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The Hero’s Journey in the Time of COVID

Why stories of a hero’s adventures may resonate during the current pandemic.

 Vatican Museum/Released to Public Domain by photographer Shii
Jason, disgorged by the serpent guarding the Golden Fleece, saved by Athena. Attic red figure kylix by Douris (470 BCE).
Source: Vatican Museum/Released to Public Domain by photographer Shii

In only seven months, we have watched the dissolution of our familiar world. The viral outbreak has fractured our social order and dismantled the scaffolding which has held our society intact. Institutions we have come to rely on for our well-being—health care, education, government itself—are altered in ways we couldn’t have predicted.

We wonder how our future will look. Some of us even wonder if we will be alive in the future. What will survive? Will there be restaurants? Movie theaters? Malls and sports arenas? Will our children have human teachers, or will tele-teaching and tele-medical visits become the norm? Social instability appears to be chronic and unfixable and our psyches are suffering greatly. How could we not be swept up by feelings of abandonment, worry, anger, fear, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation and loss, or numbed out and grieving? If any of these feelings ring true for you, you’re not alone.

Where can we find strength and resilience when hardships proliferate and we need to accommodate even more change? One way is to turn inward to our heroic self who seeks our greatest potential and guides us toward authentic wholeness. Here’s how depth psychologist Carl Jung described this inner companion: “Inside each of us is another who we do not know who speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from how we see ourselves.”

These days most everyone knows about the hero’s journey, whether they are aware of it or not. Popular culture brims with stories structured around the hero’s journey, including some of our most popular fictional characters like Harry Potter or Atticus Finch. The film industry has notably co-opted the hero’s journey to plot movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, Frozen, and all the James Bond films.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell first wrote about the hero’s journey in 1949 in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell compared myths from around the world, some dating back thousands of years, and found that many of them shared a common structure, which he called “the hero’s adventure.” On an outer level, Campbell noted a sequence of events each hero/heroine encountered and he outlined their stages: departure and separation in which the hero/heroine leaves their safe world; initiation and ordeal in which the hero faces obstacles and ordeals that test her wisdom and skills; and the return, in which, having successfully overcome hardships, the hero returns to where she started, changed by her experience. On an inner psychological level, the hero’s journey depicts a maturation process of discovering one’s potential and becoming one’s true self; it is a portrait of profound transformation.

Hard times spur us to embody our hero-self. As Campbell and others discovered, many classic fairytale motifs as well as myths begin with a statement of misfortune, then progress through challenge and struggle, and finish in triumph. These stories chart the call to a higher purpose that catapults the hero/heroine out of the ordinary world into the unknown where she is tasked with a series of tests and tribulations and ultimately secures a treasure or elixir for herself and the collective world.

 From Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Constable & Co. 1917/Public Domain
Little Sister comforts Little Brother after their Step-mother turns him into a fawn. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1917).
Source: From Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Constable & Co. 1917/Public Domain

The Brothers Grimms' version of “Little Brother and Little Sister” illustrates how the initiating journey starts with misfortune:

Little Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step-mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left over; and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a nice bit. May Heaven pity us. If our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.”

Likewise, “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn” begins:

There were once three brothers who had fallen deeper and deeper into poverty, and at last their need was so great that they had to endure hunger, and had nothing to eat or drink. Then said they, “We cannot go on thus, we had better go into the world and seek our fortune.”

 From The Fairy Book by Dinah Craik, Macmilllan & Co. 1913/Public Domain
The queen turns each of the brothers into swans. Illustration for “The Six Swans” by Warwick Goble (1913).
Source: From The Fairy Book by Dinah Craik, Macmilllan & Co. 1913/Public Domain

In both stories, bad luck leads to good fortune as it does in “The Six Swans”:

Once upon a time, a certain king was hunting in a great forest, and he chased a wild beast so eagerly that none of his attendants could follow him. When evening drew near he stopped and looked around him, and then he saw that he had lost his way. He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he perceived an aged woman with a head which nodded perpetually, who came towards him, but she was a witch ...

In each story, we hold our breath as the hero faces impossible odds that seem unsurmountable and deadly. We read on, hoping against hope that some unseen force or influence will save the day. As in fairytales, so in life, but the helpers that come to our aid are not good fairies or friendly animals, they are our own brilliant but latent resources, instincts stirred to assist us.

Like dreams, these tales and their variants express the universal experiences of our inner worlds. The life of the soul comes to us through story. When we dream or dream our way into a tale, we are being shown the archetypal images latent in our souls that are bound by neither time nor place. To be in touch with this deep personal resource allows us to be lifted from the familiar and every day to view our lives from a God’s-eye perspective—and to see that the wasteland of today may be only a stage in the renewal of a new world.

 Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. George G. Harrap, London. 1932/Public Domain
“She lighted another match.” Illustration for “The Little Match Girl” by Arthur Rackham (1932).
Source: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. George G. Harrap, London. 1932/Public Domain

What images are currently emerging in your dreams that speak of inner fears and challenges? Do you feel yourself abandoned by our government and leaders? Do you see yourself as a child lost in a wood, or freezing to death on a snowy evening ignored by the happy celebrants who pass you by, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”? Do you feel unseen in a society that doesn’t seem to care? Do you dream you have an impossible task to complete and not enough time? Do you arrive too late to take the exam or your driver’s test? Have you missed the train, forgotten your suitcase, misplaced the ticket, or can’t start the car? Do you dial for help only to discover your phone battery is dead? These are dream images of difficult beginnings, the conflict, or misfortune that sets you on the path. Carl Jung summed up the mystery and importance of dreams when he wrote, “A dream is a product of nature, the patient has not made it, it is like a letter dropped from Heaven, something he knows nothing of.” (ETH Lecture V 23, Nov1934. Page 156.)

Did you have a favorite fairytale growing up? (Preferably not the Disney version, which has usually been altered quite a bit from the original.) If “Rapunzel” or “The Frog King” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” enraptured you then, reread the story and note what stands out for you. What emotions do you feel? Is there something in your life now that has a similar theme? Does a different fairytale capture your attention? Ask yourself how this particular tale affects you now.

Many of us are now managing anxiety, depression, anger, and fear through psychological and spiritual support. Working consciously with a creative channel by dream journaling, reading, or writing your own fairytale, or simply thinking about the stages of the hero’s journey can complement more conventional ways of managing difficult feelings. They could even bring fresh insights and creative solutions and restore energy to our feelings of “battle fatigue.”

The more you honor and stay in contact with feelings and images that arrive unbidden and give them space, the more they will share their wisdom with you. This is what Jung discovered during his decades-long exploration of soul and psyche. “The privilege of a lifetime,” he writes, “is to become who you truly are.”

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