Wilderness = Hero’s Journey
Why do we view our ordeals “in the wilderness,” in hindsight, in such a positive light? Why do people make such statements as, “It made me who I am today,” or “Excruciating as it was in the moment, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
I think it’s because this passage is our hero’s journey, in the best and most positive sense.
What is “the hero’s journey,” anyway?
According to Joseph Campbell (not to mention Carl Jung), the hero’s journey is a universal rite of passage that most, if not all, human souls must undergo in real life. Jung called it a passage to “individuation”—to becoming who we really are.
Our ordeals “in the wilderness” are exactly that.
Consider the beats of the hero’s journey, as Campbell and Jung have put them forward.
1. The hero’s journey starts in the Ordinary World. The hero—male or female—is “stuck,” but he or she senses some powerful, tectonic energy moving beneath the surface.
2. The hero receives a “call.” This may be positive—an invitation to climb Annapurna—or negative … we’re arrested and thrown in jail. Or, like Odysseus, the hero commits a crime against heaven and is “made to” undergo an ordeal of expiation. But one way or another, you and I are ejected from Normal Life and flung, willy-nilly, into Something Totally New.
3. The hero “crosses the threshold.” She moves from the Ordinary World to the Extraordinary World (also known as the Inverted World.) Like the children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we pass through a portal and enter a realm unlike any we have known.
Is any of this ringing a bell?
4. The hero encounters allies and enemies, undergoes challenges and heartbreaks, temptations and overthrows. The hero suffers. The hero loses her way. The hero has been caught up in an often hellish adventure (though with some good moments too), from which no escape seems possible. The stakes are clearly life and death.
5. The hero perseveres. Reckoning that there’s no turning back, the hero pushes on, often blindly, almost always wracked by despair and self-doubt, seeking he or she knows not what. Escape? Redemption? A conclusion of some kind to this crazy, upside-down enterprise?
6. The hero comes face to face with the villain. The villain may be internal. It may be a creation of the hero’s own mind. Or it may be the Minotaur/the While Whale/Satan in the Desert of Judea. Whatever form this villain takes, the hero fights it tooth-and-nail, to the death.
7. The hero reaches an All is Lost Moment. The villain is too strong. The abyss yawns. All hope seems gone …
8. The hero achieves an epiphany. Often this takes the form of a surrender or an acknowledgment of a truth long-denied. “I can’t do this alone.” “Yes, I have a problem with alcohol.”
9. The hero races toward Home (whatever form that may take in his/her mind), clinging to his/her epiphany. The villain may be hot on the hero’s heels, or time and distance may have taken his place as the enemy …
10. The hero returns Home. But she is no longer the person she was when the passage began. Her ordeal has changed her, matured her, broadened and deepened her view of herself and of life.
11. The hero returns with a “gift for the people.” This may take the form of violent action, like Odysseus slaughtering the Suitors, or it may come gently, as music or poetry, to restore order and bring harmony to a disordered world.
The point of all this is that our passage through the wilderness is not random and not meaningless. It is a hero’s journey, in the best and most positive sense. It may not seem that way while we’re in it. In fact, it must seem bereft of meaning while it’s happening or it wouldn’t be “the wilderness.”
In fact, our passage is not merely touched by meaning but imbued to its very core. This doesn’t help, I know, in the midst of the ordeal. But it’s true, and we will know it, on every level, when the passage is at last complete.