Answering the Call to "Do Your Work"
Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar on mythology, observed that the world’s myths and epic tales share a core pattern. He called this pattern, “the Hero’s Journey.” It describes the plight of humankind and it can be found in epic stories, religions, and the lives of every person. The three major chapters of the journey include the separation, the initiation, and the return. Entering the separation, the hero must answer the call to adventure, leave the known and travel into the mysterious unknown to begin the personal quest. This journey provides the hero with the lessons one needs in one's life.
Raising children struggling with mental health issues, addictions, or even just the normal angst of growing up can be scary and confusing for a parent. This is the invitation to venture from the known to the unknown. We are asked to look into the dark places within ourselves and confront or make peace with our fears. We are asked to let go of what has made us feel safe and secure and embrace some things that may cause us pain. Our children are not the only ones experiencing initiation; at times they provide the call for instigating the whole family’s journey down this road.
A profound aspect of the Hero’s Journey is that the call to adventure is often initially refused. This refusal applies to both the child and parent, as they experience a parallel process. I hope as you answer this call, to leave the comfortable and the “known,” you can find the new shores that await you, bringing you and your family greater peace.
The purpose of the heroic journey is to describe a “transformation of consciousness,” so profound it is often referred to or symbolized by death and rebirth. The kind of change Campbell is talking about is more than new skills or tools. This shift is fundamental; it is a different way of being. This transformation is beyond an explanation; it is difficult to put into words or to explain to another person, which is why it is often illustrated through stories or examples. These epic stories then show us how it would look and sound if we experienced this change in ourselves.
The lessons from the prophets, poets, or storytellers are vertical rather than horizontal. They describe different levels or layers of life. They don't offer us, necessarily, a history lesson or a glimpse into the future, they provide us with a deeper meaning to our lives. As Campbell explains, “Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”
For one model of this journey, let us look at the story of King Arthur and his Knights. They were charged with finding the holy grail. The grail was literally the cup that held the wine served at the last supper of Christ. But symbolically, it was a container that holds what is put into it. It was thought to have healing powers. It is something that heals (its purpose, symbolically understood then can be that it is able to hold, hear, listen, what is put into it).
In therapy, the healing container is the mind of the therapist. In childhood, it is the mind of a parent or the other big people raising the child. As I explained in The Journey of the Heroic Parent, “What you think and feel about your children is what they will think and feel about themselves.” If you think they’re a problem, that’s how they will see themselves. If they scare you, they will learn to be afraid of themselves. If you can learn to see them and their symptoms as messengers, trying to tell a story of how the old ways of being have worn out their form, they will then learn to trust the whispers of their own souls.
Remarkable in King Arthur’s story is that the knights decided to start their quest by going into the forest where there was no path, each going his own way. They thought it most noble. For if there was a path, it was someone else’s path.
The quest is to go into the darkness, to face what scares us in search of that which we cannot live without. Therapy? Support group? A.A. or Al-anon? A wilderness therapy program and parent weekend?
And like the knights and the protagonists of so many other epic tales, we often don’t find what we originally sought.
In the epic Star Wars saga, modeled by George Lucas on Campbell’s work, Darth Vader brought Luke to meet with the evil emperor with the hope of converting Luke to a philosophical practice of controlling life and death in order to avoid pain and suffering. Sound familiar?
But, in the end, unable to tolerate watching his son suffer from the Emperor’s powers (symbolically suffering under the beliefs and practices Darth Vader himself embodied to avoid suffering due to the death of his wife, Luke’s mother), Vader intervened, stood up to the Emperor, losing his physical life in the process, yet he and Luke were saved together.
Like Vader, we may not find what we set out for, some magical formula to prevent suffering, pain, hardships, and grief, but what we find is ourselves. A newer, more whole, larger version of ourselves. On this journey, hearts are opened and enlarged, and new ears and new eyes provide the hero with a greater capacity to hear and see.
For the young person enrolled in wilderness, the journey is away from the community. This call or invitation is often resisted, a common motif in the hero’s journey, as the young person wishes to stay with the known, with what is comfortable.
