Behold, we have passed into a new year, and a new decade, and whether or not we have readied ourselves with new intentions/goals/resolutions, many of us (at least on the social media front) see this as an opportune time for memorializing the state of our lives ten years ago, as compared to our lives today.
I was touched by the self-compassion that pervades people’s descriptions of their former selves, especially in the midst of challenges. A wonderful way to start the New Year – to witness the narrative of one’s life compassionately, and to be kind and charitable to oneself.
The New Year carries with it a powerful collective wave of intentionality for manifestation of visionary intentions, and it is a good time for affirmation of one’s current stage(s) of personal journeying.
Mapping my own experience onto the mythological and the archetypal has always been fun and illuminating. It gives daily life a real sense of poetic significance. It reminds me that every person has an extraordinary set of circumstances that comprise their own unique mythos, whether known or unknown to me. This practice, really more an occupational hazard of studying Greco-Roman myth for many years, rarely fails to give me a valuable perspective on life situations, regularly assures me of the universally lived experience of challenges that feel difficult to bear in isolation, and gives me agency in re-casting my own story.
One Model of Personal Mythmaking: The Hero’s Journey
I work at an institution that prides itself on its collection of artifacts from Joseph Campbell, the famed comparative mythologist who traced the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey that he claimed pervaded mythological and folkloric traditions internationally. In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell structures the hero’s journey around three key stages, paraphrased here:
- Call to adventure (including meeting a mentor who guides the hero on the initial stages of the quest).
- Trials of initiation into a new world of challenges, triumphs and failures, a phase which culminates in a journey to the Underworld and meeting a teacher with a prophetic message.
- Return to the place of origin with divine knowledge gained on the journey, and the process of integration of that knowledge into “normal life”.
When I taught an undergraduate course on Greek heroism, I offered an extra credit project that invited students to map Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey onto one life situation. This assignment yielded extraordinary stories about challenges met and lessons encountered through travel, second language acquisition, health difficulties, lost loves and friendships, authentic expression of self amidst social stigma, new familial and work responsibilities, and other challenges. One student shared with me that he felt a refreshing sense of personal agency as a result of completing the assignment. In my own life similar exercises in personal mythmaking (including the hero’s journey model a la Campbell) had provided helpful perspectives for years, and I was glad to see that this was helpful to others.
Journaling the Personal Mythos
Having read over some of my own journals from the past year, 2019 presented various Campbellian stages of realization: I found a gut-dwelling, steady voice within myself I had not heard in years. I learned the art of critical discernment in the role of student and teacher. I learned to recognize interpersonal cyclical patterns that repeat themselves as dependably as the tides. I learned to speak up for myself clearly and directly. I learned to be accountable for the pain I caused others. I learned to take care of myself in the ways that suited me, including yoga, cooking, writing and performing poetry, singing old Irish songs, and reading short stories. I deepened treasured friendships. I moved back to my hometown. I took steps further in the direction of financial independence.
Keeping a regular journal, especially during the more difficult times of growth, is helpful, because it reveals the learning process, and allows one to look back at the feelings, the insights, and the self-talk that attend the various stages of one’s journey (or whatever you might call your mythic narrative – at present in the Anglo-American consciousness the hero’s journey is widely prevalent, and this is the one I am invoking here, but this is certainly not the only narrative type).
Looking back at these journals can be quite confronting and humiliating, but the lived experience is there, just for the eyes of the experiencer-turned-future-loving-reader. This is very different from writing the story after the close of its lived experience, which is another good exercise (my students’ extra credit assignment).
Personal Mythmaking and New Year’s Intentions
There are many resolutions, calls to adventure, that await. The sheer number of varied New-Year’s- resolution-oriented invitations on social media is overwhelming.
And so the questions come a-hammering:
- Which pursuit is really for you?
- Is this a good time to set out on a new path in this particular aspect of your life, or is there something to be finished first?
