Seven Years in the Wilderness
[I’ve taken the last six months away from the blog to write a play. This essay contains the basic theme of the upcoming play, currently called ON CALYPSO’S ISLAND.]
The Batman went underground. He shuttered himself off from the world. To defeat the Joker, he had become like him. He took the blame for Harvey Dent’s death rather than expose the white knight’s two-faced insanity. He had allowed the woman he loved to die. In shame, he went underground. The third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, begins with Bruce Wayne locked in his castle. He has closed himself off from the world for seven years. Only a new threat to the survival of Gotham will rouse him to pick up the Cape and return to the world.
Our Hero was doing just fine. Then, he wasn’t. He wasn’t sure what was wrong. He had had successes and some failures like most guys. While his big dreams remained beyond his reach, he reveled in the small dreams he had attained: his relationship with his beautiful wife, his family, a dog and he had a good, responsible job, necessary if not glamorous. And yet, he felt lost, overwhelmed, no longer capable of keeping up. He thought this might be some mid-life thing, but he wasn’t the type of man to solve it with a young mistress or a sports car. He wasn’t going to be a cliché. He felt lost. He was walking around in his life, though he was no longer there.
The thought seemed silly at first: was he like Bruce Wayne, like the Batman? There was something common in their experience. Seven years is not random. It is symbolizes the time it takes to complete a creative act. Is that what he was doing? Do other men and mythic superheroes go underground for seven years?
About midway through a life or a quest, the hero goes underground; takes a time out; descends into the wilderness. Myths, movies and stories are full of examples of heroes going into the wilderness. Even Ron Burgundy in THE ANCHORMAN suffers a loss of his career, his dog, his colleagues and himself before reemerging as a hero. Stories that continue through the end of the journey (after they’ve told you that they lived happily ever after) include a time when the male goes underground. [i]
In one version of the myth, Sir Lancelot flees into the forest after his love for Guinevere is discovered. Having defiled the rules of chivalry and betrayed King Arthur, he becomes a recluse, a hermit. He stops being who he is, the greatest knight of his generation. Seven years later, Mordred’s attack on Arthur calls him back into action. [ii]
Going into the wilderness is not only common in myth, it also happens to most men in their life’s journey.[iii] Since going underground is by nature a removal from view, this stage is the least discussed and examined in the man/hero’s journey. It is also the least understood and explained. Most men go through this phase alone. They think they are the only person going through it.
Midway through life, the hero/man must pause. Going into the wilderness is sometimes a literal journey, most often it is psychological. This time mirrors and is as traumatic as his transformation from boy to man. While some actually drop out of society, most just drop out emotionally and energetically. This usually happens in the forties, though it can range from the late thirties into the fifties. It usually lasts seven years or a complete cycle. Some men never leave this phase, they just disappear.
In his twenties and thirties, a man pursues career and relationship. He seeks a partner and to reproduce. He makes himself into who he is and gains fame and notice for the individual he becomes. He climbs the proverbial ladder to success. Most men, who have left the initiation phases of adolescence and college, find some level of success and make a life for themselves.
Parsifal stumbled into the Grail Castle as a young man, but failed to ask the question and claim the Holy Grail. The next morning he awoke in the forest. He realized he had lost the Grail. He then drops into a deep depression. He continues to do his work, wanders the countryside rescuing virgins and slaying evil knights, though it is said that he is doing it without joy. He does this for about seven years. After fully confronting his failure, the Grail Castle reappears. He asks the important question of the Grail King, (“what’s the matter?”) and he is entrusted with Holy Grail.[iv]
A traumatic incident often begins this phase. Fighting the dragon, our hero is wounded and must retreat. The failure that precipitates the drop goes to the foundation of the hero. The flaw that causes his downfall was there from the beginning. Up to this point he had been either unable to see it or unable to change it. Something needs to fundamentally shift before he challenges the dragon again.
At some moment, a man hits a wall. He bumps into a ceiling in his rise for power or is slowed: he might lose a job or have to change careers; a marriage might fail; or it could be an injury or illness that reminds him he is no longer a young man. Or, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water who doesn’t know to jump out as water goes from cool to boiling, the passion of daily life succumbs to the challenges of raising children, caring for aging parents or just meeting basic daily needs. He is expected to do more, know more and achieve more. He starts to realize he can’t be everything to everyone. He can no longer be who he thinks he is. He is not as good, smart, capable or brilliant as he thought. The demands are just too many. Whether it is a dramatic incident or a slow creep, the fire of life is diminished.
Overwhelmed, our hero goes underground. Going in to the wilderness is a very difficult phase for a man. It is disorienting, depressing, and feels as if he has come to the end of his life. All in all, it really sucks. However, if the man is patient he can grow and learn what he needs to know to get back into the fight and become whole. He can reorient his way of being in a way that makes him stronger and more capable than he was in prior to going underground. As painful as it might seem, this step is vital to the journey.
