On the Possibility of Happiness: Part 1, A Hero's Journey

Last week I said I'd write some posts about the possibility of happiness. I want to be clear that I'm not sitting on any wisdom. Nor are my reflections going to be systematic. So, unlike my posts on unhappiness these will feel like (because they are) a series of scattered reflections.

So let's start with what every series on happiness should start with: Jungian archetypes.

Happiness is, at root, a hero's journey. Consequently, the hero archetype reveals the secret of happiness. Or, at the very least, the hero archetype maps out the path before us.

Think about hero myths. Think about Spiderman 2 or Rocky III. In each of these myths the journey is the same. Early in the story the hero fights an enemy. And the hero fails. This is due to the fact that the hero is spiritually unprepared. The hero is afraid, prideful, or selfish. This spiritual flaw prevents the hero from defeating the enemy. So in the middle of the story the hero goes on a spiritual, largely internal, quest. The hero overcomes fear, or learns humility, or becomes loving and sacrificial. At this point the enemy returns and a second battle begins. But this time there is no doubt about who will win. The hero, now spiritually whole, wins the victory. Or, if the hero dies, there will be a transcendent victory that even an external defeat cannot overcome.

Most hero stories have a story arc like this: Failure, Spiritual Quest, Victory. And the fact that this pattern occurs over and over again in human mythology and story telling qualifies it as a archetype, a recurring symbol of wisdom shared across space and time. And what does this archetype teach us?

It teaches us that our true obstacles aren't external. Our real problem isn't "out there." It's not your boss, your spouse, your church, the government, or "the man." This isn't to say that there aren't real difficulties out there to face. Rocky, after all, still has to get into the ring. What the hero archetype suggests is that we can't make any real progress in dealing with these external challanges if we haven't done the requisite spiritual work beforehand. Perhaps we are too afraid. Too proud. Too selfish. And until those battles are fought and won we can't really expect a lasting victory.

In short, the hero's quest, the true victory, is the overcoming of the self.

You see this clearly in the Christian story. Before beginning his public ministry Jesus goes into the wilderness to face temptation. Before facing arrest and crucifixion Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray. And it seems clear that Jesus' success, in life and in death, required this prerequisite spiritual work and struggle. Jesus follows the hero path. And so must we.

The point in going into all this is that I think the journey toward happiness will follow the hero archetype. Happiness begins with the journey inward, the conquest of the self. The victory over fear, pride and selfishness.

Happiness is a hero's journey.

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One thought on “On the Possibility of Happiness: Part 1, A Hero's Journey”

  1. I've wondered about the oft-quoted catchphrase, "It's not about us" in relation to God whenever someone says something personal. It comes across like a spiritualized execution. I can't help but think that if truly "it's not about us," then Jesus makes no sense whatsoever. Emmanuel, "God With Us," was all about God being really WITH us, not merely above and glorified by. Hence, the journey life requires, and the two great commandments. Reading John Bradshaw now, and what you say about non-existence is sort of what he says about overcoming the collatoral damage that submerges the authentic self.

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