On Having the Courage to Be (not do)

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“No one who survives to speak
new language, has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come.

But in fact we were always like this,
rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference.

Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language


In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts the story of the three-month, 1,100-mile trek she took along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995.  Hoping the experience would be transformative and make her “into the women I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been”, Strayed survived the emotional and physical battle through the trail to write a literary blockbuster, optioned for a movie by producer and star Reese Witherspoon three months before it was published.

Wild was what it took for Strayed to do the work of being her Mother’s daughter and become the driver of her own life. One of the most important lines in the book comes during a conversation with her Mother, shortly after learning she was dying of cancer: “She said to me “I’ve never been in the driver seat of my own life, I’ve always been somebody’s daughter or mother or wife””.  Strayed knew her life had to be different; honouring her Mother required her to take control.

In talking about the craft of writing, Strayed references the hero’s journey, narratives from the ancients about “sorrow…redemption…journey”:

When I teach writing, I always tell my students: “You might think you’re writing about your divorce, or your infertility, or whatever it is — remember the ancients, because nobody wants to read your book about your little tale.” Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story — insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…That’s the writer’s work — it’s consciousness. It doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art — this is what we talk about when we talk about having to really apprentice yourself to the craft of writing. When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.

The hero’s journey is a pattern of narrative identified by American scholar Joseph Campbell that describes the typical adventure of the archetype, known as the The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on the behalf of the group, tribe or civilisation.  As Willa Cather said “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before” and Campbell is credited with being responsible for exposing the patterns of these stories, the heroic quest, for the first time in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Released in 1949, the book is considered by many to be one of the most influential of the 20th Century due to Campbell’s influence on filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Frances Coppola.  Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Matrix are often cited examples of archetypal journeys.

According to Campbell the task of he true hero is to shatter the established order and create the new community.  But what if you are not a hero, but like Strayed, a heroine?

Interviewing Campbell in 1981, psychotherapist Maureen Murdock asked him for his views on the journey the heroine makes and was surprised when he responded that women don’t need to make the journey, because “woman is primarily concerned with fostering”. Murdock found this response deeply unsatisfying and consequently wrote her book The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness.

Murdock’s heroine’s journey is an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being”, which begins with the separation from the feminine and ends with the integration of masculine and feminine.  She is clear that her model does not necessarily fit the experience of all women of all ages and can address the journey of women and men. The model describes the experience of people who strive to make a contribution in the world through seeking success in the male-oriented work world.

Murdock argues that women who choose this path seek to prove that they have good minds, can follow through and are both emotionally and financially independent. Everything they do is geared towards getting the job done, climbing the ladder, achieving prestige, position and financial equity and feeling powerful in the world.

After a period of time enjoying the “view from the top”, managing it all, Murdock says she asks “what’s next?” Maybe she’s climbed the corporate ladder and had children, or maybe she’s childless. Regardless despite achieving everything she set out to achieve, she feels empty – she was climbing the ladder but finds it was against the wrong wall. “When I look inside, I don’t know who’s there,” says a 40-something female filmmaker in Heroine’s Journey.

When a woman decides not to play by patriarchal rules anymore, she has no guidelines telling her how to act or how to feel, suggests Murdock. American poet Adrienne Rich wrote of this in her 1978 work The Dream of a Common Language, describing this period as one when we “survive to speak a new language” but are “rootless, dismembered”. Murdock says this feeling occurs because we have not travelled far enough on the road to liberation.  We have learnt how to be successful according to a masculine model, but that model did not satisfy the need to be a whole person.

So begins a descent, which may take weeks, months or years of “wandering, grief and rage; of looking for the lost pieces of herself” and feeling “out of sync” with herself. Family, friends and work colleagues will tell us to “get on with it” Murdock says. To our former friends and colleagues in our old world, it looks like we are dropping out.

And maybe getting on with it is what’s required. Before Wild, Cheryl Strayed was the anonymous writer behind the Dear Sugar advice column on the literary site The Rumpus in 2010. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life a collection of these columns, grapples with life’s biggest questions, with observations like “write like a motherfucker” and “be brave enough to break your own heart”. But how to become unstuck, to move through this period when there are no guidelines to tell us how to act or how to feel, when we feel rootless and dismembered? Sugar tell us to “reach” and  “work really, really, really, fucking hard to get there” and slowly create a life whilst reaching towards something that has nothing to do with the acquisition of power and doing that has been a feature of life to date.

But Murdock argues that when a woman stops doing, she must learn how to simply be. She needs to silence the voices that tell her she’s dropping out, throwing it all away, and be “willing to hold the tension until the new form emerges. Anything less than that aborts growth”. Being takes courage. Walking 1,100-miles takes courage. Speaking in your truest voice takes courage.

Courage matters.

Double Flourish Grey

Also published on Medium.

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