A few years ago I worked for one of Austin's best non-profits coaching working adults who wanted to earn a college degree. Almost all of them tried college previously, but life got in the way and they never finished. Most weeks consisted of around 30 one-on-one conversations about time management, taking advantage of their resources and encouraging them to stick with the work, even though it was hard.
Despite the deep and meaningful conversations I experienced on a daily basis I sometimes found myself wondering: "But when is my adventure going to begin?"
Every day I'd finish work, get into my normal old car, go home, and have a normal evening. And I'd wake up and do pretty much the same thing the next day - live a normal life working a job having conversations with normal people.
I was chatting with someone recently about the hero's journey. They were concerned about where they were on the journey, and whether or not they were on the right path. I listened to them describe feelings I’ve had most of my adult life: "I'd hate to make a decision about a direction only to find myself down the road months later realizing it was the wrong direction. I don't want to waste any time and miss the chance to fulfill my potential."
On a walk following that conversation it occurred to me that within the ancient model of the hero's journey there is no record of the following plot line: A character studies up on the right life path, weighs their options, assesses which course best employs their strengths and weaknesses, then after much deliberation decides the path on which they will bravely chart a course.
No, the heroes we laud in the stories we retell are found living normal lives when circumstances beyond their control cause them to experience pain and suffering so great they're forced to change, despite the fact they'd do anything to continue living their normal, uninteresting lives.
The call to adventure comes to those who are living normal, uninteresting lives.
There's a weird cosmic balance thing going on here - it's as if we're not able to hear the call to adventure when we're convinced we know the adventure we're supposed to live into. It seems a normal life is the meeting place for the circumstances necessary to launch someone reluctantly onto an incredible journey.
I'm grateful for the recent resurgence of the heroes journey as a self-improvement lens through which to view ones life - but we miss an important element when we fear we're on the wrong path if our lives don't consist of big risks, mountaintop experiences, world travel, a TEDx talk, a startup or two under our belts, and lots of Instagram followers. Adventure does not equal attention and acceptance.
If we're not careful, we can ignore the important responsibility bestowed upon us who lead normal lives. Though we might not be as important as we wish we were, we can accept we are completely irreplaceable, right here in our normalcy. The point of the hero’s journey is and always has been about a character enduring a difficult transformation so they can realize they always had what it takes to do something difficult which not only benefits them, but saves others. Our lives aren’t about adventure, they’re about getting our internal world figured out so we can find the courage to tell the truth to a world that has been lied to in a voice we've always been afraid to use. It's never been about us - it's always been about others.
So what is one to do who has a deep yearning to live an extraordinary life?
A real adventure is only an adventure in hindsight. May we remember the heroes from our greatest stories never wanted to endure the struggle which forced them to grow. The reason they heard the call to adventure was because they were deeply enmeshed in the present of their existing lives doing what needed to be done, participating in their communities, having a few close relationships and brushing their teeth at night. And then one day it became clear something needed to change - a policy begged to be challenged at work, a new voice was needed on city council, an elderly neighbor required assistance, a culture of intolerance had to be addressed in schools. So they reluctantly decided to answer the call to do something with their normal life in their normal community and in so doing created an extraordinary story.
I'm convinced it's a normal life that presents us with the greatest chances to live a life of meaning because every normal moment has the two necessary components for a meaningful life: 1) You and whatever truth is inside you (even if you can't hear it yet), and 2) anyone around you who needs a little saving from a normal person, not a knight.
When we get lost along the way, when we find ourselves trying to live a bigger life than we've currently been presented with, I've learned to stop and look for needs and ask: Where might I add value? I try to remember answers come in the midst of our participation. We must be grateful always - never wishing for different circumstances. When we can be grateful for everything we can do anything. It's right here in front of us.
When I was working with that non-profit I mentioned earlier there was a hallway I passed down a hundred times each week - dropping one student off from a meeting just to grab another, turn around, and head back down the same hallway. On good days I was able to be grateful for my normal life. One afternoon I penned the poem below about that hallway I passed through so many times. This poem now hangs on the wall of one of their locations and every time I see it I'm reminded of the need for a similar poem in each stage of life. There is meaning in each moment if only we're able to accept the normal moments for the beauty and potential they have.
This Hallway Now
This hallway now -
is the kindest it’s been
Today I passed through
new and old shadows,
my reflection against the glass.
And this must be healing -
passing through the same place,
but with softer breath -
a shining light inside of me
nudging me forward,
past the stretch where
I used to stop and long.
Through I go now.