(5 minute read)
“My mother always said life was like a box of chocolates,” said Forrest Gump. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
But it seems to me, sometimes we can know what we’re gonna get, in a general way at least. We just don’t know exactly what form it will take.
Some parts of our journey as gay men are predictable. We share them in common. And it helps to get the big picture in our minds, because some of those common experiences are truly difficult, especially if we feel we are facing them alone and there is no positive outcome in sight.
The map of our journey is very much like the Hero’s Journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell. It is the map of innumerable classic myths and modern tales alike. In fact, the map applies to so many stories, Campbell calls it the monomyth. He suggests that every great story is merely another telling of the monomyth. That may be an exaggeration. But he has a point.
As screenwriter Christopher Vogler puts it,
“The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world… From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form.”
These copies include your life and mine. The pattern of the Hero’s Journey allows us to draw parallels between the story of a great figure like Heracles and our own story. We are in some sense walking a similar path, and we are likely to have similar experiences. Our story naturally falls into three acts.
Act I: Departure
In the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, the hero is given a call to quest. Sometimes this call is prefigured by unusual conception, birth, or childhood. The hero often refuses the call as long as possible. But his fate pursues him. Often it is a wise mentor who gives the hero the courage to finally cross the threshold and begin his journey. Almost immediately, there is a set-back, a complication, a difficulty that foreshadows the trials yet to come. But there is no going back. The hero’s decision has been made. The quest has begun.
We as gay men are marked from conception. We are different. We may find ourselves cast outside the gates of our heteronormative families, faiths, and cultures. We can refuse our call, either by denying our sexuality or by denying that our gayness comes with spiritual and psychological challenges. One of the first challenges for many of us is spiritual abuse at the hands of conservative religion. It is not easy to find the courage to face our challenges. We need mentors – friends, exemplars, spiritual companions – who can journey with us without trying to fix our problems for us. Only we can make the decision to begin the quest. Only we can battle the monsters of our own psyches.
Act II: Initiation
In the second stage of the Hero’s Journey, the hero encounters all kinds of trials. These trials tend to grow increasingly difficult. His strength wanes. At key moments, help comes from invaluable allies. Midway through the journey, the temptation to quit is almost overwhelming. Somehow the hero pushes through. Yet the atmosphere grows darker. The hero must at last enter the cave, the underworld, the depths of the sea – all metaphors for the psychological and spiritual depths where the ultimate battle takes place. In overcoming or integrating the darkness that is at the heart of the conflict, the hero is finally transformed and reconciled. He gains the reward for which he has struggled so long.
There are many monsters we must face in the gay journey – shame, internalized homophobia, social isolation, relationship challenges, to name a few. Meditation is, I believe, a key practice that will sustain us through this long journey. We need our companions beside us to give us strength when we have run out, to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. We may face depression and fatigue. We will face our own version of the dark night of the soul, perhaps several times at different levels. Yet it is through this ultimate struggle that integration comes. We are at long last transformed, and given a wisdom that comes only by having traversed the extremes.
Act III: Return
Having gained the rewards of an all-consuming struggle, the hero must now return to his homeland and share the boons he has gained with society. There is often a temptation to avoid the return, for he is likely to face resistance. His insights are not welcome. His very presence is now a threat to the status quo. People do not want to be enlightened. His one last challenge is to return as a teacher, a healer, a wise old man. He possesses an easy freedom, particularly a freedom to live his life for others.
Like the hero of myth, we too may be reluctant to return to a society that once rejected us. We must cultivate compassion. We will still have to deal with resistance from religious institutions and from a sometimes-anti-spiritual gay subculture. Yet having faced the worst in ourselves, we will have gained equanimity. We can now share our gifts freely with those who can benefit most.
This is your story, and this is mine… if we are courageous enough to say yes to the quest.
What do you say?