Zero To Hero In Four Easy Steps
I walked into a fast-food restaurant looking for some kind of satisfaction. My body ached and felt a weariness deep within my bones. I just needed a taste of palatable gratification; something I could slide down my throat into my temperamental, empty stomach. It didn’t matter the quality of food, I just needed it. And I needed it now. But when the food came and I began shoveling it into my mouth satisfaction did not follow. At this point in my treatment food tasted weird. The chemotherapy changed my sense of taste into an instrument of mad experimentation. I could taste every chemically-bonded molecule in the blandest chicken breast and every molecule tasted like tinfoil.
I remember feeling pretty pitiful at that point, ready and willing to wallow in my own sorrows until I looked up to see on the television an advertisement for the Ronald McDonald House. A narrator spoke over scene after scene of children, mostly resting in their hospital beds with various tubes and medical apparatuses latched or plugged into them. At the bottom of each scene appeared the child’s name, age, and diagnosis. The commercial was an immediate bracer against self-pity, but one girl in particular delivered the knock out blow. She sat upright, brilliant pale-blue eyes, with an expression of holy serenity captured in the face of youthful beauty. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Age 5.
Pity came to a full stop.
Fictitious Trials and Fake Testing
The Hero’s Journey is an narrative form found in many stories both new and old. In fact its so old it might be the oldest type of story like the epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. Through these type of stories a young man or woman grows through various stages to become the hero. One pivotal stage the protagonist must navigate in the narrative is the ordeal; a stage where the hero is tested and usually endures great pain. Outwardly, the hero must resist the temptations and abuse at the hands of the antagonist or some other great evil. But, also, the hero struggles inwardly, spiritually, against their own doubt and self-pity.
Luke Skywalker, the most famous modern exemplar enters into his ordeal in The Empire Strikes Back–of which he narrowly escapes. We see him struggle with doubt in the swamps of Dagobah under Yoda’s instructions and against the subjugation forced on him by his father, Darth Vader.
Cody (a fictional character of mine and my writing partner’s, Chad Huskins) is a young boy that we’ve saddled with great tragedy in order to tell a compelling story, an adventure, that strongly resembles The Hero’s Journey, too. I would never have identified my moment of self-pity in that restaurant had I not been working to bring Cody’s story to life.
Not Your Imagination
Real life rarely draws bright lines between good and bad choices or trials by fire like fiction. My pity party in a fast food restaurant doesn’t really compare to the revelation that the dark lord who sliced off your hand a moment ago is now claiming to be your father as you dangle from an antennae array over a deep abyss. I’m not a hero and for all the good I’ve done there might be as many times I’ve backslid into pettiness and selfishness. My ordeals arrive as mundane and daily inconveniences, not spectacular showdowns between the forces of Good and Evil.
Suffering in the real world seems to me both deep and meaningless. Any decent person, I believe, should attempt to alleviate pain and despair whenever possible and spare any would-be hero their ordeal. But, good storytelling can distill the human experience, presenting clearly and compellingly what regular life muddles together and makes dull. The hero’s journey and your journey might appear different, but you both go through ordeals. Through their example, we might learn how to build character, cement resolve, and cheat darkness of its victory. Or, at least, stop bellyaching in a fast-food restaurant.