2. It’s Everyone’s Story—Being the Author is at its Heart
We have the model of the heroic journey built into our DNA. This is not a new model that has to be learned. It needs to be awakened. Most of the stories we have read, the movies we have watched and the make-believe we have created have been based on the heroic journey. Star Wars, the Odyssey, Harry Potter and most books for children have all taught us about the heroic journey.
The only differences between the heroic myths and stories and our own personal heroic stories are the following:
- The heroic myths are grand and our own heroism is mostly, though not always, lived out in our daily lives and seems unremarkable in comparison.
- The heroic myths tell about occasional journeys and our own journeys are surprisingly frequent and even overlapping at times.
- Most of the heroic figures in the myths are larger than life whereas we, with some exceptions, are normal people doing what we need to do to make a difference.
The heroic journey is the story of change and growth in its healthiest form. It is about becoming increasingly competent, mature, wise, resilient, and able to meet the shifting challenges of the world. The life of each individual is made up of many small (and sometimes some very large) heroic journeys, each testing and developing us in different ways.
The heroic journey really is our story and it is the one that can challenge and support us in leading the changes we need to lead and creating the life we want for ourselves. We just need to say “yes.”
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At the heart of the heroic journey is the concept of “being the author”.
It does not imply total control, but it does mean taking responsibility for choices. Synonyms for author include such terms as creator, originator, founder, maker, prime mover, architect, and designer. Some teenagers take on the author role early in their journey. Others take it on slowly in the beginning and then seem to blossom. Some really resist taking on that responsibility and drag it out to painful degrees.
A Play in Three Acts
Act I: Beginnings
The classic heroic journey begins with the crossing of a threshold, leaving a known world or comfort zone. We may (a) “heed a call” to go forth, (b) be thrown into the journey, (c) be lured in, or (d) blunder in. The big journey for teenagers, that of the developmental stage called adolescence is one that you are thrown into by life. It’s just what happens around 12-20 years of age. The challenge is to come to understand the journey and get into the role of being as much of the author as possible.
Guardians of the Threshold
The first challenge in taking on more of an author’s role in leaving childhood and becoming a young adult is getting past what are called the guardians of the threshold. These guardians take the form of such things as inner doubts or external forces that try to turn us back right at the beginning. They are the first test and they test our readiness and worthiness to go forth. We all must face these guardians (and they often reappear.)
Act I For Teenagers.
Although teenagers are thrown into the developmental journey of adolescence, the beginnings of the journey can look like any of the four. For example, some teenagers seem to heed the call to go forth and engage the challenges early and with purpose. They take on the author role quickly.
Some teenagers delay answering the call, but eventually do so (thrilling parents who were becoming increasingly concerned). Some really get started when they blunder in because of running into the law or other authorities. Some get thrown in by entering the military or the work force early or by having traumatic events “throw” them out of childhood.
Act II: On the Path
Moving through the land that lies on the other side of the threshold we are faced with tests and trials that usually require new or altered ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting. As Alice found, in Alice in Wonderland, things often aren't what they seem and what worked before is no longer effective and can, in fact, be counter-productive or dangerous.
The heroic journey is a time of endings and beginnings (of death and birth or rebirth) and of the difficult terrain in between. We may find that our tests are physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual and that our changes are, consequently, in one or more of those areas. Different journeys pose different challenges and opportunities.
Some of the tests will be dealing with mistakes and failures, avoiding the seductive lures of taking the easy way out, dealing with uncertainty, doubt, and perhaps despair, and finding sources of energy and renewal along the way.
Act II For Teenagers. Letting go is difficult because so many things have to be left behind (from self image and the nature of relationships to innocence and dependence). “Inbetweenity” is long and so much is changing that “inbetweenity” often seems to define the teenage experience. Discovery and mastery is the key. By definition, some tests will be common developmental tests and many will be situational and vary dramatically from teenager to teenager. The ability to discover and master new ways is often where teenagers have the most control over their experience and it also helps let go and shorten “inbetweenity.”
The people in their lives (adults and peers) and the roles they play will be critical for teenagers on this journey. The response of the organizations in their lives (from schools and the police to religious and community organizations) can also be critical. The question for all is, “What role(s) can I/we play in this teenagers journey?”
Act III: Completions. When we successfully meet the challenges of the journey the final phase is some form of return or completion. We “return” with the gifts that we have discovered, whether new knowledge, new abilities, new ways of working and relating or new technologies. That triggers the final set of challenges.
The completion of a journey may be the most difficult part of all because the impact of a hero's return may imply changes that the rest of the "kingdom" may not look upon with great favor. Whether individually or as a group, we will be changed. That will require changes in others, for it will change the nature of relationships and alignments of various kinds. Those changes can ripple out in many directions and for long distances. The gifts of the hero can easily threaten the status quo.
