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Following the Hero's Journey in Aging

The journey from the busy, multitasking middle years to the ripened wisdom of age represents a profound example of the archetypal Hero’s Journey described by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. In this universal experience of transformation, the hero – you and me – is unexpectedly called to leave the familiar world of conventional identity and everyday life to undertake an adventure of incredible importance and power. He enters a life-altering realm of mysteries, trials, and challenges that not only change him forever, but leave him a gift to share with the community upon his return.

Aging engages this same archetype. The Call to Adventure for the journey may be an illness or accident, retirement or job loss, declining parent or empty nest, bodily wear-and-tear symptoms, or more often: “All of the above.” The Road of Trials that follows leads into an unknown world of daunting challenges – we have do things we never thought possible, things that cannot be conquered with sweat and determination. This road changes us. It took Odysseus – and me! – ten years and countless defeats to come to terms with it. At the end of the journey, however, you come home with an incredible boon.

For me, the Call to Adventure came when a heart-related trauma ended the world as I knew it. Giving up my career as a busy clinical psychologist, I surrendered identity, income, colleagues, and routine, and then descended into the grief and ashes of so much loss. But the adventure kept pushing me forward, for there is no turning back. The children moved into their own lives and my mother slid into dementia. Searching for new meaning, my wife and I resettled on a beautiful island in the Puget Sound of Washington. In the midst of so much emptiness, I returned to school for a doctor of ministry degree and ordination as an interfaith minister. And then I threw myself into writing. Three previous books had blessed my psychology career; now with new ideas from the world of interfaith spirituality, my journey gifted me with four more books and counting.

What is the moral here? Aging demands change. It commands you to let go of your old life – little by little or all at once, grieve the past, trust the divine (and your own deep knowing), and move ahead, one step at a time, through the fog and mists of uncertainty, until one day you discover that you have been reborn into a new life. Can you see how this is happening to you? Or how it happened to your parents or others you know well? I describe this process in The Three Secrets of Aging. Do you want to know the secrets? Here they are: Aging is an Initiation into a profound change process, a Transformation of self and consciousness, and the Revelation of a brand new world all around you. Understanding the Hero’s Journey, these secrets now make perfect sense. And here’s what’s most important: While aging my demand the end of your old life, it will bring you a new one – if you don’t refuse the call.
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