The Hero’s Journey

The shortest days of the year are approaching. Last I heard we have only a little over 9 hours of sunlight a day here in the Hudson Valley. Sunset is officially around 4:25. But since we live in a valley between two hills, one in the east, one in the west, the sun disappears behind the western hill around 3:00. Of course the sky is still bright, and I can see sunlight shining on other hillsides further up the road for the next hour or so. But we are in shadow. For all practical purposes, including my circadian rhythms, my day is ending. The evening begins. Night is only a short distance away.

I am reminded how the hero’s journey is often compared to the journey of the sun – how the annual decline and near-death of the sun reflects the hero’s challenges to face the darkness and return still alive and wiser. Many have commented on this. But recently I was reading an article by P.L. Travers, best known for being the creator of Mary Poppins, but also a friend of William Butler Yeats and George Russell (A.E.) and a spiritual adventurer who spent time with Native Americans and studied Zen and Lao-Tzu in Japan. She has some credibility for being able to talk about myth and myths and the hero’s way. She writes in an old 1976 issue of Parabola that “no hero would ever protest that he didn’t ask to be born. If he isn’t sure that he did ask, at least he is ready to behave as if he had, as if, having been given life, he is ready to answer for his life.”

I am thinking of the people I have met over the years who have said to me that they didn’t ask to be born and that they aren’t particularly happy to be living on this planet. I think these comments go deeper than just to say that life is hard and that the world is filled with challenges and suffering. I wonder if statements like these are actually not so much about the beginning of these folk’s lives as about the ending. They seem to express a yearning for death or even a disguised desire for suicide, a desire not to be the hero of one’s own life. For that is after all, what the myths mean. We are meant to live as if we are the heroes of our lives. Keats said he was “half in love with easeful death.” I don’t know if this was his usual way of feeling or not, but he died at age 26. There certainly are times when death seems to be a happy, easy exit from what the psalms call “a valley of tears.”

The father of a good friend of mine died last week at age 97. He was a retired professor of art and architecture, but still in the midst of writing another book on his beloved subjects. Jack and I had the privilege of meeting him a few years ago in his home in New England. Although aged and in poor health, he was alert and interested in life, in his work, and in us. His world stretched beyond his academic subjects, even to his daughter’s friends that he had never met before. He was an inspiration in the dedication he put into his life’s work and into his love of being alive. When we met him, he was working everyday on what I’m sure he realized would be his last book. A younger scholar assisted him since the tasks of writing a book are burdensome, and also so there would be someone who could finish the book should he not be able to do so. He was busy and enthused about his writing up until two days before he passed on.

P.L. Travers says, “The hero is one who puts his foot upon a path not knowing what he may expect from life but in some way feeling in his bones that life expects something from him.” I am certain my friend’s father had this feeling in his bones, even up to the day he died. Life expects something from us. And even if we did not ask to be born, surely now that we are here – with our feet on the path – there is a hero’s journey ahead of us to discover what that something is. We will have to answer for our lives.

The sun will stop moving away in a couple weeks. It will return even though the days are still short. Our days are short. The shadow that engulfs us in mid-afternoon will slowly fade. But someday it too will return. In the meantime, what is that old saying? Make hay while the sun shines.