A Problem with the Hero’s Journey

I’ve taught the Hero’s Journey for years.

I learned the Hero’s Journey in a screenwriting course back in 2007, and it’s been my main focus in my own writing classes ever since, because it seemed so logical. It’s the monomyth, after all. It’s Joseph Campbell, after all. It just made sense.

We saw it in Star Wars, didn’t we? And thanks to The Memo from Christopher Vogler, we’ve seen it in just about every Hollywood movie since the mid-80’s.

The Hero’s Journey is our journey.

But is it?

The truth of the matter is that in promoting the Hero’s Journey, we’ve created a monster.

2020 has revealed the Hero’s Journey to be a pandora’s box of problems when the shit really hits the fan. Because you see, the problem with the Hero’s Journey.. for most of us… is that we are usually not the hero.

The Hero’s Journey teaches us that we are all the hero of our own story, that we are the ones experiencing the inciting incident, refusing the call, crossing the threshold, fighting the threshold guardians, entering the dark night of the soul, finding the strength to overcome and ultimately overwhelm our adversaries, and returning home, older and wiser.

Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Aberdeen… all heroes. All us. Right?

But the problem is that most of us aren’t the hero. Most of us are the ones on the sidelines, dealing with the decisions of the hero. Most of us are the plebes. Sometimes we’re even the threshold guardians working against the hero.

But we all think we’re the hero.

And the Hero’s Journey doesn’t have a place for the plebes and bad guys who think they’re the hero. It’s only concerned with the hero.

So, the Hero’s Journey is problematic, because for most us, the heroic story isn’t our story. We’d like to think that it is, but for most of us, our story is just getting through the day. Our story is dealing with what the hero does. Our story is survival.

And we’ve really seen this during 2020, haven’t we? Acts of heroism in 2020 are staying home. Wearing a mask. Putting others before ourselves. Not Hero’s Journeying. Not going out and fight dragons and defeating The Empire and putting Lord Voldemort in his place.

That’s where we’ve been deceived with the Hero’s Journey. It’s not nearly as sexy and self-absorbed and hero-centric as we’ve been led to believe it to be.

The real and true hero’s journey is not about us and our journey. It’s about the other…. putting the needs of others before ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are nothing but bit players in a larger production, and our being okay with our just doing our part.

Sure, there are heroes among us. And God bless them. But for most of us, we are not those heroes. We are just players acting out our parts. We are often the plebes. We are often the antagonists.

We need to recognize the truth in this.

And so, as I think about what I will teach my writing students in the future, I realize that I need to retool what I teach about the Hero’s Journey, about the monomyth. Yes, it needs to be acknowledged as a method of storytelling, but does it need to be applied to our lives like some sort of universal truth?

I don’t think so.

Because we are often not the hero.












Life in China is seldom boring.

Life in China is seldom boring.

Around 9:30 AM this morning, we had a cake delivered to our flat. We didn’t order it, there was no note.

An hour later, we had three cups of honey bubble tea delivered to our house. We didn’t order it, there was no note. But there was a phone number that ended in 9193. We had no idea who 9193 was, but I did wonder, as a typical American, if someone was trying to poison us.

An hour later, we had a personal sized durian pizza and a bag of four chicken nuggets delivered to our house. Same deal. Same number. Same concerns.

This isn’t so unusual for us, believe it or not. Last week, the guards at our flat said that someone tried to deliver a cake and coffee to us. A month ago, someone delivered several sauces to us. A couple of months ago, someone delivered a bag of stationary to us. The only hint of who was behind this was a note that this was all for an American family (we’re the only one in our complex), and it was sent by someone named Crystal.

Of course, I was immediately suspicious about all of it. Is this stuff poisoned? Is someone setting us up for a scam? What’s really going on? Being an American can really be tedious.

Turns out our anonymous benefactor didn’t do a great job covering her tracks, and left her WeChat info with the guards. We were able to contact her today, and it turns out that K had helped promote her business a while back on Chinese social media, and she just wanted to say thank you.

