He felt the roots of the trees
Pull him into the earth.
Reality dissolved into dreams.
Thoughts became elusive fantasies.
Louder and louder
The dead screamed and howled
Until he thought he would go mad.
With this wonderfully amazing human brain, we have received the gift of consciousness. But as Joseph Campbell suggests, we pay the price of two realizations. One, the revelation that one day we, individually, and all we care for will die. And two, that society to whom we owe our upbringing existed before us and will continue to exist after we die.
Yet somehow in our Western civilization have become fixated on the first realization such that we have an almost obsessive fear of death. Looking younger, living longer, or having more becomes the only reasonable balms of life to avoid the frightening specter of death. Surely, death alone makes a poor source for meaning.
In other cultures, ancestors are often celebrated and revered giving expression to that second realization of humanity… where our lives are part of a bigger story played out by our ancestors and our children. Shouldn’t individual and community be connected as well as the past and present?
Then he caught the faint hint of a word
Then another word and another.
Straining to hear, he heard whole phrases
Until he realized each tortured spirit
was crying out its story
filled with such pain
that brought the adventurer to tears.
If we were to listen carefully to the voices of the dead then we might discern the lessons of past and discover who we are. Initially though, we may recoil in horror at the ghosts of civilizations buried in the ancient strata of the earth. What would the howls of the Easter Islanders, the Mayan, and the Vikings say to us? The same ones who spoiled their own nest and thus destroyed themselves in the process?
The hard truth is that in every story of genocide, war, or poverty, we learn about a part of us that is real today. It takes a bold heart to hear them and not die from guilt or despair. But is it any better to ignore them to repeat our ancestor’s mistakes?
He steeled himself to listen
To each spirit one by one.
Each told their story
In tortuous detail.
Every time his mind would wander
the story would turn to howls
Until he could find focus again.
Years passed by in the telling
And when the last spirit
shared its wisdom,
all was serene
Like opening Pandora’s box, one may find, among the terrible stories of the past, a small but resilient strand of hope. And the source of the hope is our capacity for wisdom.
However, wisdom does not come to those who listen passively. Instead, every ounce of deep learning must be extracted with blood, sweat, and tears. Wouldn’t you be suspicious of wisdom attained effortlessly? Psychologist Herbert Simon suggested that it takes ten years of intense effort to develop mastery in any field. How long then would it take to develop mastery over ourselves? How long to understand our time and place in history?
Epictetus said, “When we remember that our aim is spiritual progress, we return to striving to be our best selves. This is how happiness is won.” When we remember, all is serene again.
The traveller cracked open his new eyes
Tearing off the moss and the ivy that had grown over him
The forest was humble and at peace.
Seeing for the first time
he saw leaning against a tree
An ancient sword
Carrying the magic of all the ages.
With humility he claimed the hero’s sword
Ready to continue on his journey.
I find that when I recover from the flu, the day after is a glorious day. I feel as if I am breathing for the first time and the world seems more vibrant, more alive. To be touched by a wise spirit be it through a book, a movie, or a conversation, feels much the same way. Too often, we imprison ourselves in a few safe stories not realizing that freedom lies in exposing ourselves to a wider breadth of the human experience.
The magic of all the ages is in our ability to pass on to each other a strand of what was, what is, and what might become. Although we have lost much of our oral traditions, we have also gained new mediums for seeing the world… an image of the earth from space, video news from around the world, or a rare book from an unknown author.
He left the forest in search of the dragon
And found it feasting on a goat.
The fiery traveller reached for his sword
But the moment he touched it
The sword dissolved into dust.
Abandoning that plan, he waited instead.
For weeks, he tracked the dragon
Until he found its lair
where the dragon would sleep.
How often do we hope that the one answer, the playbook, or one relationship will resolve all of our problems? The hero’s sword, the newest technology, or the latest fad cannot be the silver bullet for our dragons.
I am reminded of the story of Prince Five-Weapons and the Ogre Sticky-Hair. The prince had used all five weapons against the ogre to no avail and found himself stuck in five places to the ogre’s hair. Yet, he remained undaunted. When the ogre asked the prince why he was not afraid, the prince replied, “Ogre, why should I be afraid? For in one life one death is absolutely certain. What’s more, I have in my belly a thunderbolt for a weapon. If you eat me… it will tear your insides into tatters and fragments and it will kill you.” [Hero with a Thousand Faces]
The prince was the future Buddha and his weapon was the weapon of knowledge. Although we might have all the world’s resources at our disposal, it is ultimately the sword within us that will see us through.
