Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
February 2014 - Volume 14, No. 2
Journeys Up and Journeys Down
Among the many human patterns I encounter in life and work, two particular formats seem to show up with regularity. First, there is the upward journey, sometimes called a “peak” experience, climbing a mountain, falling in love, finding a great job, a long planned vacation, a physical or athletic victory. Then there is the downward journey, represented perhaps by depression, illness, loss, grief, failure, divorce, debt, addiction, betrayal, poverty, natural disaster, boredom or “the dark night of the soul.”
(Is it the nature of my particular line of work, or is it human nature, that the second list was easier to populate with examples? Probably both.)
A common pattern
Yet each has much in common - the journey up and the journey down. In the journey up - perhaps to a mountain top, it’s tempting to want to stay up there in its glow. Like going to Summer camp, or a particular spiritual retreat, or a honeymoon - we want it to never come to an end. And the journey into the depths, it’s often so “easy” to be captured by the fear it will never end, of never arising from it. Each has in common “gifts” to offer the traveler or pilgrim. However, these gifts aren’t necessarily meant just for the particular wayfarer, but also for the people to whom he or she is meant to return.
It was under the influence of Joseph Campbell, as was true for so many of us a few decades ago, that I came upon a pattern he called the monomyth - his summary of a common pattern in many of the world’s great myths and stories. In his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces(1949) he offers this schema - also known as “The Hero’s Journey:”
"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. (p23)"
It is a journey from the known, into the unknown, and back to the known. It has a parallel in the Shaman’s journey - from ‘ordinary reality’ into ‘non-ordinary reality,’ returning to ‘ordinary reality,’ using Michael Harner’s language in The Way of the Shaman(1980), with healing gifts for one or more of those within the village.
Return from the height
It’s not meant that the journeyer remain in the “high” or “other” place. Yet there are exceptions. The shrine on the top of the mountain may be maintained by a monk or order of servants who are specially set aside (‘ordained’) for such a task. Among the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was uniquely ‘ordained’ for service in the Temple - and hence had no other ‘land’ of their own like the other eleven tribes. One example is the ‘perpetual college student.’ We’ve all met folks who stay around churches too much, and end up what I call ‘fried.’ The great western door of churches or cathedrals aren’t just to let the people in - they’re the exit out into the world (these days by way of the coffee hour), out where the true ‘service’ is to take place. Graduation from academic life is meant to “push” one out into the world, where the true gifts of learning are to be used for the sake of society. The ordeal of childbirth is our first step into the pattern of a “push” from comfort into a “real” world.
In the case of marriage, the “heights” of a honeymoon cannot be sustained. But within it can begin a learning and discipline by which, in return to the “ordinary,” a deeper love can emerge and flourish over time. And remember one of the high purposes of marriage is the gifts it offers for the sake of the larger community. Included in the marriage service of the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer is this prayer: “Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.” (emphasis mine, p429)
The ultimate purpose of the peak moments is to send us back to the “ordinary” with gifts for the people - what Joseph Campbell has sometimes called “bliss bestowing hands.”
Another example is the acquisition of wealth. It’s OK to make money, and even to make a lot of it unless it comes at the involuntary expense of other people, or the imbalanced use of natural resources. But the purpose of wealth is always for the sake of the people, the only truly effective economy is a benevolent economy. Those who hoard it end up getting ‘fried’ - the inrotting that comes from greed.
I’ve already given an expanded list of the “down” that can afflict so many people. Much of my particular work is to assist in the ‘bringing up’ of the sufferers. So often we’re captured by the prevailing disease model, by which illness is just an aberration of a healthy norm. Don’t get me wrong, many great works, methods, and heroic acts of healing have emerged as the gifts of this particular world-view. Also there are those who remind us that these “others” are not just human people - but can include the entire living earth.
I’ve long noted many of the great stories, legends, and even everyday circumstances of our world involve a parallel world-view, one which involves the emergence of healing gifts for others from the deep struggles of individuals or groups.
For many the central act of Christian worship involves a ritual death that in turn gives life to the people. It’s a common theme - the deep meaning of sacrifice, especially when it’s voluntary. We see the same in the many who enter the military to willingly fight and sacrifice for their nation or people. And there are those close to us who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the local community.
The journey out of darkness
One model that encourages me is that people’s struggle with depression and anxiety (and many other ‘disorders’) has a larger meaning, being a struggle or hunger for larger life. There seems to be a natural evolution from the hunger for life to the desire to be of service to others, and even more, to serve that which binds us all in a great world companionship - a representation of life lived to the fullest.
Yes, the journey up, and the journey down, the initiations of which are often involuntary, or at least accidental, become part of a larger pattern by which we each wrestle with our demons or circumstances in such a way that healing results for others (as well as for ourselves).
As I learned from somewhere a long time ago (and continue to learn), despise nothing, honor everything.
Otherwise said - let us never be afraid of going down. It can be terrifying, but I continually learn to trust it - especially for the sake of those who come to me for healing.
This is not meant to be an explanation of why there is suffering in the world. That would be more than cruel to the many who suffer in ways where no words or ideas can offer any ‘explanation.’ The question of Job will always present itself as an unanswerable question.
Perhaps the best we can offer, possibly from the learned grace of our own journeying to the heights and into the depths, is to have the courage (i.e. strength of heart) to stand with those who suffer, without judgment, as equals in the great and sometimes silent hunger for life.