MythBlast | The Labor of Following Your Bliss

Like many Americans, I spent the day yesterday dancing between celebrating Labor Day and, well, laboring.

I was editing an interview I did a couple of weeks ago with dance icon Twyla Tharp for a radio show I host, and her approach to art got me thinking about the stories that sit in the background about work. At one point in our conversation, Twyla resisted being defined as an artist, saying, “Don’t call me an artist! I’m a worker. I’m a working person – don’t I go in and pound and hammer nails?”

Her point was to shake up the assumption that creativity is a gift that we are granted, that making dance is somehow more glamorous or genius-touched than any other sort of making, in an effort to help me (and listeners) understand that the barriers we construct between art and the rest of our lives are both artificial and destructive. And she wanted to make a point that she has stressed throughout her career: that discipline is the most important element of a successful life.

She echoes, I think, one of the foundational myths in American culture, our deep mythos of the American Dream: a vision that if you work hard and well enough, you can succeed at the things that matter to you. It is a deeply democratic myth, one that suggests that fortunes of birth, or luck, or having or lacking particular resources are less important than what each of us bring to the fire of our own lives. It is, in many ways, deeply optimistic.

It connects, I think, to Campbell’s ideas of following one’s bliss – that if you head onto the path that you must forge, life will open up for you.

Like his working of bliss, however, the American Dream myth is easy to oversimplify. While it is seductive to imagine that following your bliss will make life easy, it is actually is often very hard work, and from moment to moment, often not particularly blissful. Hard work is truly hard – the Greeks intuited this with the disabled maker, Hephaestus, god of crafts, and with Ponos, son of Eris (strife), brother of Algos (sorrow), Lethe (forgetfulness),  Limos (starvation), and Horkus (curses for false oaths). Hardly an easy set of boon companions!

However, with that reminder, I think that there is something oddly relieving about remembering the pains of hard work, even as we go after our bliss; reminding us that ease, while worth loving in its own right, isn’t always what awaits us when we toil away at crafting a life that has meaning to us and the world. Perhaps discomforts are less important if we can find labor that helps us do that, rather than simply get, from the words of a song from my childhood, boney fingers from working our fingers to the bone.

As you labor on this day after Labor Day, are you laboring towards your bliss?

For more on Campbell’s thoughts on pursuing bliss, check out Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.

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Hello! We at JCF are delighted to present MythBlasts, weekly quick taste of mythology – topical, intriguing, evocative – from scholars in the JCF community. And each week, you are invited further into myth and into the work and world of Joseph Campbell with a link at the bottom to a particular publication we think will illuminate the ideas worked in this week’s MythBlast further. If you’d like to subscribe to get weekly MythBlasts in your inbox, just fill out the contact form on the left side of the page. Thank you!

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Leigh Melander, Ph.D.
MythBlast Series Editor
Vice President, Board of Directors
Joseph Campbell Foundation