NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Courage” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Courage: The Hero’s Journey
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
There are many forms of courage. There is physical courage, the inner force that allows us to face danger or perform daring feats of strength and agility. There is the courage to defy convention, to dance, as Henry David Thoreau put it, to the beat of your own drummer. There is the courage to sacrifice for freedom, justice, or any other cause we believe in strongly enough.
In my own life and in the lives of my clients, the most profound form of courage is the willingness to face deeply entrenched fears and self-limiting beliefs and to move beyond them: to see obstacles not as roadblocks but as opportunities for growth. This is the fundamental courage of the Hero’s Journey. It is how we transition from surviving to thriving, victim to victor.
The four travelers in The Wizard of Oz epitomize this courage. On their journey along the Yellow Brick Road, each overcomes self-doubt and delusion and thereby recovers his or her true identity. Dorothy, who believes she has no home, finds “there’s no place like home.” The Scarecrow, who believes he has no intelligence, devises all their strategies. The Tin Woodsman, who believes he has no heart, repeatedly demonstrates great compassion. And the Cowardly Lion, who believes he has no courage, trembling with fear leads the charge. By the end of the film, the “Great and Powerful Oz,” whose weapon was intimidation, is revealed to be just an old man behind a curtain. Even Toto can see that.
Many of my most frightening challenges have been medical, and I have been sidetracked, sometimes for years, by them. I have also dealt with major legal and financial challenges. Following a close brush with death caused by medical error and a successful medical malpractice suit, I spent two years pursuing the attorneys who won the case but stole the award. Finding the courage to continue down my own Yellow Brick Road brought benefits beyond winning a malpractice suit and seeing the crooked attorneys go to prison. These struggles also unveiled an inner strength that transformed me from victim of medical malpractice and grand larceny to a fuller embodiment of my nature.
But my greatest challenges – those that required the greatest courage – have been internal. I grew up painfully shy, fearful of humiliation, afraid to connect to most of the people around me, withdrawn into a largely private world of math, science, and science fiction. Breaking through this shell and pursuing a life of increased connectedness and emotional vulnerability is the hardest thing I have ever done. Even today, working as a therapist, I am often aware of the self-protective impulse to withdraw, but I see it as a signal, instead, to open my heart and reach out. Like the Cowardly Lion, trembling inside, I lead the charge.
In my work as a therapist, I accompany my clients on their often rocky paths. I see remarkable displays of courage: Coming back from a suicide attempt and finding purpose as a healer. Overcoming addiction and becoming an artist. Ending a marriage, or recommitting to one. Breaking free of crippling phobias and isolating depressions. Risking rejection by setting boundaries or asking for what they truly need. Giving up a lucrative but stultifying job to pursue a passion. And many more. It is the most rewarding part of my job.
The model I use in my own life and with many of my clients is that of the Hero’s Journey, as delineated in Joseph Campbell’s landmark book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This comprehensive study sifts through the hero stories of a vast range of cultures and time periods and identifies a structure common to almost all of them, one still present in most of the action dramas and even the comedies of today. They are the stories of the not-quite hero, sometimes the not-at-all hero, who through an unwanted adventure blossoms into true heroism.
In each of these tales, the protagonist appears to be living a passable life, but beneath the surface there is a flaw. Early in the story, he is thrust into situations where things are turned upside down. His friends may become his enemies, his enemies his friends, and the rules he’s lived by no longer guide him. As he sinks into increasingly difficult circumstances, he hits obstacle after obstacle, until he hits bottom. This is the decisive moment. There he will remain, a failed hero, unless he finds the courage to rise up.
His journey back to the world is as fraught with peril as was the way down, but now he knows what he is fighting for. Again he encounters obstacle after obstacle, but now, the struggle to overcome them strengthens him. At last, he arrives home, more fully revealed and with something to offer that he could not have given before. As Campbell put it, “The hero comes back . . . with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The common denominator for all these stories, whether mythological epics like the Odyssey or present-day films like the Star Wars series (which was explicitly modeled on Campbell’s work), is that the protagonist, in finding the courage to rise from defeat, each time gets up a little more wisely, skillfully, and with greater inner strength than before. Even if he does not survive the final battle, he dies a hero.
When I am trying to inspire clients who are at the bottom of the Hero’s Journey arc, I often ask them who their heroes are and explore the qualities they most admire. I point out that they selected these heroes because something in them resonates with these admirable qualities. Our work together brings out the clients’ own heroic nature and helps them complete their personal journeys triumphantly.
In difficult times, I deliberately expose myself to tales of heroism. I watch films like Cinderella Man or The Matrix or revisit sections of the Odyssey to strengthen my resolve to get up from the mat, wake up from the sleep of the matrix, and move ahead. The difference, I have learned, between those who complete their Hero’s Journeys and those who fail to is not better opportunities, more strength, greater bravery, or superior allies, but the courage to get up and try again, even when the odds seem insurmountable and discouragement feels overwhelming. Those who follow this simple guideline grow from their struggles and, regardless of the immediate outcome, acquire stature and a bit of nobility that nobody can take away.