The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Lessons From the "Monomyth" of Lance Armstrong

Lance's downfall is textbook for the 17-stages of "The Hero's Journey".

Like millions of people around the world, I watched Lance Armstrong admit his life was “one big lie” to Oprah Winfrey last night. There were no real surprises. I finally stopped believing Lance last summer when he announced that he would no longer contest doping charges brought against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and wrote a Psychology Today blog about it called Cheaters Never Win.

Last night, Lance finally came clean to Oprah.  What did you take away from the Lance/Oprah interview? As a collective society will we ever be able to forgive Lance for what he did? Can an apology alone offer redemption? I find sympathy for Lance by realizing that he is following a classic archetypal pattern called the “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. I believe that Lance can do tremendous good for humanity now as an ‘enlightened’ messenger and that the next phase of his journey is an opportunity for him to prove if he is indeed a true ‘hero’.

What is the Monomyth?

Joseph Campbell described the monomyth, or ‘the hero’s journey’, as patterns of life experience that are repeated again, and again, as classic archetypes and narratives throughout the ages and across cultures. These archetypes reveal themselves so frequently as a universal part of the human experience that we can use them to prophesize trajectories and outcomes in our lives.  

The basic story of the monomyth is that an adventurer aches to leave the safety of home and go on a quest that takes him or her to the farthest reaches of the stratosphere. On this journey he or she overcomes huge obstacles, finds the ‘holy grail’ and returns ‘home’ to the village to share the lessons learned from the journey with those who stayed behind.  

Campbell borrowed the term monomyth from James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake and described the journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by saying: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

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What will the ultimate boon that Lance Armstrong bestows on fellow man? My first impressions from the Oprah interview are that Lance will be teaching us lots of lessons about compassion, authenticity, vulnerability, and that the process (or the 'journey') matters more than the victories. I also see Lance becoming a messenger for the importance of practicing real sportsmanlike behavior (on and off the court) and about the importance of loving-kindness. If Lance had not confessed he would go down in history as the poster boy for believing one's own hype and that cheating, lying, and trying to ‘win at all costs’ is a recipe for lifelong happiness and success.  It's refreshing to see Lance finally being contrite, down to earth, and honest. 

My Journey as an Ultra-Endurance Athlete

I had a mentor and professor at Hampshire College as an undergraduate who was obsessed with Joseph Campbell. As part of my coursework, I studied The Hero with a Thousand Faces when I was in college. I lived by the insights held in “The Power of Myth” as I set out to find my version of "The Holy Grail" as an athlete just after college.  Luckily, I learned from reading Joseph Campbell that no ‘mortal’ could be immune from the seductions that Lance Armstrong fell prey to without some guidance and timeless wisdom held in the classic archetypes and myths. 

I pounded the lessons of Joseph Campbell into my gestalt as an athlete. Because of this, I knew that the wisest thing for me to do after winning a Guinness World Record for running 153.76 miles on a treadmill next to Dean Karnazes back in 2004 was to retire. There was no place to go but down from that zenith. History had shown that any greedy "Gollum-esque" drive for eternal fame, glory or more trophies would ultimately destroy me. I had to let go of the hunt for the Golden Ring, return "home", and try to synthesize what I had learned from my adventures and communicate those insights with others. This is why I became a writer. 

All of us can find answers to the riddles of our current lives by looking to the wisdom held in classic archetypes and myths.  For a recap of the 17 stages of the hero’s journey please take a few moments to check out this Wikipedia link. I believe we are all ultimately on quest to have the experience of the hero's journey on some level. Within that framework, what stage do you find yourself in today? Where do you want to go from here? 

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

Stage 15 of the hero’s journey is described as “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”. In this stage the hero must return back to the work-a-day world after completing his or her quest to a supernatural stratosphere. I see Lance as being at stage 15 of the 17 stages of the hero’s journey. Lance has come back to earth now and appears ready to finally share ALL the lessons he has learned from his mythic, and tragic, journey.

Joseph Campbell describes Stage 15 of "The Crossing of the Return Threshold" by  saying:

The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.

Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided. The hero returns to the world of common day and must accept it as real.

Conclusion

People of all generations will learn more from the full spectrum of Lance Armstrong's fall from grace  than if he had succeeded in his deception and stayed on a false pedestal forever. I personally am excited to see how Lance plays out the next stage of his life.

I am grateful that Lance finally had the courage to come clean and become a true role model for a set of values and priorities defined more by humility, compassion and vulnerability than the false pretense of his 'Tour de France' alter-ego. This is a new beginning for Lance to see if he can succesfully complete his "hero’s journey" and I am rooting for him to hit it out-of-the-park. 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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