The dragon slept soundly for many nights.
The tracker watched and searched
But found no weakness he could discern.
Suddenly, he was startled
as a rock tumbled over the cave.
The dragon awoke with a fury.
The tracker dove into a dark corner
Just as the dragon flew by
Shaking the cave with a violent rumble.
Hours later, the dragon returned with a bloody maw
And went back to sleep once again.
The tracker spent the days following
clearing the loose rocks.
Weeks passed and then months
Still the dragon remained asleep.
Years followed years and he came to be known and worshipped
in the surrounding lands as
the guardian of the dragon.
So often, we rush in to “fix the problem” without stopping to wonder what the problem might be. When the UN sprayed DDT in Borneo to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes, they successfully reduced incidents of malaria but created unintended consequences of a rat-infestation which threatened to unleash a plague of typhoid. What they didn’t know was that the DDT crept up the food chain and killed the cats which previously controlled the rat population.
Had we the patience to stop and observe and think, the solution might have been very different. This much is certain. The bigger and more dangerous the dragon, the greater the patience and investigation needed.
The hero’s sword, then, is in our ability to take find the patterns that live beneath the surface and decipher the clues to find a fruitful way forward. So should we decide to search the patterns in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us, we might find a better pattern to live by.
One day, the guardian fell and hurt his leg.
For a full day he could clear no rocks.
Worried that one day his strength would fail him,
He travelled the nearby villages to find help.
Few believed his incredible story.
Even fewer would dare take his place.
And the few brave souls left
Sought only the glory of killing the dragon.
It is the nature of those early pioneers to be the Cassandras of society. They dove too deep into the nature of things to be understood by those who haven’t peered into the depths. The Wright Brothers first flight barely drew any attention. Rachel Carson was denounced for claiming DDT was toxic. Galileo was imprisoned for challenging the church. Cultures are more powerful than individuals and more often than not an individual doesn’t have the power to change it.
Despondent, the guardian cleared the rocks one last time
and journeyed back to the home he once knew.
His return was greeted with awe and wonder.
Who had he become?
What stories would he tell?
What riches would he bring?
He shook hands with his father
And though his father was proud,
he knew not his son.
Returning from the depths is like returning from long travels… you see for the first time how much you have changed. Expatriates returning to their native land often experience “reverse culture shock” where their home no longer feels quite like home. Although everyone may be happy to see you, they also cannot possibly understand what you have gone through. They take five minutes to flip through photographs that took you a lifetime to experience.
In his room once again,
The son who became a man,
Who found the hero’s sword,
Who helped the dragon sleep,
Picked up his pen to write
Another chapter in the loremaster’s book
About the dragon and the rocks and the hero’s sword.
From then, the story-teller traveled the lands
To fill children’s minds with rich lore.
Hungrily they would listen
Until their parents would drag them away
from such nonsense.
While the glorified hero may inspire a fire here and there, a cultural shift inspires whole generations. The hero must instead find a way to embed their lessons into the society through organizations, through stories, through documents, through the many ways that culture is passed on. Consider Raphael Lemkin’s creation of the word “genocide” and his lifelong quest to have it explicitly banned by the UN. Although he could not see the results of his work while alive, today his word and work has made it possible to begin tackling the crime with no name. To transform a society requires patience beyond measure, yet it is possible.
The seasons turned. His parents passed away.
The story of the guardian became a myth.
The dragon returned and fear was rampant once again.
Eventually there came a day
In the story-teller’s old age
When four youth declared to him,
“We want to conquer the dragon!”
With a grim and serious eye,
He looked at the young adventurers
And after thinking long and hard he said,
“To defeat the dragon, take this book
and find the hero’s sword
in the Forest of the Dead.”
And so it came to pass
that the hero would
see the youth off on their adventure
with greater hope for a new future.
Some live to see the days of freedom like Mandela did, but only to find new dragons in the form of HIV / AIDS. Thus the journey is simultaneously carried by ourselves and all of us. In the words of Tolbert McCarrol:
“You are a guardian of the seeds for the world to come. All that has gone before and all that is yet to come is within you. Through you passes humanity’s saving fire. You are running in a relay. This is the moment you have been chosen to hold the torch. You cannot refuse to run.”
And I think it would be right to say: to be a true leader, remember to help others carry their torches and remember that one day you, too, must pass on your torch.