And so, notebooks and sauces and cake and coffee and juice and honey tea and pizza stretched out over months. Just to say thank you for something we didn’t even realize we had done.

I still don’t who this woman is, but for some reason, she knows who we are, and she is grateful to us.

Life in China is seldom boring.

How we treat strangers…

Noah, my seven year old, and I were on our way to Walmart today when we happened upon a science fair in the mall next to Walmart.

Yes, our daily life in China involve visits to Walmart. More than I wish it would, but when it’s a ten minute walk from your apartment, it’s hard to not go.

The science fair was fun for Noah. There was a real tarantula in a cage, one of those Frankenstein globes, and a live display of the effects of dry ice.

Noah was entranced by the science. I was entranced by the hospitality.

See, there were about a dozen Chinese kids sitting and watching the display, but the host focused in on Noah, the one foreign kid. The host asked Noah to come forward first, to help him with an experiment. Why? Because he was the one foreign kid. All the other kids were dying to participate, but the host chose Noah. The host did his best to include Noah in everything he did.

This is the way we’ve been treated nearly every moment we’ve been in China for the past seven years. We’re foreigners, and we are constantly given special treatment. We’re put at the front of the line, shown extra hospitality, granted special privileges.

This is my experience in China. Regardless of what you are hearing in the news about China, understand that this has been our experience. Consistently.

We have always been treated well.

And when I turn my attention back home, it’s shown me that America has a lot to learn about how to consider people who are different than we are. The foreigners. The strangers. The different. We have a whole lot to learn.

It’s interesting what you can learn on a trip to Walmart.

Normal.

We all want things to be normal again, don’t we?

Can you believe that ‘normal’ was just six months ago? Less if you aren’t in Asia.

Six months. Not so long ago.

What, exactly, did we like so much about normal that we want it back again? Was it the predictability? After all, before, we knew what would happen tomorrow because it had happened yesterday. There was comfort in that.

Normal was predictable and comfortable.

On paper.

For most of us.

In reality, for many of us, normal wasn’t so predictable. Normal, back then, still had cancer. Normal, back then, still had divorce. Normal, back then, still had accidents. Normal still had tragedy. Back then, normal wasn’t normal for many of us.

Pre-Covid normal still took many of us by surprise.

But still, compared to what we are experiencing now, pre-Covid normal was heaven on earth. Right? Pre-Covid normal was something that we should be longing for, right?

Except maybe it wasn’t. Pre-covid normal took me and my two oldest children on a flight from China to America to watch my mother die. A mother who shouldn’t have died. A mother who was perfectly healthy until just a couple of months before. Pre-covid normal let me and my two oldest children watch my mother die in a hospital with my brothers and my sister. My family.

Pre-Covid normal could be brutal.

Pre-Covid normal could be a bitch.

Pre-Covid saw many of us lose our parents and our children and our friends and our loved ones to all kinds of heartbreak.

Pre-covid normal was not necessarily such a great place.

And yet, we all want things to be normal again. We all want Covid to be behind us. But maybe this is the wrong thing for us to want.

Covid has something to teach us, if we are open to learning. After all, Covid has forced us to slow down, to consider others before ourselves, to reprioritize.

Covid has forced us to reconsider what should be normal in our lives.

Covid has forced us to reconsider.

Reconsider.

I don’t have an answer for this question. I don’t know what normal should be for me these days, let alone what normal should be for you. I just know that opportunities like this don’t come around often, and I don’t want to waste it.

Personally, I don’t want things to return to normal.

I want things to be better for all of us.

Now we just need to figure out how what that means.

Our new normal needs to be better. It just needs to be.

A love that transcends all of this

Jesus told us to love our neighbor.

He said this, and then he went on to tell a story about how important it is that we love our enemies.

This covers the gamut. If we follow Jesus, we need to love our neighbors and we need to love our enemies.

It couldn’t be more clear.

This is from Jesus. Not me.

