The Hero's Journey: the Arc of the Phoenix

Julia Hubbel, Walkabout Saga, Horizon Huntress Images

What it looks like when we embrace what maces us first, then nourishes us later

One of my favorite commenters, Eric G. often puts thoughtful, sometimes lengthy responses to my articles. Eric’s got a remarkable background. One of the reasons I like his work and what he has to say is that he doesn’t suffer fools. The way I understand him is that he, like those people for whom I have the greatest respect, has chosen the thin, rough, damned difficult and demanding high road.

How on earth do you do that? First, if I may, I’m going to set the stage.

All day long, moment to precious moment you and I are faced with both minute and momentous decisions which determine the path we’re on. In so very many cases, something very small may ultimately end up being one of those momentous decisions without our knowing it at the time.

This might sound ridiculous, but even the decision to buy a bag of popcorn ends up being a big deal. Here’s how.

Let’s say you’ve been super-disciplined about your food. You’ve lost a bunch of weight. One day at the store you see a bag of organic sweet and salty popcorn. You really want a healthy snack. You buy it, and before you know it the entire bag is gone. You’ve forgotten how utterly delicious flavored popcorn is. But, you think, it was only 140 calories a bag (no matter you ate all six bags on the way home). You can tell I’ve done that. More than once.

Eight hundred and forty calories, more than half your daily allotment.

The one bag Just This Once becomes one every several days, then once a day, then you start branching back out into snack foods which are kinda like popcorn but not really. Pretty soon, it’s a habit, and a hard one to break because now you’re eating this stuff between meals again. And the scales show it.

Not only do you feel awful physically, but defeated. You shot yourself in the proverbial foot. One bag of popcorn and a month later, you are back to where you were three months ago. So easy to want to give up. I have had that happen more times than I can count.

The same thing happens with moral decisions. One small thing like snatching one of those truffles that are on display next to the cash register at the gas station. That thrill can turn into jail time. Just give it time. That happened to someone close to me. by Ian Kiragu on Unsplash

Personal growth, which is made up of every decision we make consciously or un-, is woven into every single miraculous and incandescent moment of our lives. The choices we make to face or avoid responsibility, tell the truth or a bald-faced lie, to do damage, to fail to be polite or considerate: each of these dictates the road we are on. Since the high road is steep, high, thin, full of rocks and potholes and slippery to boot, it’s a given that over the course of our lives we will have spectacular falls.

That, in reality, is baked in to the experience. For without the occasional fall from some semblance of grace we know no humility. The pain that you and I suffer when we do something stupid, hurtful, mean or damaging is part of how the high road teaches. That kind of pain has great purpose, for it asks whether or not you and I really are serious about this high road thing.

Vast numbers of us fail to choose the high road because it’s hard damned work, it never ends, the falls from grace hurt. Too many choose easy, easy is cheap. But easy costs in the long term. Big time. We see it everywhere; politics and pulpits and PR people and priests and pundits. And presidents just past. The Church preaches the high road but practices and protects pedophilia.

Easy often leads to evil. Evil breeds, spreads and devours. And it quite often wears the robes of the high road. by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

Back to Eric. His profile speaks a great deal to who he is. Eric’s gift, for me at least, has been reading his thoughtful, meaty comments ever since he started reading my stuff. For me, those comments are part of why I haven’t given up on Medium quite yet. People like Eric remind me not only that there are plenty of good people, but people whose good opinion is worth earning and keeping. Which means that I have to work to stay on the high road myself, but I am not alone out there in trying to keep my damned hiking boots on that road.

Here’s what he wrote the other day which really caught my attention, and which inspired this acknowledgement:

Anytime I’m reading something that makes me uncomfortable, squirmy, or challenged, I try to grasp that feeling and use it to build, or tear down, my own values and perceptions.
As a mixed-race person, I struggle a lot with identity issues. Reading other angles can help resolve those issues, or complicate them.
Like you, I am now more “open” than I’ve ever been. And I’m loving the vulnerability that has wrought. (author bolded)

If that doesn’t get your attention, you aren’t paying attention.

Some of the very best material I see on various online platforms is written either by BIPOC or mixed-race authors. Their lives and the lives of their children have a different arc, driven by the racism that barks at them from nearly every nook and cranny and granny in our society. Their ability to keep their heads high, to remain open, soft and curious even though their own life arcs are no holiday, are part of what continues to inspire and energize me to continue writing.

