The Hero's Journey: The Ordeal


Author's note: This week is the eighth in a 12-part series on the Hero's Journey, or the monomyth proposed by Joseph Campbell. The eighth stage is The Ordeal. At this time of year, I indulge in a little personal tradition. Each and every year going back to my high school years, I have sat down to watch "Dazed and Confused (1993)" at the end of the school year. (Please feel free to pause your reading as you finish laughing.) As a college student and later as a professional, I have been conflicted about the film's glorification of hazing, but for me the movie resonates deep inside my soul because of its depiction of the Hero's Journey in a relatively modern, relatable world.

The central characters in the movie struggle with the existential questions of the Hero's Journey: Who am I? Why am I here?

Cynthia: God, don't you ever feel like everything we do and everything we've been taught is just to service the future?

Tony: Yeah I know, like it's all preparation.

Cynthia: Right. But what are we preparing ourselves for?

Mike: Death.

Tony: Life of the party.

Mike: It's true.

Cynthia: You know, but that's valid because if we are all gonna die anyway shouldn't we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I'd like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.

In this exchange, both Mike and Cynthia are right. In the Hero's Journey, the "right now" is not insignificant, and we are indeed preparing for Death.

As a fraternity man, I'm always astonished by the misunderstanding of fraternities and sororities' use of Death or its symbols (bones, coffins, or skulls) by people, both inside and outside of our organizations, and this misunderstanding also is prevalent in our cultural symbols. Frequently, Death and its myriad symbols are associated with evil or with the occult.

In reality, they are merely among the earliest models for student development theory.

Say what?

A 10-second summary of student development theory: The existential goal in late adolescence is to let go of an identity driven by outside forces, and to form an independent sense of self.

For many of us, we will define and redefine ourselves at many points throughout our lives.

In the Ordeal, the hero confronts the death of a sense of self that no longer is relevant to her or his life and purpose. If the Call to Adventure is the commitment to exploration, then the Ordeal is the final nail in the coffin, pun intended. If we cannot completely and wholly let go of the person we were, we cannot have any hope of becoming the person we have the potential to be.

It is easy to focus on the external struggle of the hero in the Ordeal, but the challenge of accepting our potential is every bit as formidable.

For example, in the Harry Potter series, the adolescent wizard faces the external threat of Lord Voldemort, but he also has to let go of a dream of a "normal" life (a desire which was exacerbated by the countless days living in the cupboard under the stairs), rising up to the challenges and triumphs of the life that is waiting for him. Throughout the seven-book series, we can almost hear "the boy who survived" shouting, "Why me?"

In last week's post the Innermost Cave, I introduced an example from my own journey in which I wanted to address hazing in my organization. (You can find my story here.)

At the time, I had never thought of leaving my organization; I had, after all, spent two years calling those men my Brothers and friends.

But, at the end of my second year as a member of that organization, after my efforts to end hazing were brought to light, I faced my own Ordeal. During that time,  I was forced to read the e-mails I had sent to the Director of Greek Affairs to the entire chapter. Afterward, I was subjected to an hour-and-a-half of verbal abuse, and some of those I had called “Brothers” vowed to hurt me.

Maybe more significantly, I also had to confront my sense of self as a member of that organization. In that situation, I could have acquiesced, backed down, and maybe salvaged my membership in the organization, or I could have held to my principles, remained strong in my values, and ventured forward into a world I had not yet known.

The internal struggle to continue reaching for my own potential could not have happened without the external struggle, through which I was challenged either to yield to the existing culture of the organization, or to stand on my own principles and values. It was far from an easy choice, and it was one of the most terrifying and uncertain times in my life.

But I would not be who I am today without that choice, and indeed I also am not the person I had been before as a result of that choice.