Sometimes heroes are welcomed and celebrated. Sometimes they are ignored. Sometimes they are even shunned, reviled, or attacked (even crucified). This phenomenon holds true whether the "kingdom" is a family, an organization, a corporation, or a community (regardless of size).
Thus, there are major challenges facing us in beginning the journey and crossing the threshold, in traversing the unknown and facing the trials and tests that are found there, and in returning and dealing with the impact of our return.
Act III For Teenagers. There are some very sneaky and very powerful challenges in the third act. Often the toughest challenges are relationship challenges. As teenagers mature, they often mature at different rates than their friends/girlfriends/boyfriends, which can cause ruptures in those relationships. Even though necessary for continued growth, such endings are difficult – and they may happen repeatedly over the course of the teenage years.
The next journeys loom (college, the military, work, starting a family, etc.). Of great value in Act III is attention given to reflecting on the development and maturity that has already happened and how that personal power will provide the foundation for the next journeys.
Tested on Five Levels
This is one reason that being a teenager can be so difficult. You are tested intellectually, emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually. It’s how you grow and mature, but that’s a lot of testing and it can be confusing and daunting.
Intellectual tests include not only course content, but also developing new ways of understanding the world – from what’s going on in your school and family to how to understand what goes on at a global level.
Emotional tests are often the toughest. This partly because of the emotional roller coaster of adolescence and partly because you have to figure out how to understand and manage your emotions.
Physical tests range from those that come with maturity and the changes in your body that naturally happen to becoming skilled at sports or dance or other physical activities. Physical challenges can also include maintaining health or recovering from injuries or illness.
Social tests can seem to be constant as you figure out how to establish deeper peer relationships, fit into groups, form boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and deal with changing family relationships.
Spiritual tests can range from awakening spiritually and forming beliefs to challenging beliefs you have had.
Three Types of Test
- Letting Go (endings)
- Discovery & Mastery (beginnings)
- Dealing with Being Between Endings and Beginnings (“Inbetweenity”)
These three types of test will be encountered in every significant change. They happen when you let go of childhood to discover how to become a young adult. They happen when you get married or start a family or retire. They happen if you get a big promotion or if you fail at something significant. They happen in every corporate or community change.
These types of test are always going on at the same time. It will take time to let go of childhood and it won’t happen in a nice neat packaged way. It will definitely take a long time to build the competencies required to be a young adult. AND—as a teenager—you will experience “inbetweenity” quite a bit.
If we just take two types of relationships as examples, the degree of challenge is obvious. The relationship you had with your parents when you were a child will have to end and you and your parents will have to figure out what a new healthy parent-young adult relationship will be. Most parents and teenagers spend a lot of time in relationship “inbetweenity” before the new relationship is discovered and developed. That time is usually one of those emotional roller-coasters.
With teenage peer relationships there are often a lot of endings. Some teenagers have a stable set of relationships, but most do not. Even for those that do, the relationships only continue if they are changing to meet the changing needs of those involved. For most teenagers, there will be a lot of peer relationship endings and beginnings as everyone is changing and experimenting and developing new social skills.
With these endings there will be some degree of loss, sometimes a big loss and sometimes not so big. Sometimes the loss happens all at once and sometimes it happens over time. In either case, loss is hard to experience.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. This is a person who studied how people reacted to loss, particularly in regard to death and dying. She proposed that people go through five stages in coming to accept a major loss.
- Denial. “Nope, not happening—no loss or ending here—no problem—no grieving necessary.” As annoying as denial can be it really has a function. It allows people to get over a shock or prepare themselves to deal with the ending. There may also be so much going on in their lives that they just need to focus elsewhere.
- Anger. As people come out of denial they often get angry. Anger can be scary, but at least people are emerging from denial and are available to engage with. Anger is sometimes people’s way to exercise power in the face of a loss they are powerless to prevent. Anger is problematic when it is too extreme or goes on for too long.
- Bargaining. This is the next stage and the teenage years are full of bargaining – with each other, with parents, with teachers. It’s particularly common with parents as the parent-child relationship ends and everyone searches for the new healthy relationship. The classic scenario is teenagers wanting freedom and independence, but also wanting their laundry done, transport on demand, money available, no chores and favorite foods available without having to ask for them, let alone go get them. The good news is that bargaining is a way for people to be connected.
- Depression. Some depression can happen when it becomes clear that there really is an ending or loss and bargaining isn’t going to prevent it. This feeling can range from sadness to full depression depending on the person and the loss (or losses). It’s a natural response to endings and is only problematic when it is too intense of lasts for too long.
- Acceptance. Acceptance can happen because something comes along to take the place of what ended or because a person has simply come to terms with the loss and is ready to move on. Acceptance can range from a tremendous sense of relief and freedom to a quieter very subtle move away from the sadness or depression. At this point a person is ready and open to something new.
Note. People don’t always follow every stage. Sometimes you jump ahead and sometimes you even repeat a stage. This model is very useful, but it can play out in very different ways.
