By: Josiah Mohr
Life can easily be defined as a series of encounters, an endless cycle of innumerable decisions and possibilities, ultimately ending with the same single result for each of us. So is this cyclic life really all about the results of a universal sequence of endings—the end of childhood, the end of college, the end of employment, the end of a life—or is it more so about the unique journey we embark on, the encounters we stumble into, the stories we write, and the relationships we forge? Life cannot exist simply as a series of endings and accomplishments to justify our struggles. I am here to present another outlook, one that is undeniably a journey of great potential that forms in each of us a unique personality. Yet there is still something universal in the framework of our individual experiences. We are not solely ubiquitous in death, but also in the wonderful orchestration of human development. This is the Monomyth, the story of us all, the heroic journey upon which we all embark, the process—rather, the product—in which we all engage.
The psychology of the Monomyth is certainly not something foreign to our existence. It can be clearly observed throughout the mythologies of history, but it was not fully established as a working theory until Joseph Campbell’s great 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Monomyth is universal in application and relatable to us all, literally meaning the “one thematic story” (mono-myth) embodied by each of our human lives. Life through the lens of the Monomyth is explained as a journey on which a heroic individual goes through a cycle of encounters, resulting in personal as well as communal development.
This development follows the progression of three stages, the first of which is called the Departure. It is here that the invitation for adventure challenges the status quo. But like so many of us have experienced, change can be hard; we are indeed quite comfortable in our current state and all too often blind to any need for change. Our hero is quick to refuse the call to adventure, for the stakes may be considered too high, the risk not worth the reward, perhaps even compromising of a current responsibility. However, internal turmoil is inevitable and only through the influence of a wise mentor does our hero find the inspiration to cross the threshold into adventure. Let us consider the popular icon Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, who is known to embark on one of the greatest literary adventures ever written. It was not without reluctance that this adventure is undertaken. Yet through the inspiration of the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo is able to overcome and participate in an amazing journey that takes him far beyond his comfort zone.
It is at the threshold of the unknown that the second stage of the Monomyth opens into a world foreign to the hero, beginning the stage of Initiation. Here companionship is necessary for survival, for trials abound and temporary defeat is assured, especially in the face of the hero’s ultimate existential crisis, a trial that seems insurmountable. But it is through this difficult encounter that the true friends and personal character of our hero are proven.
Following the encounter, a reward of symbolic significance is received, ranging from an anecdote of wisdom to an object of power. What follows is another crossroads, similar to the beginning of the adventure. This transition is not an easy one either, as our hero attempts to return back to a world of normalcy, yet with the weight and consequence of the journey now upon them. It is not an easy burden to carry, and is nearly inexplicable to friends and family, making the transition back nearly as hard as the original crossing. This journey of initiation is reminiscent of the journey of the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke decides to engage Darth Vader in battle alone, truly unprepared for the challenge despite his training. He is defeated in that battle and left at death’s doorstep, only to be saved by his friends. As a symbol of his failure, Luke’s bionic hand continues to haunt him, making it all the more difficult to return to the life he had before. It is only through a final encounter that Luke may feel fulfilled, leading to the resolution that is found in the final stage.
This third and final stage—Return—is defined by resurrection and remedy. It is only through great reflection of the journey in all its detail, that our hero may truly and fully gain a greater personal awareness, a resurrection into a better self. In this, the lessons of the encounters are fully realized, providing incredible personal development and giving our hero’s community lasting hope and growth. The reflective culmination of Harry Potter’s journey is clearly expressed following Harry’s victory over Voldemort, the series’ villain, in the final battle at Hogwarts. Following this final victory for the wizarding world, we see Harry nineteen years in the future, happily married and sending his three children off to Hogwarts. He found his peace, redemption, and freedom to live, through the bravery he exemplified in this final battle, delivering to the wizarding world a hope for a wonderful future. It is here that this metaphorical journey becomes our reality, giving identity to our hypothetical hero.
The hero of this journey, the character at the center of the action, and the one who we best perceive is ourselves. The factors of each of our journeys are individual, but each contains pieces of the same thread—the same human experience. It is only through personal reflection that we may truly learn and perceive our own growth. So how do you fit into this story of humanity? What are your unique encounters to which others may relate? Take time to consider your mentors, your friends, your challenges, and your lessons. The myth, however, does not end here, as the story continues. As the heroes of our own journeys, let us together embark upon adventures to better understand the encounters we all face, gaining for ourselves a greater development of our personality and character, and applying the lessons we learn to inspire hope for our community.