In 1949, American Mythologist Joseph Campbell published his magnum opus: The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
In it, he laid out his theory of the monomyth (one myth) and the archetypal hero, commonly referred to today simply as the “Hero’s Journey.”
Through his studies of the world’s mythologies, from ancient tribes to modern day Christianity, Campbell discovered that nearly all of history’s cultures came up with the same basic storyline when creating the myths that guided them — even if these tribes lived completely isolated and in drastically different parts of the globe.
This Hero’s Journey is a framework you’d likely recognize, as one would be hard-pressed to find a movie these days that doesn’t follow it. George Lucas himself has discussed at length how Campbell’s work helped shape Star Wars, one of the most iconic stories of modern culture.
To understand why these ancient and modern storytellers continually gravitate towards the same script, we should look at one of the commonly-accepted definitions of an archetype: a collectively-inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present, in [all] individual psyches.
In other words, these stories are used so commonly because they speak to something inherent within all of humanity, a core sense of the human experience that we all share regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality, etc. Thus, the hero’s journey represents a truth our ancestors have all inherently understood for thousands of years, a natural and pure core of the human condition that every civilization has discovered no matter the time period or culture.
It’s why millions upon millions of people from different backgrounds with drastically different lifestyles can all equally enjoy the same film. It’s why any true writer knows one saying above all others: “Show, don’t tell” — because telling them would mean you’re stealing from the audience the chance to project themselves into the story. Your goal as a writer is to create storylines and characters so raw and universal that anyone can see themselves as the Hero of the journey. Show them the framework, let their imaginations decorate it. Don’t tell them the decorations, because if you do, you’ve rejected the bridge that lets them envision themselves as part of the story.
So, what is the hero’s journey?
Into the Dark Forest We Go
Campbell describes the basic pattern of the Hero Journey as such:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[source]
If we break this down into the typical 3-Act structure most stories follow and simplify the language a bit, we see a story progression as follows:
- Order (Society and what’s known)
- Chaos (The dark forest and the unknown)
- Order (Back to society and what’s known)
In this way, all stories are compromised of two modes of operating: Chaos and Order. Let’s dig a bit deeper into these 3 acts.
Act 1 — Order:
The hero starts in the normal world of order, inside civilization where the dangers of weather and wild animals and darkness are kept at bay by temperature controlled buildings, fences, and light.
Act 2 — Chaos:
Then he enters the world of the unknown, of darkness. He goes here to get answers, to learn lessons, to figure out how he can solve an issue that is threatening the normal world of order he lives in.
He does this by meeting with new people he doesn’t normally associate with, people different from those he was raised with. He asks questions, listens with an open mind, and subsequently discovers what they know so he can gain more hints on where his answer can be found. This is what makes him a hero: his ability to listen, to change, to adapt. And it has to be this way. If the problem could be fixed by what was already known by his community, there would be no point to the story, no lesson.
In many older stories, the chaos that must be confronted in this way is symbolically represented by a dragon; the golden treasure it hoards and protects is the lesson that needs to be learned. The hero slays the dragon and gets the gold, learning the lesson it was hiding. This is the climax of the story, the whole point of the entire myth.
Act 3 — Order:
Now what? Well, what’s it worth to learn something if it doesn’t improve your normal life? Not much. So to complete the story, the hero must return back to the world of order with the lesson, with the treasure he found. And to be hero, he must share his bounty with the rest of his civilization.
Now his community and his society are all better off. This story is complete.
But of course, existence is always changing, chaos is ever-present. And so another threat or complication arises, and so once more a hero must go out into the world of chaos to bring back new lessons and riches to society.
The Difficulty of Chaos Must Be Endured For Growth
This is what progress is. This is how societies become better:
- Part of society constantly goes into the uncomfortable unknown, interacting with forces not common for that person, and challenges themselves to not only grow personally, but to benefit their society.
- The other part of society holds down the fort; they keep civilization functioning while the heroes are away, and when the heroes return with their bounty, they integrate the heroes’ lessons into the system they’re maintaining.
Recognizing Our Role in the Modern Hero’s Journey
So here we are, the promise of the title that lured you here.
All of this build up was for you to realize three things:
- The heroes who go venture into the unknown to slay dragons — these are the liberals.
- The people of society who maintain the system and keep it functioning properly — these are the conservatives.
- Both are needed for a functioning civilization.
Without liberals, progress doesn’t happen and societies will collapse because they’re unable to learn the lessons necessary to adapt to the feedback loop of technology that constantly creates new problems every time it finds new solutions. Without liberals, we’d still be monkeys getting eaten by hawks and leopards because we were unable to learn the lessons of fire, hammer, and language.
Without conservatives, those lessons would never have been systemized, maintained, and passed down so that we could continually build on them. Or in the words of Isaac Newton, we’d have never been able to “stand on the shoulders” of those who came before us so that we might be able to see further.
If conservatives don’t maintain the edge that the liberals push out thanks to their exploration, the liberals don’t have anything to come back to. Their progress is lost, their gains forgotten and unused.
If the liberals don’t push out, the conservatives don’t find new ways of surviving and progressing, and would eventually die off because no one would come up with creative solutions to the many difficult problems that come their way.
For example, we would have never gotten the internet if it wasn’t for “hero” hippies in California enjoying a culture of illegal(chaotic) mind-altering psychedelics. And we wouldn’t have the laptops and smartphones and infrastructure that lets us all use the internet if it wasn’t for an economic market and distribution system created and maintained by “conservative” and “orderly” types.
