I’m in the belly of the whale.
Those of you who know a thing or two about Joseph Campbell and his Hero’s Journey will know exactly what I mean. The rest of you are probably worried about my mental state.
OK, I’m not literally in a whale belly. There’s no Internet access there, I’m fairly sure. Instead, the belly of the whale is a metaphorical place, a place where everything you once knew is no longer true, where old assumptions come to die, where night seems to linger and daylight seems like it may never return.
Does it sound awful? Yeah, it kind of is. But the upside is, it’s part of the hero’s journey. And when the hero’s journey is done right, it can have a fantastic end.
I’d meant to write about the Hero’s Journey here. It’s one of the many things I’ve meant to do in the past month or so that I just haven’t done. So add it to the heap.
But I want to get back on track, and I need to start somewhere. So maybe a little navel-gazing is in order.
Depending on how you look at it, the Hero’s Journey can be a handy tool to analyze literature, a guide to understanding spirituality or life itself. How’s that for gilding the lily? (I’m asking that of Killian, she knows what I thought “gilding the lily” meant up until two months ago.)
So, yeah. Heroes and their journeys.
I wouldn’t say that Joseph Campbell invented the notion, but he sure elevated it. Campbell, for those unfortunate enough to not know of him, compared the legends, myths and religions of cultures across the globe and throughout history. He found similar strains repeated. These stories told of a person who set out from where he was comfortable, ventured into an unknown place where he had to battle all manner of creatures, found his way home and returned to everyday life. Not every story had every element, but many of the world’s most enduring stories had several of them.
To nutshell it, the Hero’s Journey includes the following points.
The Call to Adventure: Up to this point, the hero’s life has been going swimmingly, more or less. But now something happens. A mysterious figure appears to lure the hero out of what was known, or a king makes a seemingly impossible demand. Whatever it is, the hero is being asked (or told) to take on some great or mysterious task.
Crossing of the Threshold: A line in the sand. Once the hero steps across it, nothing will be the same. This is Luke Skywalker entering into Mos Eisley. This is the children wandering into the enchanted forest their parents warned them never to enter.
Belly of the Whale: All of a sudden, the world is topsy turvey. Old rules no longer apply. What was taken for granted no longer exists. And like it sounds, it can be a dark and terrifying place to be, with no discernable way out. But Campbell says this is the hero journeying deep into the inner unknown, readying himself to be born again.
Road of Trials: Stuff happens, and the hero has to deal with it. And it’s not a given that the hero is going to deal with it successfully, either. In fact, he probably won’t.
Apotheosis: Nice word, huh? It’s sublimation, but it comes at a price. It’s not a common physical death, though it could be that, too. It’s a dying to the way you used to be so that you can become something greater. Just like Jesus on the cross. Or Harry Potter in the dark forest.
The Ultimate Boon: It is what it says. Not just a great prize, but the best prize of all time ever. Here is Moses coming down off the mountain with tablets. Here is Jason obtaining the Golden Fleece.
Rescue from Without: So you needed help getting started and now you needed help getting home. Don’t fret, you’re not the first. It took Odysseus 10 years to go from Turkey to the west side of Greece. And he wouldn’t have gotten there at all if not for a little extra help from Nausicaa.
Crossing the Return Threshold: Do you remember when your family took a vacation, driving for miles and miles and miles? And on the way home you’d see the welcome sign to your home state? At that point, you knew that the journey was over, and things were about to return to normal. Yeah, that. But the question is, how will the souvenirs you brought home remain important to you?
Master of Two Worlds: This is someone who has integrated the wisdom learned in the journey with the humdrum of every day life. You can think of the big-time religious founders – like Moses or Muhammad – in this role. Or maybe it’s someone you know, whose hard-won wisdom through a life full of trials has made them a kinder person rather than a bitter one.
Right, the hero’s journey. There you have it, more or less.
All of this was just a big wind-up to me saying I’m in the belly of the whale now. It’s perhaps the worst part of the quest, because in that lingering darkness you just know there are things lurking, waiting to come at you. But you can’t always tell what form they will take or just how far away they are. You just know that they’re there, somewhere, and they’ve got their eyes on you, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it just yet.
If being there makes it sound like you’d want to curl up and hide, you’ve got a good understanding of why I’ve been the way I’ve been lately. I’m scared of what happens next. I’ve got good reason to be scared because I’ve heard the monsters moving in the darkness. I don’t know what weapons I have, or indeed if I have any at all. And I don’t see an easy way out.
For the first time in my life, I have no job and no health insurance. My home is about to go into foreclosure. My father is being treated for early stage Alzheimers. I will go bankrupt.
While I understand my desire to hide, I wouldn’t exactly say it’s working well for me. I could be pushing myself to do more, job-search wise. I have taken on some obligations that I haven’t upheld. Worst of all, I let myself stay home all day, every day, and that doesn’t exactly make me feel good about myself.
But I’m scared of the world outside my door. I don’t mean I’m literally agoraphobic, though I certainly understand now how that can develop. But the world feels like an increasingly hostile place, and I just don’t want to be in it. I do not mean “don’t want to be in it” in terms of suicide – I don’t have those thoughts. But I don’t trust the world outside my home, either.
The alternative, though, is equally depressing. Sheltering at home might feel safer, but it doesn’t do anything good for my self-esteem.
And I am getting angry.
I was never what you might call patriotic by any stretch of the imagination. I loathe being told to pledge allegiance. To a flag? Really? I won’t sing the national anthem, and not just because I can’t hit the high note. I don’t trust patriotism. I don’t trust where it can lead. My family’s history has shown me all too well where that road leads when taken to its final destination.
But I was never angry at my country, either. Until now.
And while I always sympathized with the poor, I never really understood how dehumanizing it is. Until now.
Want some examples?
I applied for food stamps. I can’t get them because I get unemployment (which amounts to less than the equivalent of $9 an hour full-time). Well, no. I get $16. A month. And a whole $1 to offset winter heating bills. For serious, $1? What is that, just a slap in the face? It would sting less if they gave nothing at all.
And Killian, who actually qualified for $200 a month in food stamps? She won’t get them anymore, because she took the state up on its urging to go back to school. Students can’t get food assistance in this state. Because, presumably, at the age of … no, she’d kill me if I said. But I will say this – she is well into adulthood and no longer under the protection of mom and dad, but the state likes to pretend that every student gets money from home, and that students who would get food stamps would use it on pork rinds only.
What are the poor to do? I guess they want us to starve.
And what happens to someone in my position who has the nerve to get sick? I had a cancer scare just two months ago. The biopsy came out benign but I was told I am at greater risk and need to be monitored twice a year. How? And if I need another $5,000 biopsy, pray tell – how?
It’s awful. It makes me so angry and it hurts. I feel I’m being left behind by the rest of the world. Like I’m not really part of the world anymore.
I fall asleep at night praying for revolution, and honest to god real revolution, and I don’t care that it would upset the world of so many who are comfortable right now. In fact, I want them upset.
This is where I am. The belly of the whale.
And it helps me to tell myself this, because it tells me that I am still the hero of my own story and that I’m on a journey, and if I’m on a journey then I won’t be here forever.
But it is changing me.