- Are you in the trials of initiation? Is there an obstacle you’ve been avoiding that awaits your attention prior to getting on with things?
- Are you trudging through the depths of the Underworld? Is there some illumination of the next steps awaiting your sight in the deepest part of the trek?
- Are you back where you started, integrating what you have learned?
The New Year is a good time to acknowledge your present stance, and to start from where you are. At least that is what I tell myself, speaking from what feels like a hammock of indolence on Calypso’s Island (see below)…
And wherever you may find yourself in your journey, in your work, it can be an interesting exercise to look for the attendant archetypal forces, whether they lie within yourself, others, or situations.
The below categories are my play on themes from the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey homeward to the island of Ithaca from the Trojan War, as told in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poem, the Odyssey):
- The mentor / the teacher / the one who keeps you on track (the goddess Athena for Odysseus); also the one you may mistrust or whose guidance you may ignore at times.
- The Land of the Lotus Eaters / Calypso’s Island – the place where you tend to get distracted, complacent, and drawn away from your work. In Odysseus’ story, Hermes the messenger god goes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has been languishing for seven years, to push the hero to continue his journey homeward to Ithaca. So, if you get distracted, be your own messenger and carry on. Or if you are really in the throes of complacency the messenger might just find you…
- The Cyclops – the person you are liable to demean, take advantage of, and/or dredge of physical or emotional resources, in service of your work; take care to avoid this, or make proper amends if this has already happened. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after leading his men into the Cyclops’ cave to steal food and livestock, then endeavoring to claim protection under Zeus as a guest when he was caught red-handed. Yes, the Cyclops threatened to eat them, but still, what bad behavior…
- The sorceress / Circe – the dark feminine, the mistress of nature, who transfigures men into animals – the one you cannot fool or con, the one whose power you must acknowledge with full awe and devotion before she can help you (or else you will turn into a pig, I suppose…)
- The Underworld – the dark and lonely place where guidance is present but only attainable through faith, right action, and reunion with the departed.
- The Phaiakians – the generous helpers and benefactors worthy of enduring gratitude and acknowledgement; the ones who gave Odysseus a banquet, gifts, games, a platform for telling his own story of his travels, and safe passage home to Ithaca in the last stage of his journey.
- Yourself as the storyteller – are you talking about your quest (posting on social media counts) more than doing it? Does your pursuit need a wider audience? If so, when is the right time to share your work, and whom do you aim to reach?
- Integration and homecoming – roughly half of the Odyssey features Odysseus’ process of reintroducing himself to his homeland, during which he must live as a beggar prior to reclaiming his role as leader of the community. The process of going back home again is consequential, whether that be moving back in with one’s parents, undergoing psychotherapy and grappling with family-of-origin issues, or deciding to root oneself into a brand new space to call home. It takes time, and some patience and willingness to live in obscurity while listening with one’s ear to the ground and learning about the place and how to navigate it.
- Penelope – the loved one you say you are doing all this for, but whose needs and personal sacrifices you might be ignoring or suppressing as you forge on. Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return, fending off suitors and putting their son’s life at risk, while he garnered the experiences in war, travel, and sexual exploits worthy of a “hero” only to come back and tell her that he must go away on ANOTHER quest according to a prophecy (how convenient).
And whether or not you encounter any or all of the above in your pursuit of quests, intentions or resolutions of this year, remember that you are likely playing several of these roles in the journeys of others, and remember that going off course sometimes yields a good story in and of itself…
HAPPY NEW YEAR AND NEW DECADE OF ADVENTURING!!
Caveat: For the record, while I find that the journey of Odysseus is a good archetypal model (especially when things do not go as planned in our own pursuit of life goals) I do not commend Odysseus for his violence, xenophobia, misogyny, disrespect for the gods, foolhardiness, fallaciousness, negligence, and hubris. For a good alternative rendering of this story from Penelope’s standpoint, and the standpoint of Penelope’s 12 nameless maids Odysseus murdered upon his arrival back to Ithaca, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.