It is said that when Siddartha Guatama was born, a wise hermit travelled to meet the infant, where he pronounced that the child would one day be either a great king (a prospect that appealed to Siddartha’s dynastically-inclined father) or a great sage. Distraught at the prospect of his golden boy letting down the family and pursuing bearded, sandalled, penniless enlightenment – he would have hated the sixties – the father did all he could to keep his son from encountering the real world. Any aspect of it might entice him to a life of the soul, so he raised Siddartha in a walled world of dancing girls and great feasts.
The Ordinary World, including our own Western societies, often behaves in this way, with self-interested parties going to great lengths to distract its people from their potential. Siddartha’s father takes the same tact as modern capitalist countries, best laid out in Huxley’s Brave New World, in which over-stimulation and an excess of entertainment flood our attention and keep us distracted by the shiny things we can buy. Siddartha’s father shows us that this is done not to protect the individual who might go off and find transcendence, it is to prevent the severing of continuity, be it the royal line or societal status quo.
So, restricted from any knowledge of age, sickness, death, or spirituality in case these led to his renunciation of princely life, young Siddartha spent all of his time in three palaces with forty thousand dancing girls. Having had too much of a good thing, he was finally forced by boredom to seek entertainment, or something more profound, elsewhere. So he summoned his chariot and set off for the park. The gods were watching him.
The elided story of “The Four Signs” has it that four times Siddartha went out to the park, each time encountering a confusing, disturbing vision of the outside world: First, the gods turned one of their own into a derelict old man with a mouthful of broken teeth and a spine bent with the burdens of life. Told by his charioteer that this was an aged man, Siddartha cursed old age, realising it must come to all who are born. On the second trip, the gods sent a diseased man, which sent him back to his palace in a state of agitation. During the third excursion, the gods displayed a dead man. This also did not go down well with the prince. Finally, Siddartha saw a peaceful monk meditating beneath a tree, exuding serenity. He was told that this was a monk, a man who had retired from the world to seek truth.
At this sight, the young man left behind his princely life in pursuit of enlightenment. This was how the Future Buddha received the Call to Adventure.
The Call to Adventure might manifest itself in any number of ways, but it will always resonate clearly within whomever it calls to, even if they try to deny it. The call might be as subtle as meeting an attractive bartender (Giovanni’s Room), or as blatant as Gandalf arriving at Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, seeking someone to send on a journey, and telling the hobbit, “In fact I will go so far as to send you on this adventure.” It might be as seemingly fortuitous as being invited to a school for magical children (Harry Potter), or as dramatically disastrous as crash landing with a group of strangers on a mysterious island that hosts dangerous natives and a monster made of smoke (Lost).
What the Call to Adventure is in all cases, however, is the ultimate duality, or what we might think of as the final duality of the Ordinary World. It offers our hero a decisive choice between accepting and rejecting the call, between the Ordinary World and the Hero’s Journey. Looking more closely at the television show Lost – a flawed masterpiece that is saturated with mythology – this ultimate choice is clearly seen: Each of the characters comes from lives of division, heartbreak, and trauma that are decisively interrupted by the unavoidable Call to Adventure of their plane crashing on the island. The dualities of their former lives are now secondary to the choice they are given – protect the island or return to their former lives. Accept the Call (as John Locke readily does) or refuse it (like Jack).
The Call to Adventure often comes at a time when the old ways are no longer enough, when the life lived until now is no longer one of life, of sustenance and growth, when ideologies and patterns and even myths lose their shine and ability to inspire. The call comes, for instance, when a young prince like Siddartha is finally fed up of good food and weary of sleeping with many women. The boundaries of the Ordinary World become apparent to the potential hero, who feels them pressing in. To avoid this constriction, she can make herself small enough to fit within these bounds, or she can seek new lands that can accommodate her stature and encourage growth. This is what the hero, knowing it or not, is ready for.
In Lost, each of the candidates to become the new hero of the island is on this particular flight because each is ready, in some way, for the call. Jack was on the plane having just identified the body of his father, signifying that he is at last open to confronting the dragon of his life; Locke had gone there seeking adventure, hoping to take part in a wilderness walkabout, in spite of having to wheel himself in a chair rather than walk any place; Kate and Sawyer are both at the nadir of their tortured lives, and this Call to Adventure is their only way out; Hurley is seeking answers (to the riddle of the “cursed numbers”); Jin and Sun are prepared to start again and begin a new life together; you can do this for any other character who dragged themselves from the womb of the crashed plane and was born again on the island.
