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The Outward Foundation for Inward Flowering

This September marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. One of the reasons I am so proud and honored to be a part of this organization is that JCF has never lost sight of its primary mission to protect and disseminate the extraordinary work that Joseph Campbell produced over his lifetime. As an organization, JCF, and particularly its president, Robert Walter, have somehow managed to capture and reflect the spirit of Joseph Campbell, his curiosity, his scholarship, his joyful independence, and his immense capacity for bliss.

There are fundamentally, it seems to me, two types of founders. One type of founder is the sort of individual, or individuals, who has a definite, clear, and far-reaching vision of how the world, or at least that part of the world they influence, should look. From the beginning, architects of culture have always seen themselves as founders; they imagine institutions and infrastructures their visions require, and even the roles each of us is to play. Ambitious people with foundational intent see the world as a stage and themselves as consummate directors. They imagine themselves as heroes, not simply of their own lives, but heroes of everyone’s life. Many such individuals court heroism on the geopolitical stage, but their corporate cousins are no less bold and ambitious.

Another, and usually unintentional, founder is the individual who resolves to be the hero of their own lives. Such a founder isn’t interested in founding anything, nor are they interested in chasing riches, posthumous memorialization, or basking in the warm, narcissistic glow of self-absorption. Instead the only vision they carry forward is the vision forged by the compelling passions of their own lives. People who live with courage, integrity, independence, and exuberance—people like Joseph Campbell—have foundational influences upon others, and they inspire in them the intention to think and live similarly authentic lives. And in doing so, they become their own heroes.

Whether one is the hero of one’s own life may seem an odd question to ask, or at least it’s a question one doesn’t hear asked very often. We all have heroes, but they are heroes to us, they are models of heroism for us, they’re not the heroes of our own lives. We seem to automatically presume that role is meant for ourselves. But it isn’t enough to passively presume that we are the heroes of our own lives; we must understand that becoming the hero of one’s own life is a difficult and challenging path to undertake, and it requires from us a conscious commitment. When one takes on that heroic mantle, “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth,” (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene I) and any attitude other than a commitment to amor fati will, when life humiliates us and our passions become an open wound, transform one’s adventure into misadventure.

We are protagonists in a collective fiction careening towards a metaphysical conversion, a death that, despite the overwhelming mood of existential dread, is not death at all, but is instead psychological transformation. We will be fundamentally changed, we will relate to our community as different people, and others will have reason to hope they might experience something similar. One’s personal, selfish ego is overcome and pain is no longer felt only as pain, but as labor leading to psychological re-birth. Pain is transformed into understanding, and each instance of hard-won understanding becomes a pleasure. This is how one participates in the suffering of life with joy, and finds bliss, ideas Campbell returns to time and time again throughout his work.

For example, in his book, The Mythic Dimension, Campbell writes:

Certain patterns, certain principles, a morphology, can be recognized—the kind of situation that I have expounded in my Hero with a Thousand Faces. There is a general pattern to the hero journey—the quest of the hero into unknown realms, the powers that he meets there and overcomes, the stages of his crises of victory, and his return then, with some boon that he has gained, for the founding of a city, religion, dynasty, or whatnot….(P.5, Emphasis is mine)

Being a hero in one’s own life leads to a selfless understanding of the world, lends momentum and gravitas to the shared boon that is foundational to a group, a region, or an entire culture. This boon has itself emerged from the “primary springs of human life and thought,” it transforms us, “and teach[es] the lesson […]of life renewed.” (The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Pantheon, 1961, pp. 19-20)

This is why the Joseph Campbell Foundation exists; not because Joseph Campbell wanted it to exist, or that he endeavored to create it. Not because he wanted a personal legacy, fame, or wealth. JCF exists because the foundational boon Campbell gave us was his work and teaching itself, and the foundation that bears his name arose organically from the tremendous impact that his elegant words and his graceful life made upon the world.


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