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March 1, 2000
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Joy of Not Working III: The Hero's Journey
So I'd finally left the corporate world, former colleagues were avoiding my phone calls, and my friends were shaking their heads in astonishment and annoyance. I'd begun Operation Jettison Losers, shedding negative relationships that were non-responsive to resuscitation.
I ventured out most days in jeans and a t-shirt (I still haven't decided on proper long-term storage techniques for unused suits and ties), headed out onto the streets toward bookstores or museums or parks or wherever, but gradually found myself spending more and more time in New York City's Chinatown. Not the touristy, Mott Street jade bric-a-brac and fortune cookie Chinatown, but the backstreet, phonecard, hardware store, noodle shop parts under the Manhattan Bridge, which were mysterious and beautiful and smelly and with some surprise waiting around every corner.
I didn't know then that I was a Hero, and this was the beginning of a long journey.
This type of adventure forms much of the subject matter of brainy guys like Campbell, Jung and others, who take the common threads of various myths from around the world, and note common themes or archetypes. Whether the story of Psyche or Odysseus or the Seven Samurai or Luke Skywalker, the outline pretty much goes like this: our hero heeds a call to adventure, leaving behind the security of his home; he/she encounters a sagely, supernatural helper who arms him with, say, a secret knowledge or sword or (my fave) a lightsaber. The hero proceeds to the threshold of adventure (a wood or cave or castle) which may be guarded by a dragon or somesuch, which is appeased or conquered, upon which the hero descends into the dark netherworld where he overcomes a series of obstacles (the funnest part of the tale, usually), before the main climactic battle (he/she escapes from the dungeon, mounts the stairs, kills the evil sorcerer, and recovers the magic elixer). Transformed, the hero returns to his village, elixer in hand, bestowing blessings on his peeps.
What does this have to do with with li'l ol' t-shirted, midlife-crisis me, sitting in some noodle shop (let alone the message board of a personal finance media giant)? Well, unknowingly, I was following the same archetypal script.
I had felt the call to adventure: nearing 40, I fled Business Land in order to pursue my interests without (for the first time) the pressure and influence of money concerns, and so discover my true passion and life's work. That's what those wonderful career books correctly emphasize, right? "Do What You Love," "Finding the Work That's Right for You," "What Color is My Lightsaber?" Simple, no? Well as a popular over-caffeinated financial pundit would say, "Wrong!"
Didn't work. Doesn't work. I'll tell you why in a couple of paragraphs, if I can manage to stay focused here.
See, the process of "shedding" or "stripping down" is what folks do when they early retire -- they leave behind their identity, social standing and often community -- but this "peeling away" is an essential preparation for the Hero's journey, as well. We go "Down & Out," whether in Paris, London, New York, or Gaylord, Michigan, before descending into the abyss and ultimately re-emerging on the other side, reborn.
At the point when I was developing a weight problem from all the noodle cakes and Peking duck and mai fun, I was really looking for the threshold of my adventure, the entrance to the magic forest. I'd obeyed the call to adventure; I'd stripped away (or driven away with long-winded diatribes like this) many if not most of my friends and associates, and tossed aside my suit of armor and identity and titles. But what was I missing?
Although I was already involved in a bunch of New Age touchy-feely pursuits -- I'd gone vegeterian, was doing tai chi, reading from the Book of the Dead -- I began considering even wilder ideas, hoping to recapture the insight and connection of those trippy college days. Should I travel to Tibet? How about popping peyote in some Native American sweat lodge and seeing with the eyes of the eagle like in the movie "Billy Jack"? Maybe Fiji....
That's when I remembered Greg. (I always change people's names...I'm 'sposed to, right?) Greg told me his life story one night at a party. He was a social worker whom I had met when we were volunteers for a crisis hotline.
Greg had traveled around the world (literally) in his late thirties seeking the truth. Thinking that many of what used to be called "Third World" nations are home to cultures more ancient and genuine and somehow cooler than our little slice of post-Modern, franchised hell, he had donned mufti and traversed deserts, eaten horrid squirmy things in the jungle, lived the ascetic life of the saffron-robed monk, sought out the loincloth-clad yogi, and had somehow wound up on a real desert island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And on that island was a coconut tree, and under that tree was the island's only inhabitant: a wizzened, holy, half-naked sage...watching television (plugged into a generator) (no, I'm not making this up). And on that TV screen was..the Miss America beauty contest.
It was then that Greg had his enlightenment. "I am not a Pacific Islander," he thought. "I am not Japanese, I'm not a Hindu, I didn't grow up hunting jackals or whales. I am a 40 year old Jewish guy from Queens. I'm going home."
Going home, like Odysseus or Leopold Bloom or Greg, is often the last chapter of a Hero's adventure. On some level it's what we're all after.
Well, remembering that story, I called Greg up and asked him to lunch. We met at Zen Palate, a trendy veggy hangout on Union Square. I told him why I'd wanted to meet: "Greg," I said, "I'm looking for something -- I don't know what -- like a jolt, or satori or burst of light that'll get me moving toward my goal of finding my true path. I'm thinking 'Tibet,' 'Arizona,' 'Fiji,' but I don't want to make a fool out of myself with some ridiculous midlife crisis fling that takes me halfway around the globe looking for something I realize is right here all along, you know?"
"What's wrong with being ridiculous?" says Greg.
"Oh c'mon. You know what I mean. Why should I go running around the planet looking for something that's not there, if I can just learn from your experience?"
"'Cause even if you know that it isn't the answer ahead of time, you still have to go through it yourself."
This is not what I'd hoped for, not at all. I didn't know right then that in the intervening years Greg had become a therapist -- a freaking shrink! I was dead meat in this debate. I didn't know that the Hero must meet the supernatural helper, the mentor, before he can descend into the abyss, castle or Death Star.
"So you're saying I should go to Tibet?" I asked, undaunted.
"I'm saying you should think about taking the journey within...self-discovery."
"That sounds good, but the whole idea of my quitting the working world was that I take time to discover my passion, not some self-involved psychological trip."
Then he responded with a question that reverberates even to this day:
"How can you find your passion if you've forgotten how to be passionate?"
So I'd found my Yoda after all.
Sword in hand, I was now prepared for my journey to begin at last.
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