The list of players in Lost is extensive, so let’s limit ourselves to the two characters undeniably at the core of the story and central themes of the show: Jack and Locke. These men are shadows for each other, embodying the scepticism Locke tries to keep at bay and the gullibility Jack fears falling prey to. They are also both stand-ins, with Jack representing the society that doubted Locke, and Locke (at one point literally) stepping into the shoes of Jack’s father. Brought together by fate and summoned by the same Call to Adventure, they take very different routes as Locke accepts the call gladly and Jack refuses to hear it at all. No two heroic journeys are entirely the same.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” What appear to be distinct things turn out to be merely distinct manifestations of a deeper and singular truth. The public dream of the Future Buddha was predicated on his father’s myth-making, a story in which the greatest good was for his son to become emperor, at whatever cost. As young Siddartha matured, the ripening grain of his subconsciousness began to formulate a private myth, one at odds with the story of his society. Campbell discusses divisions of this kind too:
“If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.”
The divide between Locke’s private myth and the public myth of his society motivates him to accept the island’s call, to rise up and become its protector. He knows he is destined for more and might one day be heroic, but others only see an ageing man in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to lead, unable to save himself let alone anyone else. This is why he so frequently vents his frustration at the cages imposed on him by bellowing at whoever stands in his way, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” While he stays in his normal life in the Ordinary World, his cry is impotent; only when he stands up for himself and asserts the identity he knows he is worthy of do his words have any impact.
In the case of conflict between the individual and the group, the journey might lead our hero to bring herself into alignment with the public dream, having realised that her private myth is no good for her. This might be the story of the ardent individualist who learns the value of the collective, or the penny-pinching miser who discovers the priceless value of love. Or her responsibility will be to return to her society and change it with the wisdom earned on her journey. Martin Luther King was this kind of hero, challenging his society with the private myth of his infamous dream. Siddartha also went out from his society, on a journey that ultimately led him to the great wisdom of the Buddha that he brought back to the world for its enlightenment. At the point of hearing the call, however, there is no way to predict the outcome. The hero must simply say yes.
When fate drags his plane out the sky, Locke has recently been turned away from the walkabout he has prepared so long and hard for. Seeing only the wheelchair and believing nothing of his abilities, the company declined to take him into the wilderness for “insurance” reasons. Locke hollers that he is supposed to do this walkabout, that it is his destiny. So when he wakes amongst the wreckage of the plane and is able to stand on his legs, he is more than ready to embrace whatever quest life has for him. He is out to prove all others wrong and himself right, to become the hero he has always known he would be.
This is why it is absolutely fitting that the end of his journey is self-sacrificial death, Christ-like, in service to the island – the hero is not an individual in the end, and the journey is not about serving an individual’s needs. We tell stories of great heroes and need myths of powerful people because they inspire each of us to take our place in the world. We are a part of the great story of humanity, which is built on and buttressed by the stories of great humans. The hero is not the one who ultimately conquers the external world but who masters the internal realm, and in doing so transcends individualism; the hero is (in Joseph Campbell’s description) the person of “self-achieved submission”.
There are those who refuse the call, preferring to remain within the familiar bounds of the undemanding Ordinary World. But those who refuse the call stagnate, in spite of anything else they may try to achieve. “Whatever house he builds,” Campbell writes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “it will be a house of death.” Giovanni’s Room (see the previous essay) is a story about the terrible results of refusing the call, with the lead character undergoing no growth and ending up alone with his indecision. In Nelson Algren’s review of the novel, he described it as “a story of a man ... who could not say yes to life”.
Thankfully, the call to Adventure is rarely a one-time offer; like Siddartha being shown the old man, the diseased man, the dead man, and the monk, potential heroes will receive the summons in various ways at different times. In Lost, Jack is both the most obvious candidate for hero (charming, brave, handsome: the kind of guy who makes others admire him and loathe themselves) and yet the most adamantly resistant to the call. After what should have been an impressive Call to Adventure in the fiery plane crash, the island summoned him again to press a button that could save the world; again, with the chance to turn away a freighter that might destroy the island; again, when Locke passes on a message from his long-deceased father; again, when Ben tracks him down off-island to bring him back. Topping Siddartha’s “four signs”, it takes five to convince Jack. So why would such a man have said no for so long?
As the Call to Adventure necessarily leads into a dark forest, the realm our hero may least like to enter, it is often heralded by something that represents the terrifying, the feral, the mysterious, or some combination of these. It often signifies the side of whatever core duality our hero wishes to deny. The initial Call to Adventure in Lost is exactly this, a Roar to Adventure, a horrifying crash leaving our heroes stranded on a remote island populated with bizarre creatures and secrets. While heroes step forward to take a closer look, the stubborn and the cowardly will flee such a call.
