A Hero's Journey


Thursday, March 28, 2002

Twenty-five years ago, today, this creature who houses me, in part, directs me, burned, but for the intervention of the firemen, almost to the ground. About fifty years ago, I am quite sure I was seventeen at the time, I discovered and then read and wrote in what must have been one of the first “self-help” books ever. It was a legacy of my grandfather, who was a great and constant reader, dead almost five years by then, if memory serves. Titled “Think for Yourself,” blank pages were provided for the jottings of the reader, in response to inquiries made by the author. I still have the book, so I can verify the entry. I am quite sure I was that age, because I graduated from high school at seventeen, in January–I was always on the half-shell of educational motion as a result of my day and month of birth and my enrollment into kindergarten at age four years. Just prior to graduation, having apparently been an unusually gifted student in what was then called general physics, and probably as a result of the testing that went on in those years in Milwaukee, I was granted a four year scholarship to MIT. It must have been that fact which influenced what I wrote in the book, for I did not accept the scholarship, though to have done so might have significantly altered the course of my life.

I suspect I did not accept the honor and the significant resultant easing of my financial condition regarding college, because I was afraid. I was afraid for many reasons which I now remember. I was somewhat in fear of NOT following the same institutional pathway that my father had taken. He was a major contributor to the Wisconsin Alumni Association and to Wisconsin sports, if not in money, surely as member and, once president, of the “W” club. Observing and shadowing him over the years about the University, in particular, the football locker rooms after the games or seeing him chide or make wild boastful bets with the likes of, say, Don Gehrman, our four minute miler, must have stuck in my conscience. And, I was afraid, too, of being at such an unfathomable distance from Milwaukee at the time when the family was going bonkers. Pop had remarried to a woman with a son about my age and I suddenly had a “brother,” enter my life without so much as a “by your leave.” He did not do as well as I scholastically, and I was feeling a bit guilty about the apparent imbalance. Grandma, who largely raised me, and to whom I acted as quasi-doctor for the last several years of her life, giving insulin shots, complete with boiling of the needles, and syringe, the morning “clinitest” of her urine, which also required boiling of a urine sample, tending to a diabetic ulcer of her great toe–and miraculously winning the battle, one that no longer is fought. Today, the patient goes straight to the surgeon for amputation, but that’s another story. So I was to be the designated doctor; that is what it seemed to me. And uncle Fred, pop’s only brother and youngest, had finally gotten his life together, marrying a terrific woman after first losing his wife to a brain tumor, then marrying a very wealthy but very screwed-up woman who was hooked on barbiturates.

It seemed to me that there were compelling reasons for me to enter Wisconsin at Madison, but an hour’s bus ride from Milwaukee on the Badger Bus Line that shuttled back and forth on highway 30. I rode that bus in tears not more than three months after starting classes in February of 1953–uncle Fred had died after an operation for a ruptured appendix. Rare, but it happens. And plans of the Leissring Ophthalmic clinic died with him.

Pop helped with the tuition, though I feel today it must have been hard for him in the shadow of this strange Polish wife, to favor me over the other lad, who did not go off to school. So I found jobs: book store clerk, meal jobs, either waiting on tables or washing dishes, eventually, research assistant to a graduate student in embryology, resident counselor, playing the piano in a trio or quartet. I didn’t have a car, though I hardly needed one. Things were not plush, but not poverty, either. When grandma died, she left me about five hundred dollars which pop oversaw. After he lost his job, when his company, with which he had a substantial position, merged with another insurance company, I lent it to him. He never paid it back. He had an odd skinflint habit, one which embarrassed me, and probably contributed to my unusual generosity. Some might call it my sucker mode.

I want to get back to what I wrote in that book. I said something like this: we know more about the super-giant star and the atom than we know about ourselves, though we stand in approximately the middle of that continuum. What I think I meant by the impersonal reference was in-fact me, myself. I believe my search, in earnest, began then, and by refusing the potential of an impersonal scientific career–physics in this case–I unconsciously chose my path, though on the surface, such a path seemed probable, insofar as medicine might have been a portal to me.

