The Hero’s Journey

I’d like to present a guest post by David Gormong.

This is very profound and an excellent allegory.

 

THE HERO’S JOURNEY

The heroes of myth and legend have so much to teach us gay men. We too are called to the hero’s journey.

Consider the story of Hercules, for instance. The ancient Greeks loved the tale of Hercules, or Heracles, as they called him. And well they should have. His is a tale of intrigue, adventure, agony, and triumph. It is a classic example of the monomyth, the hero’s journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell.

The heart of the story, the Twelve Labors, begins with Hercules enjoying life with his wife and children. But all is not well. Hera, the wife of Zeus, is dripping with spite for Hercules because he is the son of her husband and a human woman. She means to do him in, and spares nothing to torment and kill this half-breed. She drives him mad. In his derangement, Hercules murders his children, and in some tellings, his wife. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

When he regains his wits, he exiles himself to recover his decency. He puts himself at the mercy of the Oracle of Delphi, the great Pythia, priestess of Apollo. Hera whispers in the Pythia’s ear: Send him to King Eurystheus of Mycenea, she says, for whom Hercules must accomplish ten impossible feats. The punishment is particularly humiliating because Mycenea should have been Hercules’ kingdom, had not Hera intervened to install her little bully on the throne.

One by one Hercules accomplishes the ten feats to the fearful astonishment of Eurystheus. The king refuses to count two of them, however. So he requires Hercules to accomplish twelve labors in all. The twelfth mission sends Hercules to Hades to capture the three-headed monster Cerberus. Descending to the realm of the dead, Hercules wrestles the malformed creature with his bare hands, and ultimately prevails. He brings it back to Eurystheus, who tremulously begs him please to take it back. Having accomplished this final feat, Hercules is at long last released from his humiliation, and allowed to return home.

I tell the story here not because I suspect Hercules of being gay. Far from it. He was surely as straight as a loon’s leg. I tell it as a way of understanding my journey as a gay man.

Guilty of filicide, Hercules somehow knows in his gut that redemption lies in exiling himself. Of his own will, he walks outside the walls of his hometown and begins his hero’s journey. As gay men, we are given no such choice. We are cast outside the gates of straight society from our birth, maybe even from our conception. We are transgressive, not because of anything we have done, but for who we are.

Like Hercules, our transgression is the doing of the gods. We have no conscious choice in the matter. We are different from the start, boys who bear the mark of some goddess who has imprinted herself on our psyches. We are feminine of soul, and therein lies our sin against the collective.

We begin our exile not as full-grown men, having once enjoyed the comforts of being at home among kinsmen. No, we come as aliens into a straight world. As children, not yet skilled with sword or club, we begin our exile. We become keenly aware of it just as we are feeling the adolescent compulsion to fit in. It’s a lot for a boy to bear.

Having not yet consented to a sexual act, we are nonetheless guilty of what Michel Foucault called “the arrogance of sex,” what Jamake Highwater so poignantly described in The Mythology of Transgression. We have transgressed — etymologically, gone across — across the threshold of straight society, out into the wilderness where bane and beast await.

How we long to be taken back inside the gates. Oh how I longed. This longing held me fast till I was forty-nine. Seven times seven years. There must be some mythical meaning to that number. I twisted myself into a straightjacket of heterosexual marriage. I became a pastor in a conservative denomination, of all things. I refused to read pro-gay theology, fearing it might actually be convincing. I could pass as straight. More’s the pity.

“Often in actual life,” writes Joseph Campbell, “and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered.” The result is that one’s life becomes “a wasteland of dry bones… life feels meaningless” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). I know that feeling. As I passed beyond middle age, I was slowly dying. My life was rotting from the inside out.

I resisted the call for all the right reasons. I loved my wife. I loved my family. I loved my church. I loved my God. But I did not love myself. I was living someone else’s life. I was scared. I was like Frodo Baggins, another classic hero, who did not wish to bear the ring. His aversion was well-meaning. He did not want to succumb to its power, to become possessed by it like his Uncle Bilbo. No matter. All of Middle Earth would have fallen into shadow had he not borne it into the fire of Mount Doom. We refuse the call not to our own peril alone, but also to that of our friends and family. They need the balance of masculine and feminine that we carry within us.

Blessedly, the gods will not relent. In another Greek myth, Apollo pursues the fleeing Daphne, “I who pursue you am no enemy,” he cries after her. “You know not whom you flee.” When we gay men hide from our calling, we are not fleeing an enemy. We are refusing the gift of our own lives. We are refusing the very gift we have to give the world. We can offer no other service than the giving of our selves.

A long-delayed coming out is not the only way we refuse the hero’s journey. The push for gay rights is about many things. It is about justice. It is about owning our identity. It is about affirming our humanity. As brightly as those ideals shine, they also cast a shadow. The gay rights movement is also, dare we admit it, about denying our difference. “One love,” we sing. “Same same,” we say. It is only half the truth. And the fundamentalists of all faiths are only too ready to remind us of the other half.

Jungian psychologist Mitch Walker has long warned that gay rights cannot be our ultimate aim. Sometimes he has sounded shrill. In 1976 he wrote, “The Homophile Movement for Equality is a dead thing: dead to the vision, anti-magickal [sic], counter-revolutionary. Its spokespeople and theorists shun the roots (the radical, [which is the] source of nurturance and understanding) in favor of surface values: the social norm, success, integration, acceptance, assimilation. Its shallow reality suffocates the vision in us, co-opting gay people and vitiating the creativity and potential of the Gay Movement” (Visionary Love). Was that too strong? Of course. But he had a point.

Today he writes more temperately. “Reconciling to one’s same-sex-loving orientation and forging a ‘healthy gay identity’ which is socially successful,” he writes, is not enough. Yes, they are “absolutely pivotal steps in appropriate self-empowerment.” But they do not heal all the damage of “growing up alone in a hateful, alien world.” Nor do they heal the constant abrasion of having to prove our worth to “a social universe which is still vastly inhumanely biased against” our homosexuality (Gay Liberation at a Psychological Crossroads). We gays can get caught up in pursuit of money, fame, and power just to prove that we matter. But the real value we bring to society is not that. It is something far richer and deeper.

In other words, guys, we’ve got work to do. Psychological work. Spiritual work. We have labors we are called to complete. We must go down deep into the psyche. We have to get in there with our bare hands and our bare hearts and our bare guts. We need to wrestle malformed monsters, the monsters of our personal histories, the monsters of our social collective. We must wrestle till we can rescue all the parts of ourselves that we and our society have consigned to Hades.

Being exiled is not our choice. Taking the hero’s journey is.

4 replies
  1. Robyn Chester
    Robyn Chester says:

    Thank you for sharing. Posts like this give language to the reality of being gay and I find it so helpful. Our 21 year old son is gay (he came out last year). I find myself driven to be one of the voices that brings change in society and the church to make the world we all inhabit as inclusive, kind, affirming and supporting as it is for the heterosexual world. Human rights indeed. Again thanks for the encouragement that I picked up for it’s an ignorant world out there.

    Reply

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