There are few characters more stubborn than Jack. His ultimate journey will be simply to “let go”, to give up control and submit himself to something greater than his own ego. But Jack is so hard-headed and driven that he turns virtue into vice: His single-minded commitment to save others is also the greatest source of damage and division in his life, leading to the breakdowns of his marriage, his relationship with his father, and his own wellbeing. He turns to drink, in spite of the cost to his health, in his manic pursuit of being a saviour – and to be recognised for it.
In a flashback to Jack’s youth, we watch his father tell him that a good surgeon, like himself, can cope with making tough decisions because he “has what it takes”. His father tells him, “Don’t choose, Jack, don’t decide. You don’t want to be a hero, you don’t want to try and save everyone, because when you fail ...” here he levels a stare at his son, “... you just don’t have what it takes.”
This accusation resonates throughout Jack’s life, as he grows up and becomes a surgeon like his father; as he promises to restore a young woman’s ability to walk; as he sacrifices his marriage to be a better surgeon, to “fix” more people; finally, as he fights to keep the survivors alive and get everyone off that island. He is so determined to do this, against every urging of Locke, because he is determined to prove his father wrong, to demonstrate that he has what it takes.
Ironically, this wrong-headed pursuit of being a hero is precisely what gets in the way of his undertaking the true heroic quest and accepting the island’s Call to Adventure.
Conmen are so integral to Lost that the overarching narrative of the centuries-old feud between Jacob and the Man in Black – involving hundreds of players, the Dharma Initiative, the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, and everything that happens over the show’s one-hundred and twenty-two episodes – might be described as the ultimate hustle. (“That’s a hell of a long con, Doc,” says Sawyer to Jack about this very idea.) This cosmic plan devised by Jacob, protector of the island, comes entwined in the subterfuge of the Man in Black, who has his own machinations at play. If Jacob’s plan is meant to initiate and guide his candidates through a Hero’s Journey, the Man in Black intends to exploit the trappings of a noble quest to his own ends. In the face of such complex battles between Good and Evil, how can Jack or Locke know if they are answering Jacob’s Call to Adventure or the Man in Black’s siren call?
Religions are often guilty of weaponising the Hero’s Journey. Churches with a compulsion to fill pews and a grasp on the psychology of vulnerable people will give explicit Calls to Adventure. I grew up in the fundamentalist Evangelical tradition and heard every few weeks, during closing prayers, a call “from God” to visitors, encouraged to follow the tug at their soul and give their life to God. Once this call had been accepted, the formulaic application of the “heroic checklist” followed soon after: the spiritual mentor(s) with all the church-approved answers; the Belly of the Beast, usually a requirement to shed a part of the old, secular life, perhaps a girlfriend or piercings or the burden of part of your income, to demonstrate your commitment to God; a Road of Trials made up of the difficulties life throws up, soothed with bromides about faith; and the weekly Atonement with the Father, as God steps in each Sunday to square the circle of personal suffering with the triangle of generic spirituality. Tithe, rinse, and repeat next week.
At best, this can provide a catch-all sense of meaning that might get some through the banal difficulties of everyday life – though it simultaneously stifles the search for deeper meaning, and it obviates the need to seriously grapple with the complexities of existence. At its worst, it is exploited by cults and charlatans who can either fleece you of everything – not least your ability to believe – or convince you to commit atrocities. Most of David Koresh’s credulous followers remained in the fiery tomb of the cult’s headquarters as they and their children burned, no doubt believing themselves to be leaping into the Belly of the Beast. In the documentary Waco: Madman or Messiah, one of the nine who survived expresses remorse that she failed the test, claiming, “I should have died too.”
How should the sincere seeker decide whether a call is one to adventure or to ruin? Ye shall know them by their fruits. Seek the evidence of what your journey yields: If it makes demands not against your fear and anxieties (which is expected on the Hero’s Journey) but against reason and logic, if it pushes you deeper into an increasingly circumscribed in-group, if it takes you further from humanity as a whole and the human condition as your guiding principle, if it multiplies division rather than bringing reconciliation, it is likely a journey worth abandoning. With that path left behind, our hero is now free to discover a worthwhile quest.
The difficulty of choosing to accept the call has led to that tired phrase, “A leap of faith”. This is often misused by religious apologists attempting to equivocate between the speculative step into the dark made by rigorous scientists curious to investigate further and the blindly faithful who take the “leap” only to land exactly where they hoped to end up. The leap of the curious as a first step along a road of discovery is the kind of faith – I prefer the word hope – required to answer the Call to Adventure and say yes to life.
