Why I’m Exploring the Heroine’s Journey
When the concept of the hero began repeatedly interrupting my daily reality – in articles and books on writing, in television news stories of local and national heroes, and in my own reflections on unsung heroes who devote their lives to helping others without ever expecting or receiving praise, I decided to explore what defines a ‘hero’ a bit more.
Words and phrases jumped out: endowed with great strength, admired for achievements, noble qualities, great courage, ingenuity, bravery.
A voice in my head screamed – doesn’t this sum up midlife? Don’t so many women experience this journey as they work to find their voice, honor their gifts and talents, and pass on their life lessons to others?
And in last week’s blog, I mentioned that I will take 12 weeks to explore the different stages of Joseph Campbell, Maureen Murdock, and Victoria Lynn Schmidt in relation to how a woman finds her voice, learns to be content, and shares joy.
Week 1: The Journey Begins
- Campbell: Start in ordinary world / called to adventure
- Murdock: Heroine separates from the feminine.
- Schmidt: Illusion of the perfect world.
What the experts say
Campbell’s first and second steps, starting in the ordinary world and being called to adventure, are the beginning of big change for the individual. This might happen by accident – or because of some life-altering event, or it could be a deliberate, conscious decision to change.
For Murdock, something happens that triggers the heroine’s search for her true self, her identity. Age doesn’t matter – but somehow the “old self” doesn’t fit. A young woman leaves home for school, work, travel, or relationships or a mid-life woman might change careers, divorce, face an empty nest. The important point for Murdock isn’t the when or what but the why. To gain a sense of self, the woman rejects the passive, manipulative, or nonproductive definitions of the feminine, that she most likely witnessed in her own mother, to find her own way. She struggles with distancing from her mother and desperately seeking her mother’s approval. [Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness (pp. 4-6). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.]
This rejection of the feminine for the unknown involves that which is unfamiliar, takes her out of a comfort zone and can be driven by both fear and courage. The heroine begins a descent into darkness and isolation, a turning inward for a period of wandering, grief, and rage – with an increased connection to nature, the seasons, and the moon. [Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness (p. 8). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.]
The distancing between the woman and her mother may be figurative or literal and is often dependent on the archetypal expression of the Mother she experienced as a child: the Great Mother as a loving superhero or the Terrible Mother who represents overbearing suffering and death (p. 18).
According to Schmidt, “There are five coping strategies the hero may use to get by in the “perfect world.” Through one of these five ways of dealing with the world, the hero allows herself to remain blind to the reality of her situation.” [Schmidt, Victoria Lynn. 45 Master Characters, Revised Edition: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters (Kindle Locations 2040-2042). F+W Media. Kindle Edition.]
- The Naive Strategy – nothing bad could ever happen to me
- The Cinderella Strategy – relies on male protection and guidance, can’t survive alone
- The Exceptional Strategy – ‘as good as a man’ – I’m the exception – just like them, fit in their group, one of the crowd
- The Pleasing Strategy – lives to please others, by the book, status quo, imagines she has control over her life by giving control away
- The Disappointed Type – angry, depressed, bitter, sarcastic, martyr, silently dreams of own goals, looks for role model
In My Experience
I must admit that when I decided to share this 12-week series, I did realize I’d be reflecting on three first steps: when I left home at 18 to enter the convent; when I left the convent at 31 (my first mid-life crisis); and when my career imploded and I became an empty-nester at 52 (in 2015).
Each of these moments fit Campbell’s image of someone being called by accident or choice to a new way of life. This reminded me of what I’ve often called a defining moment. In my experience, these moments don’t always have to be monumental in nature – but they can still cause monumental shifts that drive someone forward on their hero’s journey. At 15, I had a very personal spiritual conversion experience as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom after a drunken stupor – and promised to give my life back to God. The second cycle came much more slowly, through years of discovering truths about my childhood, my religious community, and my deepest desires – a line in a movie, a passing comment, a song on the radio built one upon another until I hit the precipice. And the third journey began just three years ago when I was forced by circumstance to begin again professionally and to discover what I desired after years of living to serve others.
These moments also correlate with Murdock’s perspectives on the heroine’s search for her true self, when somehow the “old self” doesn’t fit. How many times has my “old self” not fit! I’m beginning to realize this is one long journey.
