that is anxious without panicking, earnest without being innocent, a helplessness born of the awe one feels standing uncertainly, smack in the middle of an impenetrably sublime mystery. Neurotic helplessness is needy, desperate, dependent, grasping, and greedy; the wrong sort of helplessness repels and nullifies love, but generative helplessness inspires love, perhaps that’s why the grail stories spend so much time describing romantic love and the helplessness and vulnerability that attend it.
If we refuse helplessness, if we simply recant or disclaim our helplessness, we are simultaneously refusing bliss. No helplessness, no bliss. It really is that simple. The hero simply cannot find herself in a strange new world without feeling helpless. Without her helplessness she could never attain the Grail because it’s helplessness itself that seeks the promise of wholeness which the Grail offers. The hero’s journey is not about discovering a new world or finding a new life, it is instead about plumbing the depths and the mysteries of the only world and the only life we have. The French poet, Paul Eluard, wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” We may say the same of our own lives—we have another life, and it is in this one. And the more radically we can accept ourselves and the world, the more enchanting we are, and the more enchanted it becomes.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to my new friends for a very special week!
These playshops originally grew out of Campbell’s presentations at Esalen. You can get a sense of the ideas that lie underneath them in The Joseph Campbell Companion, which emerged from his workshops there.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.