The First Cycle of the Hero's Journey

TIM BAKER

January 21, 1991|By TIM BAKER

The handsome 20-year-old looked like a young Lochinvar as he stepped up to the podium last Wednesday morning and addressed 400 students at his old Baltimore high school. His face glowed with a healthy tan, and his bright eyes shone. His blue tie matched his neatly-pressed tweed jacket. He stood straight and tall, held his head high and spoke in a clear voice.

Many of the boys seated in the school's auditorium remembered him. He'd graduated recently. Now he had returned to tell them the story of his adventures. For 25 minutes he related the specifics in a simple, straightforward and unpretentious manner. The boys didn't cough, fidget or whisper. Instead, they leaned forward in their seats and listened to a hero's journey.

That's not how he described it, and that's not how it sounded. Not at first, anyway. By his sophomore year in high school, he had become an alcoholic, a marijuana user and a cocaine addict. told his former school mates how he had drunk, smoked and sniffed to escape the pressures he felt outside and the emptiness he found within. During his junior year his drinking caused the first of several serious automobile accidents. During his senior year he experienced his first blackouts.

The young man went downhill from there. As best he can remember, he got drunk every night for the first three months of college. In despair, he decided to stop, but he found he no longer knew how to live without alcohol and drugs.

We've all heard and read horror stories like this one. Teachers repeat them to students all across America. Anxious parents, like you and me, hope our children heed the warnings.

As I sat in the back of the auditorium and listened, I hoped the boys in the audience also heard the refrains of a larger and more important theme. As the young man behind the podium continued, his story shifted from the dire consequences of addiction to the courageous struggle to revive his life.

He clearly didn't see or present himself as a hero. Indeed, in the dark hours he may still think of himself as a failure. He had come to warn, not to inspire. He went on to tell the rest of his story in a modest and unaffected way.

In March 1990, he began to contemplate suicide. In desperation, he finally called his old high school's drug and alcohol counselor. The next day he had flown to Minneapolis and signed himself into an addiction rehabilitation center. He had not yet slain the dragon, but the hero's journey had begun.

The late Joseph Campbell mapped the path in his book ''The Hero with a Thousand Faces'' and in his conversations with Bill Moyers on the PBS television series ''The Power of Myth.'' In all the great mythologies of the world, Campbell told us, the hero ''ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.'' There he encounters ''fabulous forces'' and wins ''a decisive victory.''

The young man had embarked on that hero's adventure when he left Baltimore for the rehabilitation center in Minneapolis. There he came face to face with the human wreck he had become. He took responsibility for what he had done to his life. He encountered his own inner demons. He recognized himself in the other young people whose lives alcohol and drugs had also devastated.

They came from completely different backgrounds. A kid named Skeeter, for example, had belonged to a motorcycle gang in which he had learned to drink liquid acid. In Baltimore, the young man at the podium wouldn't have picked up Skeeter hitchhiking, let alone befriend the boy. But at the rehabilitation center they helped each other. They shared a common experience: Each of them had destroyed his self-respect, his dignity and his aspirations for his life.

The young man now has come home to Baltimore. He has re-established his relationships with his family and friends. He has successfully completed the freshman college courses which had dropped last year. But, as he himself emphasized last week, his long fight against addiction has only begun. He attends five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every week and continues to rebuild what he calls ''the inner stuff.''

The young man still has a long way to go, but he has completed one cycle of the hero's journey. He has faced the ''fabulous forces,'' even though he must face them again. He has won ''a decisive victory, '' even though he must win again every day.

Following the path of the mythological figures, he has come back, from the dead so to speak, to tell us honestly about his struggle to resurrect his life. His story is not ultimately about disintegration and degradation. It is about rebirth.

And so, when he spoke to the students at his old high school last week, he fulfilled what Joseph Campbell called the hero's ''second solemn task and deed . . . to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.''

Tim Baker is an attorney whose column appears on alternate Mondays.

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