Last week was a tough week for me. Little did I know, that when I was soundly defeated by Ms. Ferguson in the Haiku contest, my sorrows were only just beginning. Part of my ongoing suffering has to do with enduring the wordless taunting of Ms. Ferguson. I notice now that, whenever she passes me in the hallway, she just smiles at me– ever so politely of course — but I know what she’s thinking. “5 7 5, baby, taste those syllables. Booyah!”
In the depths of my despair, I turned to the works of the late Joseph Campbell for solace. Campbell, considered the leading authority on myths of all kinds, dissected the ancient stories from every tradition, starting with the Greeks, and he discovered that there is one common story that is contained within all of them. He called that story, “The Hero’s Journey.” Campbell broke all of these myths down into 3 parts: separation, initiation, and return (Most of what follows is outlined in detail in the documentary “Finding Joe”):
1. Separation: You were originally in a safe, protected world, but something forced you to leave. Superman had to escape the planet, Krypton, just as Harry Potter had to leave Godric’s Hollow.
2. The Initiation: You experience a call to adventure, and you ended up in a strange environment where you faced incredible trials; the result of this is that you discovered your real strength, your best self. Rocky had to climb into the ring with Apollo Creed, just as Luke Skywalker had to square off with Darth Vader. In both instances, Rocky and Luke discovered something important about themselves.
3. You returned home, but you are now different in an important way, and you are compelled to tell the community the story of how you were transformed. Think of how the Greek epics play off of this.
If you look at contemporary novels and movies, they all contain this same formula of the hero’s journey. You can see it in Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, and even the Wizard of Oz. Consider Dorothy for a moment. She is happy in Kansas, her natural environment, but then something happens to throw her world and her own home, literally, upside down. The result is that she is forced to go on a journey where she has to face all kinds of challenges. At the end of the story, Dorothy finds her true self. She is stronger because of her trials. She becomes a hero, and when she returns to Kansas, in addition to telling Aunti Em that “There’s no place like home!” she also has to tell everyone her story about the Wizard and the yellow brick road.
But the story of the hero doesn’t just live in a book or on a movie screen; we are somehow mysteriously connected to Dorothy and Rocky, and Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. Their journey is in some strange way our own. In all of their trials, something resonates deeply within us. Something whispers, “You can do this, too. You are called to be more.” If you are ever asked, “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” Don’t you, too, yearn to go Batman and reply, “I’m not wearing hockey pads!”
There is the sense that like Harry Potter, we are “the chosen one,” and that we are called to do more and be more than we presently are. There is the sense that our greater selves are for some reason still hidden, even as we realize that our personal destiny somehow involves coming to terms with that hidden self, knowing that we will someday recognize the hero we all carry around inside our spiffy blue crested blazers.
Yes, Dorothy had an adventure, but it went far beyond learning how to deal with the wicked witch; it was also about recognizing her inner strength. She figured out how to get back home, but only after she had been tested. She had to face her fear before she could click her heals. When Luke Skywalker slays his archenemy (in a dream?), he opens Darth Vader’s mask only to discover his own face. The hero’s struggle is about coming to terms with the self. It is about our mastering ourselves.
By the way, the hero’s journey is alive and well at UCC. Just listen to almost any Grade 12 boy’s speech in Laidlaw Hall. Think, for example, about Phillipe’s talk from this very podium just last week. First, it was about his separation. He was comfortable at home in Quebec. He didn’t need to come here, but something drew him to UCC. He had the call to adventure. Second, it was when he was in a far away land that he experienced a number of difficult tests. In his case, literally, he had to master the IB, ToK and varsity rugby, and do all of this in a second language. And in all of these things, he experienced challenge, and triumph and transformation. He is no longer the same boy he was just 2 years ago.
Philippe won’t describe himself as a hero, but he is a part of the heroic tradition. And in that tradition, he told us his story, his story of perseverance. I’ll end by sharing one of Joseph Campbell’s favourite myths, the story of the Golden Buddha. The story goes like this:
Many years ago in Thailand, there was a temple called the Temple of the Golden Buddha. And in that temple was a magnificent statue of a Golden Buddha. One day, word came that an army from another country was about to invade. So the villagers came up with a plan: they covered the golden Buddha with stone and concrete, so that it looked like an ordinary stone Buddha. When the army arrived, they thought it had no value in it, and so they never bothered to steal it.
Many years later, there came a time when the no one in the village remembered that the Buddha was actually golden. Until one day a young monk was meditating next to the Buddha, when a piece of concrete fell off. The monk immediately realized it was gold, and he ran and told everyone in the village. Everyone came out with tools, and they were thrilled to unearth The Golden Buddha.
What is Joseph Campbell teaching us? That we are golden by nature. We recognize the gold in little kids; they are playful and at peace. But when they get older, we send them to school, and we teach them how they are supposed to dress, and what they are supposed to think, and how they are supposed to act, and with whom they are suppose to play. We tell them, in our case, what it means to be a boy, about what kind of man we expect them to become, and how they are expected to write and speak and while you’re at it, don’t forget to get your permission forms and your agenda signed.
This is all well and good, of course, but you could also argue that we are unintentionally putting plaster over gold, and the real danger is that by the time you are in high school, you may only see yourself as a Stone Buddha. But you are not. You are of gold.
Speaking of gold, let me end this morning with a clip from last Friday’s celebration in Laidlaw Hall. (Please roll clip of the students’ reaction.) What is so interesting in these kinds of moments is that we have a few hundred people in a school auditorium, thousands of miles away from a hunk of ice upon which men use pieces of fiberglass to smack around a hard piece of rubber. What’s amazing is the connection between those heroic hockey players in Sochi and the high school boys in Toronto. For just a split second, you are one. That wonderful, euphoric connection is the same sense you get, when you see the hero in any story, whether it’s Erin Brockovich, Batman, or George Bailey. They all whisper, “You can be more, too.”