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The Supreme Ordeal

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Today we're exploring the eighth stage of being a hero (from Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces):


8: The Hero Endures The Supreme Ordeal

This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it's a black moment. In STAR WARS, it's the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage, and is held down so long the audience begins to wonder if he's dead. E.T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table. Gandalf falls with the Balrog.

This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It's a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero's return from death.

This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain or The Great White Knuckler make the passengers feel like they're going to die, and there's a great thrill that comes from surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret
societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience resurrection. You're never more alive than when you think you're going to die.

So that's how it is in books and movies, but what about real life?

I'm pretty sure that in real life, when you're in the midst of a "supreme ordeal," the last thing on your mind is a "hero's journey" or "living large," or anything more than just simple survival and undeniable pain and suffering. It's fun to get that vicarious thrill when you're sitting in a movie theater because it isn't really happening to you, nor is it happening in real life to someone you love.

In real life, there's no guarantees that you'll come out on the other side alive and well. Some of us do, and some of us don't. Let's face it, life on earth isn't really life in the movies. With a stroke of a pen, or a few lines on a script, we can't necessarily make it all right in the end. So, how does this fit into our project of living our lives in a larger way? And do we really want to embark on heroic journeys if this is part and parcel of that dangerous trip across the threshold and into a larger more interesting future?

I say yes! Absolutely! Because I don't think that taking a leap of faith means a supreme ordeal is inevitable. What I do think, is that the experience of the supreme ordeal is an integral part of life on earth, I don't think we can get out of it. Even if we hide in our homes and follow the rules and are very very careful never to stick our necks out, that ordeal, that trial by fire is looming on the horizon. Be it the death of a loved one, or an interminable illness. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, earthquakes, war, terrible accidents, and devastating loses can and do occur regularly.

So, I say, let's embrace life. Get out there and take some chances, break a few rules, stick our necks out all they way. What do you say? Any thoughts? Ideas? Insights? Do you agree? Disagree?

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