Don’t Kill your Dragons
Don’t Kill your Dragons
Why The Hero’s Journey May Not Take You Where You Want To Go
Our minds run on metaphors: words and stories, big and small. As therapists, we know that a good word at a good time can be the difference that makes the difference.
One of the metaphors we have access to is the template of – The Hero’s Journey:
We have our protagonist. Our would-be-hero has a problem: they are threatened by an Other. This Other is ‘out there’. Our struggler must leave home, be alone, hunt, find, fight, win by seizing the sword and killing the dragon, and return, with a key character flaw transformed, and with the elixir, to achieve the valued identity of The Hero, elevated above the masses.
This template is drawn from Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Like most (all?) human thinking, it is bound to be influenced by the historical, social and cultural circumstances in which it was written, so whilst the template is useful in certain situations, it doesn’t easily apply to all people or all problems. So here is where we need to be skilful and nuanced.
Now, I love a hero. Always wanted to be one. And a lone wolf, a Ronin, at that. I went to my first kickboxing competition solo. No team. No corner. Just me. Because that’s what a hero does, right? They do it alone. If you have help, it doesn’t count. Right… Would I advise my students or clients to do this? Hmm…
Blunt use of this metaphor frames ‘the problem’ as an outside enemy, the task as difficult, the client needing to separate from rather than connect with their support structures, suffer alone in the unknown, engage the ‘fight’ survival response, kill something, and see the only success as victory-by-conquest: the only way you get to be a hero – to be of this value – is to win.
When presented like that, the issues become clearer. We know that perceiving a threat produces a fear response, which usually keeps us in protection, risk averse, and playing small. So here’s another story that’s going to frame the rest of this article:
I have a problem
I experience dyslexia. Language being unstable is a staple of my experience. And if it changes before, and/or behind, my eyes, of its own accord then I shall chime in with my own improvisations and suggestions. Because I find that words do gesture to each other. Like a jest, playfully. And through play and humour we’re more able to receive and explore what might be true for us. We get to it indirectly, because comedy and wordplay reply on misdirection (I meant to say ‘rely on misdirection’ but ‘reply’ is better, because it is a dialogue, isn’t it, the call and response?). And as we know, the linguistic banana skin, or a plot device, doesn’t have to be true, just useful.
Which brings me back to the therapeutic use of the hero’s journey.
Using our tools to sharpen our tools, let’s see if we can make this metaphor more majestically useful. To do so, I’m going to invite two words to help dismantle some pieces of this pedestal: problem and blemish. They’ll also find a long-lost sibling, but we’ll get to that later.
Coming to terms
I’m going to make a crude division between problems you want and ones you don’t. The first help you grow, the second don’t necessarily (they’re things you can grow from but wouldn’t invite into your life). This is about the former.
Problem: involves doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty. OK, what else? A scientific-problem is an observation that contradicts an accepted law or theory. Interesting. A proposition in maths or physics stating something to be done. That’s nicely active, potentially collaborative, and inviting of an internal locus of control (a feeling that you can do something about this).
Blemish: a fault or flaw in appearance or character, an imperfection. Well, we all have those, so we’ll have plenty of material to work with in a moment.
OK, let the fun begin.
Years ago, a wonderful actor advised me, ‘don’t solve your problems too early’. Gosh, that was a shock to my ‘I-have- to-be-right,-right-now!’ mindset back then! Giving our problems breathing space and staying in uncertainty is an antidote to our minds’ drive to control and predict. If you settle on a solution too soon, you never know what you were just about to find out.
Also, if we define a problem too soon we may de-fine it: fine details getting lost as we put up barriers as to what it is and isn’t. This matters because we can only be as good as our opponent. A climber can only be as good as the mountain, a fighter, only as good as the challenger. Without the Other we cannot find out what we’re capable of. And perhaps by allowing the Other to have its fullest space we can be really lucky and the problems we want to have can grow with us. So when wondering what problem would give us the greatest journey, choose a problem that’s worthy of you.
So if we’re not going to kill the dragon…?
…we could make friends with it? Tend and befriend it? Ask it about itself? Bring it something it needs. Because what if that Other is another part of you? If we apply one of our core working principles – all behaviours and parts have a positive intention, we could see what happens if we thank, listen to, and love it.
What would it mean to love your dragon, that part of you ‘doing the problem’? Because that part probably thinks it’s not lovable, not good enough, not capable, or worthy enough. What would it mean to love yourself into change rather than hate yourself into submission?
As Stephen Wolinsky argues, if we battle against the unbearable state at the core of our limiting beliefs, we’re adding fuel to their fire. We need another way. To not brace against, but to embrace our dragons, and see what we might achieve together. Indeed, Campbell argues the hero discovers and assimilates their opposite, their own unsuspected self. And by doing so resistances are broken.
And what about another self, our future self? Etymologically, ‘problem’ comes from Pro meaning forward and Ballein meaning to throw. I love this. You and your problem, playing it forward for your future self. Throw a stick or ball for a dog (when it’s in the mood….) and it’ll bounce with joy all the way there and back. There we have a journey, a quest, and a return. All joyous. And with the enthusiasm to do it again and again. Not broken, not battered, just gloriously muddy.
Speaking of earthy and gritty: back to blemish. A fault? A faultline appears as a crack in the surface that lets the inside out, releasing energy and forming new surfaces. It’s the meeting and movement of two parts and the growth that occurs between them. So our flaws can be our floors. Keeping us grounded, providing a new foundation upon which to stand, being the levels in the multi-storied-buildings of our selves.
Take the judgment out of ‘blemish’ that implies we should be fine, and consider that if something de-fines you then you can stand out. And what makes you stand out can make you out–standing. So rather than extinguish the dragon’s flames, we can use them to distinguish ourselves.
So is the problem really a problem, or…?
Pro-blem-ish: A part of us that’s other than what we might want, drawing attention to what we do want.
Seeing dragons as pro-blem-ish gives grounds to connect with humanity, because growth requires connection and distinguishment. Knowing that is theory, navigating that dynamic tension is a practice of wisdom. (Oh dear, have we stumbled upon an elixir?)
So, back to our plot device. We can play with our stories not to device us, to remove our flaws or elevate us above other, but to tool us up with devices to use to grow through them.
You’ve got a problem? Great!
We can choose to be worthy of our problems, choose problems that are worthy of us, and choose practices of relating that are honouring of all sides.