I can say I did not find it there. I can say that and know that I am correct. While there were aspects of the study which certainly contributed to my journey, the essence of medicine is something else. The study that I undertook, of the science and art of medicine, was not about medicine. Joe Campbell speaks of a German philosopher who noted that, when on a journey, and one notices that the goal is getting farther and farther away, he will come to realize that the journey is the goal.

Why is it a journey and what is it supposed to mean?

Schopenhauer, who was my grandfather’s favorite writer, tells of looking back upon his life when he was about my age and noticing that the things that seemed unimportant, that just seemed to happen, somehow become the most important elements in a life, and that when looked at in reverse, they take on a central role, becoming the milestones, the most significant markers along a route that seems, somehow, in an unknown fashion, to be orchestrated, as if by someone else. He asks: Who is doing this? My answer is that I am doing this, you are doing this, but it is one of the “you’s” referred to when one says something like: “a part of me wants to . . .”

These events, he refers to, that happen to us, in some fashion we are ready for, and we take-up the challenge if we are ready, or if not, await the next one. That is why they seem so important in retrospect. They form a divergent branch in a connected series which can be seen as one’s “life.” I consider the house fire as one of those things that just happened, but became one of the most important events of my life.

In the PBS interview, Bill Moyers asks Campbell: “Why the hero with a thousand faces?” Campbell answers that the hero’s journey is the only thing that is worth writing about and its metaphorical meaning to each of us is that it is the journey we must take. Further, it is not a journey that goes to some place on the globe or even to a position in space, but it is the journey each of us, if ready to do so, takes when he first opens the door to his inner self, the emersion into the unconscious, the battle we must fight. And, what is that battle?

In metaphor, it is the battle we must do with the dragon. The western dragon is the symbol of our ego, and the ego is our definition of ‘who we are,’ ‘what we can do,’ ‘what is important,’ of our fears.

What if our definition of our self is too small? Our fears too large and undefined? What if the ego tells us we cannot be a writer, or a figure skater or a scientific researcher, a dancer, or pianist, guitarist or composer? This sense of self, of what might be our potentialities, comes to us in our earliest years. Echos from the parental or pedagogical bestowals, a tough encounter with the world, a mis-judged happening. It doesn’t take much. A seminal emotional event can alter even the finest of sociobiological gifts.

Nietzsche’s story of the three stages of the human spirit has us starting out as a camel. The camel kneels before its master and accepts the burden placed upon its back. It struggles to its feet and races out into the desert, where it becomes a lion. The larger and heavier the burden, the stronger and more powerful the lion. The lion must kill the dragon. On each of the scales of the dragon is written the words: “Thou shalt,” or if you like it better this way: “You must do this, this way or that, that way. Follow the rules, the laws.” After the Lion kills the dragon, it becomes a little child again, but a child only, again, metaphorically, for it has assimilated all of the rules and laws of society and has dealt with them in it own way.

The artist who learns the techniques of painting and drawing at first follows the rules, but if s/he is a self-directing, individuated being, takes those rules and uses them as s/he wants to.

In other words, Campbell asks, “are you going to let the machine, and society is a machine, eat you up or are you going to do it your way?”

Campbell does not think of himself as a hero, but he does know he is a maverick. And I am a maverick, too. This is not a hero speaking, but certainly one who has continuously acted when the provident bolt struck and I was, for some reason, then, ready.

Both my sons know, for I have told them, that I knew the marriage that I entered into was somehow the wrong marriage, even in the beginning. Did I then play a hero’s role in staying in it? Maybe I did. That is one interpretation. It is part of being the camel, perhaps. It is also a kind of test of resolve, perhaps in the Sinclair Lewis “Babbitt” sense, it is, but a test nonetheless.

Fifty years and twenty-five years. Significant numbers for me. When the fire came, I was ready for the next journey. It was a journey of another kind of discovery. I call it an incredible gift. When I accepted the opportunity to reconstruct this house, a structure that played an uneasy psychological role in the memory of this city, I entered a magical zone where unseen hands seemed to help me to the goal. Goethe speaks of this: “. . .There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, do it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. . .” The hours of solitude spent here also allowed me to think clearly about my marriage, which ended at the same time I completed the reconstruction.