What does the young person find on their journey? Separated from their original context and their parents, they find themselves, and now nature is the antagonist. With greater vision, they see their original context clearly. They say that the fish is the last to discover water. The fish cannot perceive water because it has no experience with “not water.” So, it is with us. We must know something else before we can clearly see ourselves and the predicament that is our lives.
Recently, there has been some backlash in the media toward wilderness therapy. The concern of interest to me today is seen in the questions I get from parents, “What am I to do about my child’s anger for sending them?” This question is at the heart of the whole matter before us. What are we to do with our children’s anger? Or more precisely, “What are we to do with our children?” We are to hold them, see them, and these capacities must be built on the foundation of finding ourselves.
Your children are not here to learn from you about life, but the other way around. You are the student, not the teacher. When you realize that you are not the teacher but the student, everything changes. As Sadhguru once stated, “When a child comes into your life, it is time to relearn life, not teach them your ways.”
Or as Kahlil Gibran said it,
Your children are not your children...
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
We listen to their pain, fears, and anger, especially when those feelings are aimed at us. We listen as much as we are able, and through this device, the child is able to move through their feelings, or perhaps better stated, the feelings are able to move through the child rather than getting stuck.
We must transform to be available to this work, to our children, and to each other. As Einstein explained, “You cannot solve a problem in the same level of consciousness that created it.”
So, in the context of the child waking around in the figurative and literal wilderness in search of themselves, they see it all around them. They see themselves and their place in the world. As the philosopher and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy stated, “Nature is not something separate from us. So, when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we've lost our connection to ourselves.”
In a real sense, the child and the parent go into the wilderness together. On the parent’s part, the journey is into the self, into therapy, podcasts, parent groups, Finding You Therapeutic Intensive, and into places that frighten them. They learn, or rather unlearn, things that no longer serve the organism of the family. As I stated in The Journey of the Heroic Parent, “Parent education and therapy doesn’t change children. It changes parents. And that change can have a wonderful impact on the child.
They learn to unburden the child of the outdated adage, “You are only happy as your least happy child.”
They come to accept that they, the parents, are responsible for their own serenity.
So instead of what Jung taught, that the unlived life of a parent is the heaviest burden for a child to carry, parents come to accept responsibility for their own lives rather than making the child responsible for their life, that is to say, their feelings.
Parents cease the project of fixing the kid - nobody likes to be a project. They stop trying to fix the kid and start trying to find the child.
And if all goes well, they, the parents embark on the hero’s journey and make themselves and their lives the project. Consider this your call to do your work, to explore your childhood and its programming, and to unlearn all the things that might be keeping you and your family stuck. As author, Daniel Seigel M.D. teaches, “The strongest predictor of a child’s well-being is a parents’ self-understanding.”
From the conclusion of The Journey of the Heroic Parent,
So what does the hero find? On his journey, he finds the elixir of healing wisdom, something that he can share with others. We experience deep pain and develop compassion as we face the depths of our own struggles. And what we find is our story. We sit in groups, tell our stories, and listen to the stories of others. That is the message of this book. That is what I meant when I started with the concept that “the question is not the question.” It is our struggling children and our willingness to ask different questions that reveal our authentic selves. The hero brings back her self: a deeper, richer version of herself. Loving your child is something you cannot not do. You will break and bleed. Old things will die in you and in their stead, new ones will grow. And what you will have in the end is your story.
For me, even as a teacher, the elixir isn’t always in the form of words. Some of what I have gleaned on my journey is difficult to put into words. That is because it is an experience rather than an explanation. You learn something by going through it that you cannot know any other way. My education and study have given me language, but being present on my painful and beautiful journey has carved out a place for more compassion toward others and myself.
I am honored to sit and offer some observations from the thousands of hero’s journeys I have seen children and parents traverse. This is my story. This is my gift. This is also the gift that the remarkable, wonderful, struggling children and parents have given me. And I, in turn, give it back to you.