The Call to Adventure

Joseph Campbell was a mythologist.  He collected and studied stories, myths, and narratives from all over the world and came to the conclusion that all of humanity’s important cultural stories are attempts to discuss a singular human truth.  His book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, documents his findings and theories and has been one of the greatest influences on modern narrative.  Ever since it was published, writers and artists have looked to what Campbell calls ‘the monomyth’ or ‘the hero’s journey’ as they construct their work.  You’ve seen, read, and possibly played through many narratives that follow the outline of Campbell’s journey, sometimes point for point.  This might be a problem for our gifted kids.

Why?  Because so many of our expectations for ourselves and beliefs about the way the world works are created by the stories we are told.  If I am exposed to stories over and over where the clever hero—a hero who is often specifically noted to be smarter than everyone else—uses his wits to outsmart the villain and save the world, what am I to think about my role in the world, as someone who is noted to be smarter than everyone else?  Odysseus, Anansi, Coyote, and Maui are older examples, but the modern interpretation is everywhere.  Bugs Bunny, Hermione Granger, even Batman.  Pick any random crime procedural on primetime television: notice that at least one of the main characters has near-magical abilities, and it’s all attributed to how genius they are?

We identify with these characters.  We start to see ourselves in these stories.  Does your gifted child spend significant time and mental energy absorbed in adventurous books, movies and shows, and video games?  Do you ever hear them say anything like “I wish my life was more like these stories” or “I wish I could live in these fictional worlds”?  The more I work with gifted kids, the more I become convinced that the appeal of these stories is in how they begin.

The first step in the hero’s journey is “The Call to Adventure”.  The protagonist’s hum-drum, boring life is interrupted by some event that calls them to leave their normal world behind and enter into the world of adventure.  These characters are always dissatisfied with their normal lives for the same reason our children are: they are not using the full extent of their abilities.  It is not until the adventure begins that they discover what they are truly capable of.  The Call to Adventure saves our heroes from their mundane, unfulfilling lives (read: school).  We see it over and over.  Luke Skywalker is a bored, whiny farmer until a droid arrives with a message from Princess Leia.  Harry Potter is forcibly prevented from doing anything fun or interesting with his life until Hagrid shows up to take him off to Hogwarts.  Bilbo Baggins is a bored, lonely hobbit before Gandalf whisks him away to the Lonely Mountain.  It is not a coincidence that these are the most popular stories of our times.  Something about this process appeals to us.  We all want to learn that we are secretly destined to be a powerful Jedi, rich and famous wizard, or brave warrior.  We all want to discover that we have some secret and important destiny.

The problem is that in every story we see, the journey to that destiny starts with a Call, not a choice.  The beginning of the adventure is external, outside of our hero’s control.  It is something that happens to him or her.  I worry that this message has been driven home so deeply for our kids who love these stories that they truly believe that all they have to do to have the life they want is to wait for the Call to arrive.  When it doesn’t, they feel cheated or lost, often angry.  They have given up control of their lives to this external ‘destiny’, and when it doesn’t do what they were hoping for, they are left not knowing the meaning or purpose of their lives.

The hard truth these kids are struggling to face is that real life does not work like the stories.  The only way to create the life you want to live is to work at it.  You make decisions, work hard, develop relationships and skills.  Growth and change do not come easy.  To be in control of your own life, you must author your own story, not mimic the ones you’ve been told.  That is the work we do in developing identity.  Each person has to realize that they are the hero of their own story and that instead of waiting for a beginning, you must choose the end you want.  The way there will involve struggle and you will need the help of trusted friends and allies, but arriving there will be all the sweeter because it is the destiny you chose for yourself—your meaning, your purpose.  And then, maybe, if you want it, your story will be told and shape the world for those coming next.