Discovery and Mastery – Beginnings
Being a teenager means a lot of experimenting, discovery and eventually mastery. The problem is threefold. First, there are a lot of competencies to discover and master, ranging from self-management and social skills to a wide range of scholastic competencies. Second, the mastery process is not an easy one and requires a lot of perseverance. Third, the world most teenagers inhabit is not well designed to support mastery in many of the competency areas.
Support for self-management and social skills is rarely built into schools and it’s hard for parents to fill the gap given the changes happening in the teen-parent relationship. Schools also vary dramatically in their ability to support scholastic mastery. Community organizations, camps, volunteer placements and some other opportunities can make a major difference, but those opportunities also vary dramatically for different teens. So, this is a very tough type of test for most teenagers.
“Learning to Love the Plateau”
The biggest danger in pursuing mastery is getting discouraged. There are always times on the heroic journey when discouragement, sometimes even hopelessness, intrudes and that can sidetrack or end a journey if we aren’t ready. The keys are (1) to realize that mastery has a rhythm to it and (2) we have to “learn to love the plateau” and trust our practice.
The rhythm of mastery includes times when our competency seems to be developing rapidly and it gets exciting as we make leaps. The practice obviously pays off. The natural rhythm of mastery also includes times when improvement just doesn’t seem to be happening – even when we practice as hard as ever. That’s the plateau and that’s where it is very easy to get discouraged, cut back on the practice and maybe even give up.
It is on those plateaus where we basically have to trust in the process and in our practice and keep going even without the encouragement that obvious improvement provides. If we do, we almost always come to the next period of leaps in competency – and probably won’t be able to see it coming.
This pattern is a natural part of the heroic journey, so expect it and don’t be discouraged by it.
Being Between Endings and Beginnings – “Inbetweenity”
During the teenage years, this experience of “inbetweenity” is a lurking companion. Sometimes it is a strong feeling and sometimes it is just there in the background. With all the change going on in the corporate world, this is also a frequent experience of adults. It just comes with the territory.
The “Pulled in Different Directions” section is a pretty good description of what can be called the dynamic tensions that characterize “inbetweenity.” The concept of dynamic tensions simply means that you will be pulled different directions and there won’t be a complete resolution.
For example, one characteristic of “inbetweenity” is the dynamic tension between feeling connected and feeling disconnected. Sometimes we might feel pretty connected to family and peers and organizations and our sense of identity. Other times we might feel disconnected. Or we might feel connected to peers and not family. The point is that there will always be a number of dynamic tensions experienced during “inbetwenity.” See the “Pulled in Different Directions” section for more examples.
Two Types of Journeys for Teenagers
A life is made up of a number of heroic journeys that occur over the course of that life. The big difference for teenagers is that there are often two types of journey going on at the same time.
"Normal Developmental Tests"
One type of journey is the natural developmental journey of leaving childhood, discovering how to be a young adult and dealing with the extended period of “inbetweenity” where you have sort of left childhood, but have not yet mastered being a young adult. That takes years and is the basic story of adolescence.
The developmental heroic journey for teenagers is the journey on which you meet the three big challenges and develop your identity, learn to form strong relationships and build the set of competencies required to be a successful young adult.
You will also be challenged to become the author of your life, giving up the dependence of childhood and accepting the responsibility of adulthood. Again, this happens because you are a teenager and you are ready for the challenge.
The other type of journey is what can be called “situational journeys” (mini-journeys), which are journeys that happen because of a specific event. That event can be anything from a move to a new community or taking on a leadership role to a rape or a serious illness. Most teenagers will experience several of these situational journeys to go along with the longer developmental journey.
There are a stunning number of these situational challenges that can come into your life and test you. They will call you, lure you or throw you out of your normal world into a journey of change. Sometimes these journeys begin as the result of a blunder, for example getting arrested. Remember that these tests are the experiences in which you develop – in which you learn how to become the author of a life and discover who you are.
For example, you can be tested by:
- Deaths—of family or friends or colleagues or neighbors or schoolmates
- Divorces and separations of parents
- Injuries and illnesses
- Break-ups of relationships
- Failure in school
Not all of these challenges are the result of something “bad” happening. Good things can also happen that present you with mini-heroic journeys:
- Being named a team captain or president of a club
- Being accepted into an honors program or elite school
- Becoming part of a blended family if your parent remarries
- Getting a major part in a performance
Adult Developmental Challenges
There are adult developmental challenges also, so this pattern will continue throughout life. For example:
- Establishing a career
- Having kids
- Middle age
Adult developmental challenges differ from those of the teenage years because they are rarely as wide-ranging or intense and usually don’t last as long.
Adult Situational Challenges
Situational challenges will also be a part of adult life, including:
- Career change
- Job loss
- Financial loss
- New job/role/promotion
- Being victimized
- Death of a family member or close friend
- Starting a business
- Moving to a new community