There will still be those who say no. But the call has been heard, and there is no going back: The Call to Adventure renders the Ordinary World immediately less meaningful. The cracks begin to show and the shine wears off. The herald has presented our hero’s unconscious desire or need to her, and having glimpsed a hint of the truly meaningful life, she cannot settle for less. But our hero may try to settle, and it never works out well.
Before Jack finally embraces the quest that the island has for him, he hits absolute bottom. Against the best efforts of the island and the vociferous Locke, Jack manages to return to the ruins of his Ordinary World. Here, however, he must pick up the scattered pieces that remain of his existence and stitch them into a cadaver he then tries to give life to. He resorts to drink again to soften the sharp edges of life, which – combined with discovering that “saving” the survivors from the island hasn’t alleviated his drive to work but made it more urgent – destroys his ability to cope with the Ordinary World. Having nowhere left to hide, he is finally compelled to let go of his pride, his need to be a saviour, and his desire to be in control – at last, Jack accepts the call. Before he could quest after true meaning, he had to experience true suffering. “When the call isn’t answered,” Joseph Campbell writes, “you experience a kind of drying up and a sense of life lost.”
Poisoned with dissatisfaction and unaccomplished dreams, those who refuse the call can become bitter, and when that bitterness comes into contact with those who have accepted the call, it turns to jealousy. The ancient Greek king, Eurystheus, was a loser of this kind. The ruler of Tiryns thanks to the intervention of Hera at his birth, he achieved nothing great. Even with the assistance of a god, Eurystheus could not get his act together. Worse, he had a cousin whose fame and bravery made him loved by all people and favoured by the gods – Heracles. The two would develop a rather one-sided rivalry.
This is a story that repeats throughout mythologies; we find it near the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, in the enmity of Cain towards Abel. Like Eurystheus, Cain was the first born of the two antagonists, and his birth was aided by a god (“With the help of the Lord,” Eve says, “I have brought forth a man”). Just as Eurystheus did nothing to prove himself, Cain rather half-assed any display of worthiness before God, offering a lesser sacrifice than Abel’s “fat portions from the firstborn of his flock”. Like Heracles, who had earned the gods’ favour through heroic deeds, Abel had gained the approval of God with his earnest offering.
Faced with the reality of their own failure and contrasted against the hero who has put herself aside to pursue the good, the bitter person will react poorly. Cain took his brother out to a field and murdered him, an act that made Cain no better and no worthier, but that removed the painful reminder of his own failings. Eurystheus attempted to make a mockery of the heroic mode of living and sent Heracles on quests he felt sure even the great hero himself could not survive. In both stories, the bitter person has tried to remove the heroic from their world.
Of course, Heracles slayed the beasts in his path, developed his strength, and sharpened his wits. Watching Heracles return from each labour, Eurystheus cowered in a jar – the world grows smaller when you refuse the call. As Cleanthes is purported to have said, “The fates guide the person who accepts them, and hinder the person who resists them.” Lucifer is, in Milton’s rendering, the archetypal “lost soul”, one who refuses the call to greatness, following instead his own lusts; yet even he offers a Call to Adventure or a dire warning when he cries out to his legion: “Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!”
It might be tempting to look down on those who refuse the call; after all, they are by definition not heroes, and the bitterness they harbour can become contemptible. But to write them off as fallen or lost is to invite in the same sickness for which they are being condemned, and bitterness has nothing to do with the heroic quest. One of Lost’s characters tells his brother, a priest who is determined to draw distinct lines between the saved and the sinful, “I understand that you live in a world where righteousness and evil seem very far apart, but that is not the real world.”
This nuance must be remembered, just as a cliff edge must be kept in sight to stop yourself stumbling over it – because things will not become simpler or clearer after accepting the call, as Locke well knows. When he asks Jack, “Why do you find it so hard to believe?” Jack retorts, “Why do you find it so easy?” And Locke responds with absolute honesty, revealing the truth of the hero, who stumbles uncertainly along on their journey yet appearing to the outside word like a brave, worthy figure. He tells Jack, “It’s never been easy.”
At this point, there is no telling where this journey will take our hero, or even whether it will be successful – she might lose a battle along the Road of Trials and never return from the quest, or come running back to the relative safety of her Ordinary World. The only way to know is to risk the journey. What must our hero risk for this journey? Everything. And she must demonstrate her commitment by diving deep into the Belly of the Beast.
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• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
• Wake Up, Jack Kerouac (2008)
• Lost, created by JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffrey Lieber (2004 – 2010)
• The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers (1988)
• ‘Lost Man’ in The Nation, Nelson Algren (1956)
• Pathways to Bliss: Mythology & Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell (2004)
• Waco: Madman or Messiah, dir. Christopher Spencer (2018)