Why Be Ordinary?

The ordinary hero's journey, part 2

Posted Apr 08, 2015

Source: Gratisography

In last week’s post, I wrote about the inward journey of self-discovery—the courageous and difficult work of doing battle with one’s demons and the personal transformation that occurs in the process. The post was inspired by a beautiful interview with Eat, Pray, Love writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who linked her personal journey to Joseph Campbell’s study of the monomyth, the hero’s journey. I suggested that psychoanalysis is one form of the hero’s journey, an experience in which ordinary people traverse the difficult road of the unconscious to find themselves, face their internal foes, and emerge on the other side with gifts to share with the world.

I was surprised that readers took exception to my use of the word “ordinary,” although in retrospect I should have seen it coming. One wrote: “[You] cannot camouflage that ‘hero’ and ‘ordinary’ do not go together. When young men crave heroics they want to stand out, they want to be less ordinary. Genuinely dangerous trials and tribulations can never have a broad appeal—and to present everyday behaviour as 'heroic' is just so much hot air...” Another reader (a friend of mine) commented on my use of the word ordinary, but from a different angle: “Taking on one's demons is not an ordinary life - most let their demons rule their day—there is no more courageous life then the searcher who takes the journey into darkness in hopes of finding light.”

I can see where both readers are coming from and, in a way, I agree with them. But I got to thinking about why the word “ordinary” drew the attention. Yes, it is in the title; okay. But the emphasis in the post was on the inward journey, on the link between psychoanalysis and other kinds of transformational work. There’s a lot to challenge me on there. So why was the word “ordinary” the snag?

Funny, my plan had been to write a part 2 on The Ordinary Hero’s Journey by delving into the way psychoanalysts view their main task and its resonance with Campbell’s ideas. Campbell says that the turning point in the hero’s story is when he is able to give up his fear of death. The contemporary psychoanalyst, John Steiner, says that the work of psychoanalysis is the relinquishment of omnipotence. That’s a fancy way of saying that we must face the fact that we are mere mortals—not only physically but also psychologically. Perhaps now you begin to see where I’m going here with this ordinary thing.

"Nancy Johnson". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: "Nancy Johnson". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that the central task of personal growth is to embrace our ordinary human life with all of its disappointments, limitations, and realities.  As I say in Wisdom from the Couch, mental health is based on our ability to accept reality, to face the facts of life that there is no such thing as magic, or perfection, or forever. Now I know that nobody likes the sound of this. But bear with me. While it is counter-intuitive, relinquishing our pursuit of an extraordinary life is actually the key to having a good life. The reason is that when we see ourselves more realistically, we have a better chance of doing what we can do. You don’t win a gold medal when you are trying to win a gold medal. You win a gold medal when you are in the mindset of getting the job done. And if you are in that mindset and don’t win a gold medal, you feel a heck of a lot better about yourself anyway.

At some level, I think we all bristle at the idea of leading an “ordinary” life. The more driven, ambitious, successful, and talented we are, the more such an idea rubs us the wrong way. Perfectionists are among the hardest to analyze (I should know, I am one). We have a way of being in the world that sort of, kind of, works. While this perfectionistic way of being gives us a comforting illusion of control, it tends to undermine our ability to work effectively in everyday life and can lead to all sorts of trouble like anxiety, depression, workaholism, and relationship difficulties to name a few. But even more so, perfectionism undermines our ability to lean into and value the aspects of life that tend to bring meaning and deeper happiness: self-acceptance, love, and the priceless experience of inner peace.

Source: Gratisography

That’s what struck me about Elizabeth Gilbert’s interview. She came to understand that she had mistaken her ordinary human frailties for grandiose demons. She came to see that the real battle was in her own mind. That is a discovery you will find in the journey of any true hero. I’m not talking about someone who sets out to be a hero (as in Reader #1’s comment); that is a different dynamic altogether. I am talking about someone who turns out to be a hero in spite of himself; the kind of hero who was reluctant to accept the call in the first place. There is an old sermon title about Moses’ initial response to God’s call that says it all: “Here I am, Lord, send my brother, Aaron.” Like Moses, the ordinary hero steps out in faith with many misgivings only to find something unexpected and extraordinary: a more capable and courageous version of himself, a sense of purpose, and the satisfaction of helping others.

Along the way, true heroes shift their focus from the external battle to the internal one. Often they put down their weapons. They give up their thirst for violence and revenge and even victory. They relinquish their omnipotence. They have moments when, like Elijah, they sit under that juniper tree and wish they were dead. They face defeat. They wipe their tears, fall asleep, and have a dream. They wake up the next day, say a prayer, and try again but, now, in a different way. They embrace life as it is and, in so doing, find a way to transform it and make it better. Not perfect. Just better.

That’s really the best we can do in this ordinary life—and, as Reader #2 says, it’s more than most people do. To me, that’s what makes the journey of self-discovery both heroic and ordinary. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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To read more about Jennifer's model of personal growth, check out her recently released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out