I’ve ignored it twice in my life. At least.
Which is kind of a big deal.
For those who don’t know, the Call to Adventure is the first stage of the Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 opus The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
As with any seminal tome, there are those who take it a bit too seriously — there is something of a “self-helpy” online church to Campbell — which of course feeds a strong negative counter reaction: folks who think it’s overused, overrated, or outright hooey.
Certainly it’s true that some of the finer points haven’t stood up to time. But then, judging the whole entirely on the fine points is like rejecting a free car because you don’t like the color. The fact is, many of the criticisms — such as that the model is too vague to be meaningful, for example, or that it’s not as universal as it pretends to be, or David Brin’s contention that monomythic literature lionizes despotism — do seem to miss the point, or simply to shoot the messenger. There is a real power, I think, to highlighting that which binds rather than differentiates cultures, especially in a time of rampant Eurocentrism (when Campbell was writing).
Does the Hero’s Journey check every box? Of course not. But universal or not, a bulk of the inherited legacy of our forebears does clearly fit the mold. Some people interpret that uniformity as evidence of banality. Others see it as shades of the same wisdom — that so many disparate tribes and scholars should consciously dress the psychological development of man (yes, unfortunately, they are mostly men) in the same wild furs.
I twice ignored the call. The first time, I was 21 and recently graduated from college. I was sitting on the back stoop of the house I rented with a couple buddies. It was our last night together. My friend was going off to get married, and I had just described to him my latest story idea. I sat smoking a cigar and listened to him explain nicely that I was a fool for traipsing off to medical school, that folks didn’t have crazy ideas like I did, and that I was wasting it.
It meant something coming from him. He was not only on full ride scholarship (to an out-of-state university), he was an English major and an extraordinary writer, or so everyone seemed to think. Our first year at school, he won the English Department’s annual award for outstanding freshman — which, because of his full ride, ended up as nothing but several thousand dollars spending money.
I wanted him to be right. But I had no confidence in myself. No idea how to make a go of it. No idea how I’d live. No one to help. Medical school was practical and sensible. And there was financing.
I ended up quitting a couple years in. It was the right decision.
The second time I ignored the call was just after 9/11. I was visiting a friend in Japan — it was my first trip here — and upon my reluctant return, I immediately applied for a job teaching English, which is what he was doing. It wasn’t so much that I loved the country (or teaching), but it’s fair to say I was enchanted by the utter foreignness. And assuming I got the job, I knew I could expect a remote post, as my buddy had been given his first year, which meant plenty of time to write with few of the distractions of home.
As if that’s what was keeping me from it.
But I had occurred debts in medical school, debts that still harass me to this day, and once again I did the practical, sensible thing and stuck with my low-paying marketing job and my American girlfriend — the same one who cheated on me two years later, as we were talking seriously of marriage.
To be fair to my younger self, I never completely abandoned writing. Which is probably why the call bothered to return. I wrote essays and short stories and even attempted a novel, a sweeping science fiction space myth called Darksign that was full of badly executed good ideas. It spiraled off and I didn’t know what to do with it.
But then, I didn’t really try to figure that out, either.
Take another look at the diagram above. The most important thing about the Call to Adventure is that it comes before anything else. It comes before Supernatural Aid. That is, the doyens of history seem to be telling us, through the vehicle of myth, that help does come, but you have to take that first step yourself — a wisdom repeated in that often-lampooned but poorly understood epithet “God helps those who help themselves.”
If you want things to be better, at some point, you have to get off your ass. I think we all understand that on some level, whether we fess up to it or not. What I’ve learned is that that doesn’t mean you have to leap into the plot of your life right from page one of the story. In the literature of our species, our collected wit, only the most facile action hero ever does that — Captain Seymour Dicklogic, of recent internet fame, for example. Even the prophet Moses refused God’s call, and not once or twice but three times.
But there must come a point where you step off the safe path, where you risk change to realize it, that the story of the unheeded call is only ever tragedy.
cover image: “Lose Yourself” by Artem Demura