After orchestrating the Fall of Troy, Odysseus is driven from one calamity to another. He is kept from returning home. What most people remember of his Odyssey (if anything) is him fighting the Cyclops, going to Hades, or having his men turned into swine by the witch, Circe. However, the bulk of the ten years between fall of Troy and his return home to Ithaca is spent on the island of the goddess, Calypso. She “holds” him there. The book describes his time on the island as seven years of sitting on the beach weeping. During this time, he faces his part in the war and in his travels. He needs this time nurtured by the goddess to remake and prepare himself for his return home.
While the experience in the wilderness feels different to everyman, there are some recognizable experiences that all men have:
· Loss of Company – The hero loses his fellows and companionship with other men. In the myth, all of his partners and fellows are killed in the last assault; or his friends abandon him due the disgrace of the loss. Whichever way it occurs, he feels as if he is alone. A man seems to no longer have the close friends, mates, buddies or pals of college days or young adulthood. He might still have a few guy friends, though he probably rarely sees them and not in a situation where they can connect. At work, his colleagues are co-workers and not friends. As he climbs the ladder, his responsibility separates him from others. His relationship with his parents, especially his father changes as his father is going through his own steps leading to retirement and old age. Even at home, there is a growing isolation. His children are shifting consciousness from being dependent children to independent adolescents. Coming to the end of childbirth and early child raising, his wife is confronting a new phase in her own journey. Their relationship shifts. In the midst of a crowded house and robust work place, he feels alone.
· Abjuring Society – The hero goes into isolation. In some cases, the man actually abdicates his life and escapes. He leaves the city and goes into the wilderness. In some cases, he loses the ability to speak or hear, or might even pretend to be dumb. In extreme cases, he becomes a hermit. The isolation might come from being shipwrecked or imprisoned. Whether by choice or circumstance, a man becomes isolated. Mostly, the transition is internal. The man is still present in his life, but he is not there. Feeling alone and overwhelmed, he disconnects from the world around him. The man finds himself in the wilderness before he knows what is happening. He is surprised by emotions of fear and despair. Like waking to find oneself in a hole, he neither knows how he got there or how to get out.
· Rise of Emotions – Emotions that heretofore have been kept at bay rush in and overwhelm the hero. He feels rage, despair and grief. He must weep. Extremes of emotion are uncharacteristic for our hero who has been known for his stamina, resolve and steadfastness. They are surprising and embarrassing which amplifies the impact of the emotion. In extreme cases, our Hero is initially so overwhelmed by these strong emotions that he becomes catatonic. Much energy in Western masculinity is spent controlling and containing emotions. A badge of manliness is in remaining even keeled in the face of strife. Boys are taught not to cry and young men must learn to master their anger and fear. By the time men reach their thirties they have become expert at bridling and conducting their emotions. The challenge with controlling the “negative” emotions of fear, sadness and anger is that it also diminishes the “positive” emotions of joy, desire and love. By their forties, many men have made themselves numb. Going underground, the man is often overwhelmed by emotions. The intensity stuns the man. He must develop a new working relationship with his own emotions. For many men, this is the biggest challenge. It makes him feel weak and unmanly. If a man can come into relationship with his emotions, this phase will be easier to pass through, still painful, but easier.
· Practical work – Once the hero can get up off the ground, he often returns to work, though the work is usually not what he is called to do. During this internal phase, the passion and fire for his work has diminished. He might continue to be successful and highly productive, though his work lacks joy. If he does continue in his work of saving damsels in distress and combating the evil knights, he does so without joy. It becomes just a job. He might turn to practical work, such as manual labor, something with his hands like carpentry or farming. Or, he might shift to being in service of others, a caretaker’s role often thought to be reserved for women. During this time, the man might take up a hobby, something with his hands. He commits to the physical chores of improving his home. Special projects take on a greater significance during this period. It becomes the one thing that he can do right, where the rest is impossible.
· Owning the Shadow – In the previous phases, our Hero fought the shadow, the dragon or the enemy. In this phase, our Hero realizes he contains the shadow or is also the shadow. The shadow is his innate evil and shortcomings. Mythically, this might occur through recognizing a relationship with his evil twin brother or he might learn he carries the poison from a wound received fighting the dragon. The acknowledgement that he is the shadow brings a feeling of complete and abject failure. He knows that he is fully capable of doing wrong, not keeping his word and hurting those around him. The man knows, he’s the asshole. He is capable of complete failure. This phase is deeper than the earlier phase when he came to terms with his own potential to harm. In that phase, he had to recognize that there were times when he had choices to make that hurt others and himself to achieve his goals. The ends sometimes justified the means. This phase is different. He comes to realize that no matter how hard he works or how much he tries, he will still do harm. He is incapable of doing right all of the time. Even a man, who has embraced his “dark side” and own situational ethics, will find that the rules he has made for himself must be broken. The man knows himself to be a failure. Even men that externally appear successful must confront the experience of being a failure. For the demands placed upon him at this time are insurmountable. No one could be successful at the tasks placed before him. The bar is set too high. The overwhelming feeling of being a failure is a difficult passage to navigate.
