The gift of strife

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the elements of classic literature. It’s not because I’ve finally undertaken The Illiad or spent the last few weekends binge-watching period pieces.

I’ve been reflecting, as one does when another year approaches, about where I am in my life, and how far I’ve come to get here. As I step off what feels like a precipice, hold my breath, and hope there’s water below, I’m reminded of how all great journeys start.

Quick refresher (because you know you Cliff Notes-ed your way through Mr. Hopkins’ freshman year English class). The monomyth (or “hero’s journey”) is the classic story structure you see in everything from Shakespeare to Star Wars, in which the main character goes on an adventure, rife with challenges along the way which they ultimately overcome, and subsequently return home, transformed.

There are three acts, each with several stages within them. I’m not going to go through all 12 stages. But I’ve highlighted my favorites (and I think the most important) in each act.

I. Departure

  • The call to adventure (so it begins)
  • Belly of the whale (death of known world/self to necessitate a rebirth)

II. Initiation

  • The road of trials (struggles; must undergo to begin the transformation)
  • Apotheosis (climax; a new consciousness is achieved)

III. Return

  • Master of two worlds (transcendence; successfully balancing the inner and outer worlds)
  • Freedom to live (presently; without fear of future or regret of past)

Conflict is a literary device used to drive the story forward. It’s the challenge the main character faces and needs to overcome in order to achieve their goals. There are two categories of conflict: internal and external. And there are three main sources of conflict within those categories:

  • man vs. man (external)
  • man vs. environment (external)
  • man vs. self (internal)

You could argue for man vs. machine and man vs. society, but in my mind those still fall under man vs. environment (because machines are within the “made” environment) and man vs. man (because society is people). I’m not going to fight you on this… though if I did, that would definitely fall under man vs. man (*Ahem* or human vs. human).

We have all completed some part of this arc. Some of us are stuck in the rising action and awaiting what’s to come; some are still battling themselves or out slaying dragons; some are trying to figure out how to retain the wisdom gained on the quest and integrate it into their everyday life.

I’m not sure where I am currently, but I have a sinking suspicion that you don’t get just one. Life is a continuous hero’s journey. You will continue to be challenged, and undoubtedly you will fail some of the tests. What you encounter along the way will delight you, and it will cause you great pain and make you afraid. It will force you to stretch and grow in new and uncomfortable ways.

Birth is never an easy process.

Be brave. Have the courage to persist. And I promise that slowly, heroically, you will understand more fully how to live. It is written.


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