Before I leave this point in time, I want to tell you about what I think about marriage now. I was influenced by a Swiss, Jungian psychologist, Adolph Guggenthal-Craig, who wrote the little book: “Marriage, Dead or Alive?”

After giving many cogent reasons why people should not marry–especially if they are simply following society’s urges, he then asks the question: What is the purpose of marriage?

Answering himself, he questions: Is it a welfare state? Or is it a soterological state? That word, means “salvation,” but not in the religious sense of the word. It means something like this: self-discovery and manifestation. The presence of another who allows one to say to them everything, somehow, confers this kind of salvation, this ‘individuation,’ the word used by Jung. If the marriage is of that kind, two equals facing each other, each telling or listening as necessary, then the outcome can be self-saving. The other form, the most common form, seems simply a state where one of the parties confers on the other things that he might at the time need: money, sex, status, whatever.

My marriage was not a soterological state, nor, for me, was there any welfare.

And while medicine allowed for a while my innate maverick posture, eventually medicine became enveloped by the ethical qualities of Western society, of Judeo-Christian-Islamic law making. And the lawyers became the gods of medicine, making impossible the maverick’s role within it, and thus disallowing any potential for individuation within its boundaries.

Son number one asked the question of himself: whether he should give-up skating since he was getting no better, in his opinion. He told me this today. He also told me that teaching was becoming so “micro-managed,” and oppressive that he would simply have to give it up or lose his life. Neither welfare nor salvation to be found there, apparently.

This question, of not apparently getting any better, happened to be the same question I raised with my piano teacher the day before, and I found in its asking, both by me and by my son, the answer as I drove home today from another house renovation about 100 miles east of here.

My teacher answered with a story about his life, how as he reached the milestones of his career, starting with a precocious entrance into jazz arranging for important orchestras in the history of jazz music, to a series of compositions, recordings, or other musical points that, as time went on, seemed to lag in time as he assigned to them the likely intellectual age of the composer. In short, he seemed to be going backwards! Though, throughout his life path, there also came these other things, as Schopenhauer might have seen them, that sort of ‘just happened,’ where he stayed for various whiles, had a family, wrote books, studied Sufism, did a myriad of apparently unrelated things, and now, on that same day, yesterday in fact, basked in the knowledge that he was exactly where he had wanted to be all along.

Being a composer, performer, arranger, author, whatever, was not what it was about for him. I say it was about this heroic journey I am alluding to.

When I once spoke to son number one’s skating coach, I said: “This is not about skating, right?” He smiled and said: “You got that right.”

Now the place where it all gets screwed up, I think, is when skating or piano playing or baseball, soccer or whatever become “important” elements which allow, usually, parents to bask in the sunlight of their offspring’s successes, if indeed they come. These children invest enormous energy in attaining supremacy in some endeavor, commonly cleaving-off from their lives the essentials of childhood. Their parents join-in and the whole matter becomes a psychological madhouse. You see parents screaming at each other at soccer events, or somehow influencing outcomes of music recitals, judges improperly judging competitions, and on and on. We saw this, first hand, most recently in the televised Olympic games.

But, instead, take that same game, say figure skating as just an example, and use it as a means of self-discovery. Enter it at a time when others are giving it up, there are no parents hovering around, and then see what can happen. Then, it is not about skating. It is not about being listed as good, better or best; it is about a hero’s journey and the hero is striding inward, opening the doors of the self, killing the dragons of ‘what I can,’ ‘what I can’t,’ ‘what I must.’

I know that’s it for me. It doesn’t matter if I am the world’s worst or best pianist; it is not about the piano. It’s about that inner search.

And, for son number two, who entered one of the most fiercely competitive and in some ways openly injurious zones of human endeavor: scientific research, I hope to remind that the goal is the journey, the journey is always within.

Life is not about anything particular that you or I do, but rather it is about how whatever we do gives us clues to the nature of the dragons who guard the perimeters of what we are now, so we can defeat them and become who we always were.