The way that Eric describes his process, above, is precisely what happens inside me. I read my fellow Black writers, whom I have often named, and what they describe or what we discuss often causes me great discomfort. by Tobias Rehbein on Unsplash

I have learned to walk right into that fire. For whatever the cost of the discomfort, on the other side of that firewalk, whatever curtains Western society has put over my eyes through Whitewashing history, Black culture or the like, gets burned away. I can see. And in seeing, I better understand.

In better understanding, I can be a much better writer, citizen, human being. Partner, ally and friend.

Something has to be destroyed for me to grow, to see, to evolve. That’s true of all life. That is what the legend of the great Phoenix bird is based upon: renewal through loss and destruction.

This is as true about racism as it is about learning about those aspects of ourselves which suck, and we all have them; the lies we tell ourselves about who we are or the lies we tell each other which undermine our integrity. Those can be the human condition, exacerbated by how easily the Internet allows that kind of blatant dishonesty, with which we paint over our gross insecurities. by Darko Pribeg on Unsplash

Or you and I can choose the high road. Someone once wrote about this. I made a stupid mistake with that person which was not in any way intended, and chose the high road to take responsibility and own my sh*t. What was available was to have an adult conversation, allow for healing, and strengthen the relationship. Their response was the low road, after making repeated claims that for them, “they didn’t know there was any other road” but the high road.

I was already disappointed in myself for the mistake. However, I was far more disappointed that the very honest vulnerability that I expressed in an attempt to own my mistake was painted with the ugly graffiti of false accusations and outright intent to do as much harm as possible.

Kindly, that ain’t the high road.

You see how this works. Part of the path of the high road is that it will drop- kick our ridiculous tushes off the cliff when we start claiming that this is who we are, we slip from humility into hubris, and in doing so, lose our footing.

Eric’s comment about vulnerability is the key, at least for my part. We are in a culture which struggles with toxicity, much of it driven by masculine energy. Nature is female. The ability to receive, to integrate, to remake, is female. The female makes life, new life, through pain. Pain — especially emotional and psychic pain- can lead to growth, but only if we are courageous enough to explore its outer edges rather than run screaming for cover.

The true high road is incredibly hard. And incredibly rewarding. It doesn’t reward arrogance, or superiority, or the bullshit stories we tell ourselves about how enlightened we are. It does reward us for being the Phoenix, over and over again, being willing to set the comfortable nest in which we rest on fire, then return to life utterly transformed. Phoenix tray

Some years ago, I found a collection of Franz china pieces using the Phoenix theme. I bought them- the tray is above. That grouping is on a shelf that I walk by every single day when I go to my basement gym. It isn’t just the beauty of the artwork. It’s the message. piece in my collection

The role of the Phoenix, if you’ll pardon the pun, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It is the hero’s journey. We are surrounded by them: the folks ravaged by disease or loss who continue to go to work every day, the people driven by war to leave their homelands who take awful jobs to ensure their kids get educated, the everyday next door neighbors battling abuse or physical pain or depression or all three but doing what it takes to provide for their families.

That is the story arc of every hero, real or imagined. That is the Marvel or DC comic hero, the great Greek myths, and the stories of those around us who grasp what has hurt them and craft themselves into something new. We love to watch, or tell, or read these stories. The challenge is when we are faced with those very decisions when we, too, can transform. We so often miss the opportunity to grow because our first reaction is to avoid discomfort or pain.

The arc of the Phoenix is the very thing that builds resilience. Strength. Endurance. Grace. Immense personal power.

There is a reason that the great Phoenix bird was feared. She was willing to immolate herself in order to experience rebirth. That is what’s available for all of us. The high road can be a righteous bitch, and extracts considerable payment for us to remain on it.

Eric’s words are a reminder of how, even in the comfort of our homes, you and I can choose to burn the comfortable cocoons of our beliefs and rise into greater understanding. We don’t have to wield a Jedi sword or swim the English channel. We need only to face what frightens us, let the experience do its great work, and continue that journey on the high road.

There is a great deal of room along the way to the top. by Cat Bassano on Unsplash

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