If you don’t think this is the case, imagine a company like Google managing their 62,000+ employees with absolutely no “order” or systematic rules… Do you think the internet and your smartphones would work if everyone who glimpsed the possibilities of these technologies simply continued to drop acid, listen to Hendrix, and have sex nonstop? Of course not. Someone along the way had to give it form, had to take the lessons the hippies found as they “tripped” into the unknown, learned the lessons, and brought them back to everyone so that the system, so that society, could all share in the bounty and progress together.
Would America exist if people didn’t venture into the unknown? Would it have become a country as powerful as it’s historically been if it wasn’t for our founding fathers laying down an orderly set of laws that would allow for the chaos of individual freedom to thrive inside a systematic structure of social agreements?
Everyday is balance between chaos and order
All of who you are, your entire life, is based on having a country and home that you can rely on for safety(order), so that you can have the freedom to go out into the world of traffic, strangers, careers and creativity, etc(chaos) and be anyone you want to be, so that you can can make yourself, your home, your family, and your country better.
If you’re trying to better yourself at all, to progress in any way, to live a more fulfilled life, to get healthier, smarter, to be a better lover, a better husband, a better father, a better mother, a better wife or a better employee; if you have any inkling to be more than a useless consumer being manipulated by your society until you get sick and die, then you’ve got to be out there challenging yourself, exposing yourself to new lessons that will help you better your “normal” world of order. You can’t learn if you don’t open yourself up to things you don’t know.
The story you live everyday — the objects you interact with, the past times you partake in, the aspects of society you navigate — it’s all thanks to an ever-increasing compromise between chaos and order. Without this compromise, you can’t become better. Without it, you’d simply stay the same. That’s death.
For example, imagine you get sick — do you keep doing things the same way? If your doctor tells you that you need to stop drinking alcohol and eating red meat otherwise you’ll die, do you just ignore him and keep doing the same thing? Maybe you do — maybe you’re a stubborn bastard. But if you do — you’re as good as dead. Your life is short and full of pain.
In the same way, if our society gets sick, we can’t just keep doing the same thing, we have to change, we have to adapt, we have to progress.
And right now, we have a sick society. We all know this. We know this because our healthcare system is falling apart, because every week our children are killing each other with rifles while at school, because depression is on the rise and because 60% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover an unexpected $500 expense.
And perhaps most clearly: we can tell we’re sick because we’re seemingly incapable of having a respectful conversation with people who disagree with us. And this is the tragedy I’m seeking to draw your attention to, because remember: without embracing chaos, our normal world doesn’t get better. Without embracing difficult conversations, exposing ourself to new ideas and uncomfortable experiences, there is no story, there is no lesson, there is no progress.
Broken Conversations = Broken Society
And this is why I write this article, because the divisiveness between our political groups is forcing our society’s story to fall apart. The glue that holds the fabric of our society is unraveling, because we no longer let the heroes and society work together.
We’ve made it a sign of heresy for members of either group (chaotic liberals or orderly conservatives) to talk to the other side. If you’re a conservative and you think that a liberal makes a good point, you’re suddenly cast out from the right and declared an enemy. If you’re a liberal and you think conservatives have a good point, you’re immediately cast out from the left and declared an enemy.
This is self-evident every time we hear a conservative call someone a “special snowflake” and every time a liberal calls someone a “fascist, racist/sexist, sheep” when they disagree with them, even amongst themselves. And that’s the scariest part — you don’t even have to like the points of the other side anymore to be an enemy, you simply have to disagree with your side.
And this is the reason we’re suffering: we are demonizing and scaring into silence those who wish to represent the bridge between chaos and order, those who know that in order to survive, we must work together. We demand everyone agrees with us, to ensure there is no journey into chaos.
And because of this, we can no longer have honest conversations. We can no longer ask questions. We can no longer explore any area of unknown — that area of chaos where we find answers. Instead, we simply try to see who can yell the cliche slogans of their ideological in-group the loudest, as we cling to outdated answers and arrogant attempts to pretend we know everything, while all we’re really doing is pushing away the very people we need to work with if we’re ever going to find the compromise that let’s this story continue — that keeps us from erupting into civil war.
It’s a terrible kind of irony that the main thing leading us towards conflict is our fear of conflict — our fear of difficult conversations. We’re so afraid of admitting that we might not have all the answers, that we actually may need “unknowns” and people we’re not used to dealing with to move forward, that we’re simply festering in our reality-tunnel, echo-chambers as our society gets more violent, our socioeconomic gap widens, our healthcare system gets worse, and our quality of life nosedives.
So ask yourself: do you want to reduce hatred and violence? Do you want to have a safer environment for you and your family and friends? D you want to be more financially stable, healthy, and happy?
Then you have to appreciate what our ancestors have known since we first started uttering words: that both roles in the story are necessary — chaos needs order, and order needs chaos.
You have to be willing to have the conversations that weave the story together, that support the heroes on their journey into chaos, and that support the order so they’re able to implement the lessons the hero learned. Otherwise, no lessons are learned, and society will collapse into war thanks to our lack of adaptability, thanks to that cowardice that makes you parrot your peers rather than showing you have the courage to listen, to learn, to grow, and actually benefit yourself and society.