I struggled most with Murdock’s perspective on the rejection of the feminine. I never fully embraced the ‘princess’ mentality of makeup and fancy dresses. I loved a good basketball game and playing tag football with the neighborhood kids, but I also enjoyed playing with dolls and spent many tween and teen hours sewing, cooking, and doing embroidery and latch-hook rugs – everything that would make me a good wife and mother.
But Murdock begins with The Great Mother or The Terrible Mother. My mother fits neither. She single-handedly raised eight children after my father abandoned us – a woman of phenomenal strength and courage. But our relationship was complicated. My mother told me from a very young age that we never bonded because of the 10 days I spent in an incubator at birth. She had no intention of being mean; she believed it as a matter-of-fact. As a child, I cleaned the entire house while she napped or ran errands, wanting to cling to her and make her happy – until, as a teen, I rebelled against the sanctity she and my Catholic school upbringing imposed. Her Christmas gift to me one year was a T-shirt that read, “I’m worth all the trouble I cause.” While we never grew close, I never doubted her love or her fundamental support – despite her struggle to understand or encourage me.
My 2016 memoir focuses on my 13 years as a Catholic nun but begins with the words: “To be honest, my mother didn’t seem all that special to me. Growing up, adults around me, at school and church, called Mom a saint. I learned about and read the lives of the saints, but somehow my mother didn’t fit the bill.” In Murdock’s paradigm, my entering the convent was a separating from the feminine represented by my mother, but was I rejecting her perceived weakness, strength or sanctity?
In one of my early psychology courses, a professor questioned if I entered the convent to fulfill my mother’s childhood dream of being a nun. I loudly and adamantly denied the accusation. But I think he’d tapped into Murdock’s first step. I needed to leave home, and distance myself because I wanted to be better than my mother at being a saint. So, I immersed myself in a world of women who were subservient, obedient, and asexual – striving to be saints.
I was searching for Schmidt’s perfect world.
I wasn’t naïve. I’m not sure I was ever blind to the reality of my situation as a child. From my earliest memory, life was tough. I knew bad things could happen – I was surrounded by poverty, pain, and death.
Cinderella never made sense. I had no need for male protection or guidance. My father had abandoned my mother and 8 children. I was raised to be independent.
I witnessed the exceptional strategy in my mother when she became the man of the house. She taught us how to survive without a man, not because she wanted to be one of the crowd, but because she had to survive and protect her children.
I embraced the disappointed type – as a teen, again in the convent, and during the five years of failure that led to my 2015 shift. I’ve repeated the pattern of anger, depression, sarcasm, and martyrdom, as I dream, fight for, and attempt to create a perfect world.
Campbell’s paradigm tempts me to believe that the search for self is noble. That feeling called by God to enter the convent, was the beginning of my hero’s journey – somehow making me special, brave, ‘better than all the rest.’ Or that leaving the convent was my first real step into the hero’s journey. Or that finally distancing myself from working in the church as my career imploded was the real first step. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed the mark in somehow isolating the ‘hero’ as special negates the fact that no ‘ordinary world’ exists but rather that we each have a personal call to adventure.
I find comfort in Murdock’s journey– knowing that I’m not alone in my desire to be loved by my mother while at the same time needing to reject her – whether Great or Terrible, to find myself. Exploring the first step of these three journey paradigms has already led me down roads I didn’t expect – and I’m both excited and nervous to continue… uncertain of what I might dig up.
Schmidt leaves me wondering if I’m not still sitting pretty in my illusion of the perfect world — coping — unaware. My hope lies in the fact that I seem to no longer be operating from disappointment. Is this the gift of midlife?
Your Heroine’s Journey Experience
- With which beginning step do you most identify – Campbell, Murdock, or Schmidt?
- Which of Schmidt’s strategies best describes your approach to the world as a young woman? As a woman in midlife? As a woman in your third act?
- Has your rejection of the feminine been literal or figurative? Were you distancing from The Great Mother or The Terrible Mother? Does this fit your experience?
- Campbell: Refusing the Call
- Murdock: Identification with masculine / gathering allies
- Schmidt: Betrayal or disillusionment.