We don’t really “take” a journey: we “unfold” a journey. Our journeys evolve organically as a dialogue between ourselves and our world. We act and the world responds by giving us feedback, which opens to us new potentials for action. We evaluate the feedback, explore the potentials, make a decision, and our journey unfolds.
The Challenge of Knowing
The questions I am most often asked in regard to the Hero’s Journey relate to recognizing and accepting the call and to knowing that we are on a journey. These are difficult questions to answer because the answers depend on so many factors: the situation in our lives, the context or culture in which we are taking or will take the journey, the options or potentials available to us, and the coherence between the story we are (or have become) and the story we are living.
The situation is made even more complicated by the manipulative nature of our modern culture, where seemingly every human need—including our innate need to take journeys—has become a resource for commercial exploitation. In a world that’s driven by consumption and the virtual reality of technology, it’s often difficult to distinguish between a journey that is organic, originating from our natural inclination to grow, and a “journey” that is marketed to us to exploit our quest for identity and purpose.
Is there a “True” Journey
The Hero’s Journey: The Path of Transformation
But there is a more philosophical complication to “finding” and following “our” journey, and it is perhaps the most important consideration of all. When we say “I’m on my journey,” we’re implying that there is a journey out there and we must discover and follow it. However, to say that we “take” a journey is to fall into a language trap. We can’t “take” something unless that something already exists, so when we want to “take” a journey, the language we must use tricks us into believing that there is a “true” journey awaiting us, and we must find it.
This thinking can cause us all kinds of problems. For example, thinking that there is a given journey waiting for us adds a layer of question or doubt to our decision-making and disrupts the process of living authentically: Will this Call lead me to the Journey I “should” take? Is this my “true” journey? How can I know if I’m on the “right” journey?
Trying to decide if we are on the “right” journey or whether a particular journey is the journey we were born to can tie us in knots and make creative, effective action impossible.
The fact is that there is no “true” journey waiting for us. We don’t really “take” a journey: we “unfold” a journey. Our journeys open up organically through a dialogue between us and our world. We act and the world responds by giving us feedback, which opens to us new potentials for action. We evaluate the feedback, explore the potentials and make a new decision, and our journey unfolds.
“Storying” experience make the journey
This perspective discloses two important truths about journeys. First, journeys aren’t plotted. They’re not a screenplay which already exists, “out there,” and in which we simply act out a role. Second, our journeys are never really over. We “write” our journeys as we go, and we can’t know where they will lead because we haven’t lived them yet. In Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences Brian Polkinghorne wrote,
We achieve our personal identities and self concept through the use of the narrative configuration…We are in the middle of our stories and cannot be sure how they will end; we are constantly having to revise the plot as new events are added to our lives (1988, p. 150).
Ask the river, where it comes from? You will get no answer. Ask the river, where is it going? You will get no answer, because the river lives inside this very moment; neither in the past nor in the future, in this very moment only! –Mehmet Murat ildan (Turkish playwright and novelist)
We write our journeys as we go, and we can’t know where they will lead because we haven’t lived them yet. We may envision one goal at the beginning of a journey, but we won’t really know if that’s where we’ll be at the end. The truth is that only when an experience is “over” can it become a journey, and it becomes a journey through story. It’s through the story we tell that our experience truly becomes a journey because it’s through story that we process an experience and give it meaning. And it is meaning which makes a journey a journey.
While we are engaged in the experience, there is no story, no journey to be taken. There is only us, in the moment, trying to make the best decisions we can. It’s only when the disruption that sent us on the journey has been resolved that the journey can take form, find meaning, and it does this through story. As Dan McAdams writes in The Stories We Live By (1993), “To make meaning in life is to create dynamic narratives that render sensible and coherent the seeming chaos of human existence” (p. 166).
This brings us to the second truth about journeys: they are never over. Because journeys become journeys through the story we tell about them to give them meaning, they are constantly evolving and changing as we retell and reshape the story to have relevance to the life we are living today. Tim O’Brien explained this powerfully in his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried (1990):
Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story (p. 40).
In a very real sense, then, the story becomes the “true” journey. And, because our story must evolve over time so that it is “true” for us in our lives at this moment, our “true” journeys will evolve, as well. Three decades before O’Brien wrote about Vietnam, existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who lived through an earlier war, made a similar point about the difference between living an experience and turning it into a meaningful journey (Nausea, 1964):
But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense. You seem to start at the beginning: “It was a fine autumn evening in 1922. I was a notary’s clerk in Marommes.” And in reality you have started at the end. It was there, invisible and present, [giving] to words the pomp and value of a beginning.
So when we shape our journeys through story, we don’t start with the beginning of the adventure. We must begin at the end because the story must bring us logically and finally to where we are at this moment in time. In a very real sense, then, the present creates the journey we have already taken. It dictates the details we choose in telling about the journey and how we shape those details so that the journey has a meaning that is coherent with when and where we are now.
How story liberates our journeys
As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become. –Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre and O’Brien bring us to the most important point about our journeys: a single experience is “polysemous.” It has many potential meanings, and they can all be “true.” Thus, because our journeys take shape and meaning through the stories we tell about them, about what they mean in the present, our journeys can change. It is this polysemy of experience that liberates us. It allows us to reinterpret an experience over time by reframing the story we tell about it so that we change its meaning in our present life―changing our present life. Thus, the breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend which is tragic in high school gets reframed as an immature and foolish when we are in college, and reframed again as a funny lesson in life when seen from the perspective of an adult.
Thus, the current “end” of the journey, where we are today, changes when we reframe its story and give it a more relevant and affirmative meaning now. Because of this, we can redeem even the most devastating of experiences by re-storying them, by changing the end to which the journey leads. Again, quoting O’Brien,
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain (1990, pp. 179-80).
O’Brien’s words bring to mind an important point about our journeys and the stories we tell about them: A story is not a story until it is told, and it can’t be told without someone to hear it. We may be able to re-story our journeys on our own, but more often than not we need a compassionate, understanding audience.
Our audience can be family or friends, a counselor or therapist, but the audience must be there, open, non-judgmental and receptive. Our audience will help us reinterpret and reshape our story. They will help find other potential meanings in the story, and they will help us develop those meanings in ways that allow us to redeem what we thought was lost. They will help us bring our journey into the present and shape it in a way that will enrich our future.
So, how do I recognize my journey?
He stepped outside and looked up at the stars swimming in schools through the wind-driven clouds. –John Steinbeck, East of Eden–
The concept of reframing meaning to revise our lives brings us full circle, back to the question that began our short journey here: How can we recognize our calls and know that we are on the “right” journeys?
The first step is to think in terms of “unfolding” our journeys rather than “taking” our journeys. When we realize that life is not scripted, that there is no journey awaiting us, we free ourselves from the pressure of “finding” our proper journey—as if such a thing existed. We open ourselves to see life as it is so that we can respond spontaneously, creatively and authentically. The journey is really hermeneutic, interpretive, an ongoing process of engaging, interpreting feedback, adjusting our understanding and re-engaging.
Copyright © 2014 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Apart from properly cited quotes and short excerpts, no part of this article can be copied or used in any form, including posting on the Internet, without written permission from the author. Any such unauthorized use is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). For permission, contact Reg Harris.