And the love of Jesus is not passive. It’s active. It’s not a hippy dippy “all we need is love” mentality… it’s a get-down-in-the-dirt with people who are hurting and love them mentality. This is the love of Jesus.

The love of Jesus is the kind of love that would find a wounded man on the road and not pass him by. It’s the kind of love that would find a wounded man on the road not pass him by and bind his wounds. It’s the kind of love that would find a wounded man on the road and not pass him by and bind his wounds and take him to a place where he would be cared for, and pay to make sure he was cared for.

It’s the kind of love that would do all of this for a wounded man who is the enemy.

This is Jesus’ love… it is a sacrificial love.

My reading of Scripture tells me that Jesus doesn’t care jack-squat about our politics. Jesus doesn’t care jack-squat about our notions of freedom or liberty. Jesus doesn’t care about our comfort.

My reading of scripture tells me that Jesus cares about the way we treat our neighbors. He cares about the way we treat our enemies. He cares about the way we treat our community.

That’s what my reading of scripture tells me. That’s what my reading of scripture tells me about who Jesus is.

And it transcends all of this.

Anti-maskers… I just don’t get it.

I had an interesting conversation with one of my Chinese coworkers today. We were shooting the breeze about summer school, when I remembered that there was something I had wondered about for some time.

I asked her about the Chinese response to mask wearing. Since January, did anyone ever oppose it? Was anyone ever against it?

It was like I’d asked her if people in China breathe air. Why would they oppose something that benefits everyone?

I told her that some people in America continue to refuse to wear the mask, even when the virus is not nearly under control.

Again, it was like I told her that some people in America refuse to breathe air. It didn’t make sense to her.

And it doesn’t make sense to me.

I can understand that someone could’ve felt this way in the beginning. After all, masks aren’t unusual in Asia, but they are in America. We haven’t had to wear masks before, and they are not comfortable. I can get people not wanting to wear them.

In the beginning.

But now? When the science has shown that wearing a mask helps fight the virus… why wouldn’t people wear them now?

This is my question. If you are a person who continues to refuse to wear a mask… why? What is your reasoning? I’m not asking this to start a fight, I’m truly trying to understand your point of view. What scientific evidence to you bring to your position? And if you are a Christian, how do you respond to the argument that wearing a mask demonstrates love to your neighbor?

Seriously. I don’t want a fight. I want to understand.

Because right now I don’t.

Breathe

Breathe. Just breathe.

Breathe.

Life can be awful, especially these days. Life punches us in the ribs when we’re down for the count. Life pushes us to our limits and backs us into walls and drives us to the floor.

Sometimes all we can do is breathe.

So then, breathe.

Just breathe.

I’m not talking about breathing in some figurative sense. I’m not telling you to breathe metaphorically. I’m encouraging you to simply, actually breathe.

Literally, breathe.

Just breathe.

Take a moment and feel the air going into your lungs and filling you with life. Make a point to feel it. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Feel it. Enjoy it. Luxuriate in the oxygen entering your lungs. Imagine the fear and the anxiety and the paranoia leaving as the fresh air enters.

Let your breathing give you focus.

The world may be falling apart all around us, but taking a moment and breathing, just breathing, can help bring things back into focus.

Where there is breath, as they say, there is hope.

Where there is breath, as they say, there is life.

So breathe. Just breathe.

Outrage. It’s all the rage.

Outrage.

It’s all the rage these days, isn’t it?

Stories are posted and shared and we’re outraged. And so we share. And then more people are outraged. And then they share and more are outraged.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Outrage is the fashion.

I’m outraged that people are wearing masks. I’m outraged that people aren’t wearing masks. I’m outraged that the government is pushing to open schools. I’m outraged that people are pushing people to stay home and destroy the economy. I’m outraged about systematic racial injustice. I’m outraged that people are tearing down statues.

Outrage. Outrage. Outrage.

If I didn’t know any better, I would think that someone, somewhere, is working hard to keep us in a constant societal state of outrage.