· Nurturing Goddess – The goddess or a woman other than his wife or lover nurses him back to health. This feminine influence is essential and helps him to reconnect with his feminine side (his anima in Jung speak). Through most of his life, the man has often found his bond with his feminine through his relationships with the women in his life, his mother, his girlfriends and his wife. He projected his anima on them, worshipped them while not seeing them clearly. At this phase, it is time to stop projecting and build the relationship directly with his own feminine. Balance between his masculine and feminine is essential. In the myths, there is often a goddess or kindly woman who comforts him during his time in the wilderness. This is a feminine influence. It can rarely be his wife for that relationship is too entwined. And, it usually can’t be a twenty year old mistress because then he is just continuing to project his immature anima on an immature woman. There are many stories where the daughter helps to redeem the father. She reminds him who he was, who he is. He needs to come into balance with his own feminine.
Our culture does not prepare men to go through this phase. Most men go through it poorly and some get stuck in the wilderness never to return. There is a real need for patience all around. The man has to accept that this is where he is for a period of time. The best he can do is keep doing his work, maintaining his family and seek to grow into this new way of being.
There is a recognized scenario of a man going through this period poorly. It has become known as the mid-life crisis. The man dumps his wife of years and finds a young trophy wife. He buys a new sports car or speed boat, something that makes him feel youthful and reckless. He tries to return to the man he was in his twenties or thirties. He takes unnecessary risks. All of these choices are intended to ward off the phase and pretend it is not happening. Another way is to numb his way through the experience with drink or drugs. The opposite tack is for the man to embrace the change fully, dumping his old persona and finding new ways of being. He dives in head long into new religions. This is often portrayed as the businessman who loses the coat and ties for tie die and headbands; loses the corporate job for life on a commune following a spiritual guru. While this can work, this swings the pendulum so far that is it hard to find the needed balance.
Once a man has gone into this phase, the next question is how to get out of it. In the myths, a god or goddess prompts the Hero to get back on the path. This symbolizes a higher part of the man’s self. It is a renewed call to action. The problem or challenge that consumed his life and which he failed to resolve rises like the dragon to be confronted again. Some way the man has to get up off his butt and get back into the game.
Taking all he learned in the wilderness, the man can confront the challenges and passions of his life. There is a different approach to the quest than there was before. He understands that he can’t solve the problem with only masculine muscle, but also with feminine compassion and wisdom. By going underground, the man can achieve his goals and his complete his personal journey. What he gained during this mid-life passage is essential to his success.
Parsifal gets the Grail. Odysseus returns home. Batman saves Gotham again and can finally hang up his cape. And, our Hero finds a new joy and passion for his life.
[i] The hero’s journey is representative of a man’s journey through life. Using symbolic language and told by the means of mythic stories and characters, the hero’s journey mirrors the challenges and phases encountered by every man in his transition through life. This is why the myths exist and are so instructive. (It is also why science fiction, superhero stories and action adventure movies are so popular. They have incorporated the mythic journey into a popular art form.)
[ii] In another version, Lancelot disappears into a hermitage and becomes a priest. He remains there through his death, including presiding at the burial of Guinevere. This is an example of the hero never returning from his passage underground.
[iii] A man’s journey lives in the juxtaposition between the literal and the mythic. While we might most easily witness our concrete and mundane lives, we simultaneously exist on a mythic-symbolic level. This experience is often hard to see as we get up every day to go to our jobs and take care of our homes, though the peak moments of our lives are played out in mythic proportions and high stakes. Part of our challenge in this new era is to be able to consciously live in our literal and mythic world concurrently.
[iv] During this period, Parsifal gains such renown for his actions that word gets back to King Arthur, who sends out four knights in the four directions to bring him to Camelot, to the Round Table. Once they find him he is brought back for a feast to celebrate his good deeds. In the middle of the feasting, an old woman interrupts the joyous occasion. She recounts all of Parsifal’s failings and inadequacies culminating in his failure at the Grail Castle. Parsifal leaves at once, renews his efforts and once again finds the Grail Castle.
[v] This essay is about the Hero’s journey and a man’s time underground. A woman’s journey as expressed in the heroines journey has some characteristics to the hero’s journey, though is entirely different. This is why men and women who are partners are often in conflict during this phase. They each have their own path that is at odds with the other. Our living longer forces us to confront this time and the time after more fully. It is also why we are living longer: to give us collectively the time to get to the other side of the journey.