The Hero's Journey: The Innermost Cave


Author's note: This week is the seventh in a 12-part series on the Hero's Journey, or the monomyth proposed by Joseph Campbell. The seventh stage is The Innermost Cave. Are you afraid of the dark?

For many of us, this simple question may conjure memories of dark corners of our bedrooms as children, or maybe images of an infamous basement cellar.

In the house I grew up in, the basement light was a lone bulb in an antiquated fixture in the center of the room, controlled by a single switch connected to three feet of string. As a child, my goal was to extinguish the light and fly back up the stairs before that bulb's glow yielded to the creeping darkness that soon engulfed the room.

For many of us, the darkest places may continue to produce unsettling feelings, from a dimly lit parking lot to a dense forest at dusk.

In the dark depths of the Innermost Cave, we come face to face with our greatest fears.

Each and every one of us experiences the Call to Adventure, from addressing specific issues in our organizations, to mobilizing people to confront challenges in our communities and the world around us.

When we commit ourselves to consistent, persistent, and purpose-driven action, we are Crossing the Threshold, experiencing the hero's journey as a guide for our own personal journey, and rising to the challenges of our organizations, our communities, and our world.

But, what awaits brings even the strongest, most courageous heroes to their knees.

Caves are fascinating, intriguing, and mystifying places. Even with modern equipment, to travel into the darkest depths of a cave requires great amounts of strength and resolve. In the ancient world, caves were critical components for many rites of passage. These foreboding tunnels were both passages to the underworld, as well as the earth's womb from which initiates were reborn and transformed.

In those ancient rites, initiates departed the relative comfort and warmth of familiar worlds, entering a mysterious world shrouded by unknown and unseen challenges.

The cold, dark interior of the cave and its treacherous floors contributed physical challenges, while the deprivation of auditory and visual stimuli, the expansive and vast unknown of the environment and the creatures within, and the solitary nature of the journey provided intense psychological trials.

What formidable foe awaits us in the Innermost Cave?

"Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power." -Lao Tzu

When we embark on the hero's journey-the experience of making a meaningful difference for our organizations, our communities, or our world, we oftentimes do so with the naive notion that only others are changing. The truth is, in order to win, you have to lose. In order to triumph through the hero's journey, you have to change as a person, letting go of part of who you are.

"We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." -Joseph Campbell

As a college student, I wanted to address hazing in my organization. (You can find my story here.) In the process, I never imagined making a decision to leave the organization. Despite the fact that I disagreed with many of my fraternity brothers on this particular topic, I genuinely thought of them as brothers and friends. More so, I had never really found a group of true friends in high school. As I was attending LeaderShape and recommitting to confronting hazing in my organization, if anybody had told me that all of the people I had called brothers and friends for two years would turn their backs on me, I don't know what I would have done.

At the outset of this part of my personal journey, I was not ready to confront my fears. It was only after meeting with my mentors, and growing through a series of tests, that I possessed the strength and resolve to face my greatest fears.

Each and every time we go into situations that are difficult, stressful, or downright scary, regardless of how large or small they may be, we are building capacities and future strength to overcome our fears in the future.

If you choose to not get involved or to step away, you are feeding and growing your fears, but most importantly, you are giving those fears the power to rule your life. After all, our fears exist only in our minds.

Our power lies in choosing to take on our fears.

Now you must journey inwards… to what you really fear… The will is everything. If you make yourself more…, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely.

For many of us, it is easy to focus on the risks and uncertainties, but the greatest reward is the confidence we gain when we triumph over our fears. In those moments when we are most afraid, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Go where it's scary.