Here’s the thing. Outrage, when responding to specific injustice, can be a positive force for change. But outrage, when carefully cultivated in fearful times, can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.

That seems to be happening in July 2020.

Outrage is benefiting someone, somewhere. But it is not benefiting us. The regular people. The folk. We are not being benefited by the outrage. We are being manipulated.

I suggest that it’s time that we became the manipulators.

We need to PURPOSE to be in a different state, a state of anti-outrage. We need to purpose to be in a state of “inpeace”, as coined by my Twitter friend, Keith Lango.

We need inpeace. Not outrage.

What does inpeace look like? It means being people who look for a peace-building response outraged responses. It means being people who actively seek to demonstrate kindness and empathy and understanding instead of just flaming and being pissed off.

Being inpeaced is an active choice. Especially these days, when there are plenty of voices clambering for rage. These days, when there are plenty of voices trying to sew division.

That’s what we need to figure out: how to be different. We need to figure out how to counter the voices that are working to divide us and encourage us to work against each other.

Outrage. I’m not having it anymore. I’m dedicated to working on being a person of inpeace, even as I try to figure out what that means, practically.

I’m still trying to figure it out. But I wonder… who’s with me?

What lifetime habits has COVID-19 given you?

For me, they are as follows.

1. I will touch the elevator button with any part of my body other than my finger. Because my finger touches my face.
2. Browsing in the supermarket? No thank you. Get in and get out. Like special ops.
3. If the need arises to cough or sneeze in public, I will put my body through whatever contortions are necessary to suppress that cough or sneeze.
4. Buffet? No thank you. Never again.
5. Everyone will always stay away from me. Always. Social distancing is my jam.
6. I will wash my hands each and every time I have the opportunity. With soap. For 20 seconds. At least.
7. There is no place like home.
8. Crowds have always been overrated.
9. Work should always be done pants-less.
10. I’m important, but so is my neighbor.

What about you?

Reopening Schools in a Pandemic

Lots of upset people on Facebook today. The push from the White House to restart face to face instruction in school and university is scary, especially to teachers.

If you are upset, then you are feeling exactly what we were feeling in China back in April when we received word that schools would reopen on April 24. We were upset. We were livid. We met together (on Zoom) to strategize and plan and figure out how we would stop the reopening from happening. It was just too dangerous.

And then we were told to come to school for COVID tests, which were required of everyone before the school could reopen, and reluctantly, we went. When we arrived, we were amazed at how organized our Chinese staff was. We were social distancing, everyone was wearing masks, it was very well planned and organized, and it was incredibly reassuring. Maybe we could do this.

And so, on April 24, we reopened. It was extremely strict. Meter distancing. Nobody in the building without passing a COVID test first. We scanned a QR code every day when we arrived that confirmed that we hadn’t travelled. The rooms were set up so that the students would be separated, and we had spare rooms in case someone became sick during school. And quarantine tents. Hand sanitizing stations everywhere. Certain routes students could take. No more than one person in the bathroom at a time. Everyone masked all the time. And the classes were a continuation of distance learning, just in the school. No actual face to face instruction allowed.

It was incredibly strict and monitored and careful. We did this for almost two months, with regulations coming down from the Chinese version of the CDC every day. And we complied all the time.

By the way, this was only after our city had gone weeks without any new domestic cases of the virus. Understand that: the reopening did not happen until the virus was essentially done in our city, but everyone continued with precautions.

Since the reopening, with a continuation of no new cases, we’ve been able to reopen even more. Summer school has proven to be much less restrictive, with social distancing encouraged but not patrolled, masks being worn, but optionally. Face to face instruction encouraged. I’ve been actually teaching these last three weeks.

We’re pulling out of this thing after months of hard choices and hard work. And we’ve still not had any new local cases. That’s what has enabled things to return to normal.

Meanwhile, in America, lots of people are upset today. The push from the White House to start face to face instruction in school and university is scary, especially to teachers.

As well it should be.

Looking at the latest numbers of new cases in America, uncertainty about reopening schools is exactly as it should be.