An Ode to Joseph Campbell

Bill Moyers: “unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on a journey to save the world but rather to save ourselves.”

Joseph Campbell: “And in doing that you save the world. You do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes. There’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth…No, any world is a living world if it’s alive. And the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is and be alive yourself, it seems to me.”

I first watched the six part series “Power of Myth” over ten years ago, which introduced me to the work of Joseph Campbell. Over the following years, I’ve returned to the series often, and his teachings, his stories, and that radiant smile…and vitality…continue to nourish me, filling me with mystery and joy. I don’t think I can stress this sufficiently…if you haven’t watched this series yet, the rate of return that you’ll accrue from this six hour investment of time will compound and compound and compound for the rest of your life, and far after, in all those lives of whom inevitably will feel the ripple effects from your waves. This is not hyperbole. This right here will light you on fire.

And really, i think that’s just what this world needs. We need you. Not your doing, but your being. We need more human *beings* in this culture of mass commodification where time = money. And it’s from this place of expansive openness, of understanding, compassion and stillness, in which we thereby act…

“I don’t think people are looking for a meaning of life. It’s the experience of feeling truly alive that people are really after”. Through this series, Campbell shows how this is in fact one of the principal functions of mythology. It’s not about fairy-tales and it’s not lies we tell ourselves, in delusion, to feel better about ourselves and the world we were born into; it is rather to connect us, to instill a sense of awe and mystery, and to feel the beat of our heart sync with that of the universe. And, as JC pointed out, you don’t have to stretch the imagination too far to envision how a world without a guiding mythology might appear: “Just look at the newspapers!” He exclaimed, shaking his head.

And now, fast forward thirty plus years, and here we are. For many people, it seems their walls are crumbling in front of their eyes. What can we do in the face of such deep anxiety, a rapidly accelerating deterioration of our environment, and the sustained loss of rights and suffering of so many?

— — — — — — —

Henry David Thoreau once proclaimed that “for every thousand chopping at the branches of the tree of evil, only one gets at the root”. To understand how to properly act then, we must first properly understand the problem. And since we live in a culture constantly conflating symptom with cause, we need to consider this very carefully.

Is there a core idea that unifies all these seemingly disparate branches of darkness that appear to be popping up every day? The ecological genocide, the rampant rise in anxiety levels, the gross economic and humanitarian injustices…

This brings us back to Campbell’s earlier point: what does a world look like without a unifying guiding mythology?

Could it be the root of all this malaise is centered around a deep seated sense of separation, on an individual basis, projected on to the big screen of society at large? And no matter how many band-aids we throw over our wounds, the fundamental lack of connection — with our earth, with each other, with our selves — still remains. No amount of technological progress, or attainment, or bounties of consumerism can fill the void of our lost mythology.

Our hearts, our inner most being, yearns for actual connection and the accompanying experience of feeling truly alive. This won’t trickle down from the top down. This is not a matter of finally electing some nice person to benevolently rule over us. No, this isn’t about some grandiose political revolution. This is about starting at the root, a revolution of the individual human heart. As Mayor Baba reminds us:

“Love has to spring spontaneously from within. It is in no way amenable to any form of inner or outer force. Love and coercion can never go together. Love can never be forced on anyone. It can be awakened in a person, however, through love itself. Love is essentially self-communicative — those who do not have it, catch it from those who have. True love is unconquerable and irresistible, and it goes on gathering power, spreading itself, until eventually, it transforms everyone whom it touches.”

The world needs us, and our own Heroe’ s journey beckons. “Never underestimate the influence of a vital person. A vital person vitalizes”. Yes indeed. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, thirty years after your death, for continuing to vitalize.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store