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🦋 Saying No
When you don't want to go on an adventure
We are discussing the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Campbell proposed a monomyth, a universal story arc called the hero’s journey, that he said was found in myths and stories from cultures around the world. The hero sets forth on an adventure (departure), faces obstacles and trials (initiation), is victorious over them, and returns with boons and gifts to share with the rest of the world (return). The hero’s journey can be an external adventure though it always involves an inner transformative journey. You might be familiar with books or movies that use this arc (for example, Star Wars). In your life, you might look for parallels where you overcame your fears, the discouragement of others, or external blocks and took steps towards a goal. Maybe you had to learn new skills, take on rivals, and do things that pulled you out of your comfort zone, and regardless of the outcome, engaging with this process changed you forever.
You can read each post as a standalone or part of the hero's journey series.
Today we are talking about saying no, refusing to go on the adventure.
Imagine there is some area of life where change is beckoning (your Call To Adventure). You are hesitant, and rightly so. You might even refuse, citing a hundred different reasons.
“You’re being asked to say yes to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting but also dangerous and even life-threatening. It wouldn’t be a real adventure otherwise. You stand at a threshold of fear, and an understandable reaction would be to hesitate or even refuse the Call, at least temporarily.”
- Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers
The first thing that comes to mind is this one: Abandon all prescription ye who stand at the precipice of change1.
The capacity for, and the type of, change varies with the person and situation. The hero’s journey celebrates individualism, but it’s not the only type of journey. Maybe you say yes, or you say a resounding No to adventure. Based on your life conditions and experience, change might be hard, or you find it ridiculously easy, or somewhere in between. Maybe, you prefer to take a small step forward and work in slow increments, winning over your refusal a little at a time. Maybe you go all out and make a sweeping change. With all this variability in our life situations, it's important to be aware of any tendency towards indiscriminate and casual valorization (to give or ascribe value or validity to something) of change.
A call to adventure is seen as an invitation to growth and Campbell and others warn against repeated refusal of the call2. There is a flow to life, they argue, and resisting it can result in disaster.
Does that mean we are right to valorize growth? Is it our life’s purpose to change and grow?
Refusing to let go
When I think of words like adventure and journeys, I think of grand trips to faraway lands or job opportunities that I don't feel ready for. But, just as often, calls to adventure are small, everyday decisions.
My most recent experience of this was last week. I had held on to an old, personal grievance for so long I didn’t notice it anymore. It had become a part of my story of How I Was Wronged. I trotted it out periodically, reminding myself and others that it had been awful and should never (never!) have happened. But, last week, in an excruciating yet magical moment of sudden understanding, I realized I was hyper-aware of How I Was Wronged yet had remained completely unconscious of how much this hyper-awareness shaped my thoughts, decisions, and even entire days. It was as though I could keep myself safe only by talking about it ad nauseam, repeatedly subjecting myself to a cautionary micro-dose of the original event, but I had no clue how this rippled out and affected each of my relationships.
It felt like a call to adventure: could I let this story of resentment and self-righteousness go? My first reaction was an immediate refusal of the call. How can I?! I just told you I Was Wronged!!
But even as I said it, there was a tiny moment of understanding that there was no other way forward.
That’s where I am right now, at the start of the attempts to leave it behind.
My experience of stages of the hero's journey has most often felt like relinquishment rather than gain. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a visual meditation for the next time you face a call.
The Butterfly Tree
Imagine someone sitting under a tree in the blue darkness just before dawn. The woman (or man) is lost in thought, preoccupied with some personal crossroads, and she doesn't realize she is not alone. Hundreds of butterflies hide under the leaves and in the many nooks and crannies of the tree, keeping silent vigil over those who pass under the tree.
Even when the sun comes up and everywhere is golden and warm, the butterflies lie quietly, glancing surreptitiously at the person under the tree. They know they ought to be on their way, but the butterflies linger, offering an invisible companionship. They wait until they finally hear3 what they are waiting for. A long, weary, loud exhale from the woman sitting under the tree. It is the precise sound of someone reaching some small moment of acceptance. As though that gust of breath was the northerly wind they were waiting for, the butterflies lift off from under the leaves of the tree, hundreds of them, a gorgeous cloud of color. The woman remained oblivious to the flight of the butterflies though she experienced some unexplained easing of her turmoil.
Apologies for the delay! Writing this post took longer than expected and I wanted to take the time to explore the refusal of the call as thoroughly as any other stage of the hero’s journey.
It’s your turn! I’d love to hear from you.
Does the hero’s journey arc resonate with you?
Where (and how) in your life have you experienced a call to adventure and/or a refusal of the call?
Which stage or type of journey would you like us to discuss next?
Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and stories!
With apologies to Dante! The original “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” from Dante’s Divine Comedy would also serve us well because it advises us to proceed with caution.
“Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or "culture," the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
I really don’t know if butterflies can hear.