After climbing Kilimanjaro…I was forced to redefine myself. Climbing the mountain was the hardest thing I had ever done, physically, in my life, but I had done it. ~ Michael Crichton ~
(Adapted from The Hero’s Journey: The Path of Transformation. Copyright Ⓒ by 2016 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved.)
I had defined myself too narrowly
In his wonderful book Travels (1988), author and director Michael Crichton writes about his ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The five-day climb (three up, two down) turned out to be the greatest physical challenge of his life. On just the second day, he was already battling horrible blisters and exhaustion. His guides felt that he would never make it to the summit.
Crichton struggled, both physically and mentally, walking in pain and doubting his ability to reach the top. At one point, a doctor who was in his climbing party told Crichton his blisters were so bad that would have to return. Crichton refused. He pushed himself up the mountain, reached the summit and, in the process, awakened potentials that he had suppressed all his life:
What I learned [from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro] was this: that I had defined myself as a person who didn’t like heights or cold, a person who didn’t like to be dirty, a person who didn’t like physical exertion or discomfort. And here I had spent five days cold, dirty, and exhausted; I had lost twenty pounds; and I had had a wonderful experience….I realized then that I had defined myself too narrowly….I had always secretly defined myself as a physically weak and somewhat sickly person. After climbing Kilimanjaro, I had to acknowledge that I was mentally and physically tough. I was forced to redefine myself. Climbing the mountain was the hardest thing I had ever done, physically, in my life, but I had done it (p. 168).
Transcending Perceived Limitations
By climbing Kilimanjaro, Crichton had unintentionally put himself into a situation that would force him to transcend what he believed were his limitations, to step outside of the life narrative he had written for himself. Afterward, he had no choice but to redefine who he was. The climb was for him a call to the adventure of the rest of his life. After Kilimanjaro, he began to try things he didn’t think he would like and to do things he didn’t think he could do.
For many of us, our journeys in life are journeys of redefinition. The story we have become has outgrown the story that we are living, and we are forced to find or create a new context for our self-narrative. Or perhaps our story has evolved, we have become a different person, but our current situation will not accommodate that new person, and we go on a journey to find a new situation that can accommodate who he have become.
The danger, of course, is that we see our self-definitions as who we are rather than as how we see ourselves at this particular moment in our lives. Then our self-definition begins to limit our lives and create inconsistencies between what we are required to do and who we really are.
The Journey to Redefinition
“Redefining” ourselves—or revising our personal narrative, if you will—is one of the driving principles of in the Hero’s Journey. We outgrow our self-definitions and our defining personal narrative becomes too small to contain the person we have become. When this happens, the limitations or inconsistencies we begin to see in our lives call us to a journey to redefine not just who we are, but what we’re capable of doing. It’s a journey to expand our personal narratives—our story of who we are.
We face the Threshold Resistance (and the Call Refused) when our threatened egos try to protect themselves from change, or when our lifestyle (job, peers, family) caution us to cling to the security of the known. But if we push through the resistance and embrace the struggle and pain of growth, the journey will take us to new levels of consciousness and self-understanding. Like Crichton, we will reach the peak, and from that expanded perspective, discover a world of possibilities and opportunities we had never imagined were open to us.