Descent Into Darkness

Posted on July 17, 2015

To continue our exploration of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and how it applies to the process of trauma and post traumatic growth, let’s take a look at the first step. It is here, more than in any other step of the journey, where my model deviates from Campbell’s. For Campbell’s heroes, there is a choice of whether or not to descend into suffering and darkness.

In Campbell’s monomyth, there first stages include the Call to Adventure and giving up of a normal life, Refusal of the Call, and Supernatural Aid, in which the hero encounters a magical helper. The main theme of these stages is choice, and the struggle between adventure and safety, normality or danger. The video below sums up this struggle and choice as well as any piece of literature or film.

Unfortunately, for so many of our clients there was no choice. No one chooses to be sexually abused or assaulted, born into extreme poverty, raised in a violent home. Instead of choice, the journey for so many people in our services starts with someone with more power violating their dignity as a human being. There is not adventure here, no existential crisis, no glory sought, no Morpheus, no Obi-Wan Kenobi, no John the Baptist.

Instead of providing help, empowerment, training, and guidance, trauma immobilizes and isolates. While Campbell’s heroes experience pain, trauma, grief, and suffering on their journey into the “abyss,” they do so in the context of adventure, search for self-actualization, and in the name of glory, wealth, and/or god(s). For those who experience trauma, the pain, grief, and suffering is a result of someone else deciding (choosing) to inflict tremendous harm upon them. Even more tragically, this harm is often inflicted on a child or someone in a vulnerable position (with less physical, economic, social strength).

Both Campbell’s heroes and those who’ve experienced repeated trauma are thrust into the darkness, but the way they enter this abyss is very different and will have consequences for the types of challenges they each meet along the way. It is here, at this initial stage, that we, as helpers and as a society, are called to a critical choice. Do we see those thrust into pain, suffering, and darkness as bad, lazy, and weak people? Or can we empathize that they are in the darkness because of pain inflicted on them in situation where they have little or no power? It doesn’t excuse the choices a person makes, but helps to explain those choices and provides a context for empathy and a motivation to assist.

If we lose our ability to see why someone is struggling, how can we keep our humanity? As we will see, later in the journey an outsider does come along to provide hope, assistance, and healing, but if we don’t understand why someone needs this help, who will be there when help is needed and asked for? Today, too many are lost in the abyss because society thinks the problem lies within the person, allowing us to turn our backs and judge rather than help heal.

My challenge to you is to look at some of the people you work with who you might be struggling to help in the way you wish you could. Can you appreciate their struggles if you step back and look at the pain and suffering they have experienced in their life? Even further, can you communicate this appreciation to them in an empathetic and empowering way?

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