Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
I believe that the Seeker’s Journey may begin, or we may veer toward a new heading, when we bump up against the limits of our imaginations. I’ve always been told (and have believed) that I have been blessed and cursed with a “good imagination.” Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to prove I could actualize what my mind imagines is possible in the face of those who have wanted me to quit, “to be more realistic” or reduce my goals unless a successful outcome is relatively certain. And I have not always been a big fan of failure.
And yet…. In every creative project, I hit the wall.
That place where nothing is working, or rather, I am struggling with something that isn’t working the way I want it to, or it doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t know what to do to make it feel right. I’ve spent a lot of time believing that I wasn’t good enough, or that I wasn’t trying hard enough, or that I am stupid, or there is something else wrong with me. And, if I can just figure out what is wrong with me and fix it, then my work, my journey, and my life will proceed smoothly. But I can never fix what I assume, in these moments, must be wrong with me, so, eventually, I turn back to the problem at hand and muddle along.
Although we commonly assume that our senses’ and mind’s job is to enable us to accurately perceive reality, psychologist Dennis Proffit of the University of Virginia, and cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman of the University of California Irvine, remind us that what we see, hear, and feel is largely determined by our automatic, pre-conscious, moment-to-moment assessments of the actions that our surroundings are prompting us to take. When we are looking for a book, we focus on the titles and don’t notice the color of the carpet or the paint condition of the shelf unless they are somehow related to finding the desired book.
Once the book has been found, or the hunt abandoned, we then go on to perceive and focus and store in memory other things related to what we plan to do next, or the things that are integral to the reason we sought the book.
The reality is, there are always more problems and sub-problems than we have the answers for. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We hit the limits of our imagination, not because we are stupid, or ignorant, or naïve, but because that’s how our brains are built. We couldn’t function if everything we perceive, remember, or intuit about the environment, ourselves, and those with whom we are interacting had to be held in working memory or accessible consciousness. Our brains aren’t able to handle that much interacting information, nor did we evolve to do so.
Similarly, when we day dream or think about our life, or career, or a relationship, or a project, we can’t know all the details, nor process all that will be required in the future as we proceed on our journey (or journeys). We also can’t account for everything that could possibly affect us, our environment, our journey, the ones we love, and the world. They are all interconnected, so the solution is not to decide that we are only going to focus on the world instead of those close to us, or that we will focus only on ourselves instead of the world. Thus, no matter how smart, or creative, or driven, or limited we are, if we are present to the world and ourselves, we will hit the end of the known world. That blankness or darkness, which feels so uncomfortable (or worse), is the prompt that tells us to continue seeking.
The Seeker’s Journey may be the most profound journey (but not the only, or most pleasant journey in all moments) that we can take. The word profound comes from the Latin “pro” meaning forth and “fundus” meaning bottom, or coming from the very bottom. The Seeker’s Journey is our most profound journey because it is a physiological imperative that we face (or avoid). The seeking impulse is part of our nature, without regard to cultural constraints or institutional, religious, or political oppression, although these can be a major concern of a Seeker’s Journey. Our brains and bodies are magnificent and limited, and we are constantly asking our senses and minds to simultaneously focus on the subjects of our concern, our relationships, the world, and ourselves, and all of these are constantly and interactively changing.
To be a seeker is to meet the unknown at the edge our known reality, and to do this consciously and willingly without disrespect for what we already are and have done. The Seeker’s Journey often calls upon us to change course, not because we were misguided before, but because what was suitable previously may not fit with what we understand ourselves and our world to be now. The reward for changing course, or wholeheartedly making the journey, may not be material success, or external approval, or permanent anything– the Seeker’s reward is the felt miracle of being alive.
In an upcoming blog, we will explore the role and mechanism of transformation in The Seeker’s Journey.
Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
The Seeker Journey grapples with the reality that we live in a world in which our selves, our relationships, and our environments are constantly changing. We must adapt and evolve throughout our lives, and we must do this with no guarantee of safety or success, and with no final destination. In this post, we will explore the experience of the Seeker Journey and how this journey differs from Hero’s and Heroine’s journey arcs.
In the Hero’s Journey, the story typically ends with the protagonist reaching a final destination or ultimate success that resolves their conflict and the conflicts in their world. In the Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock recognizes that someone can be at multiple stages within the journey at once, and that the journey can be completed multiple times. You are not necessarily done with the journey when you reach the “final” stage. When you reach the end, you can start again.
The Seeker Journey encompasses this idea that we are continually called upon to begin anew, but it does not envision our journeying as an infinite loop. The Seeker Journey recognizes that we move forward in a variety of ways and that life has no permanent resolution. The Seeker Journey “stages” are neither prescriptive (one does not have to move through all stages each time) nor necessarily sequential (the stages do not always have to occur in order, and one can move through them many times within a journey). For this reason, it may be more helpful to think of them as “process points” that the seeker might check in to as they move through their journey. We’ll look at each of these process points now.
1.The seeker begins the journey with a functional and meaningful form of wholeness.
At the start of the Seeker Journey, the seeker has a functional and meaningful understanding of themself, the world around them, and their relationship to the world around them. The seeker also experiences a satisfying balance between a feeling of belonging or inclusion and a sense of agency or autonomy. This network of understandings, together with the balance between belonging and agency, forms a way of making sense of life that creates a sense of wholeness (as we refer to it in this blog).
Finding and creating a form of wholeness helps the seeker to navigate the ups and downs of life. The Heroine’s Journey is one way of reaching wholeness, but it might not be the way that the seeker came to their form of wholeness. What is important in this stage is that the seeker’s wholeness is legitimate and complete–in the sense that it effectively and meaningfully organizes the seeker’s understanding of and approach to their life.
2. Something about the seeker and/or their context changes.
In the Heroine’s Journey, wholeness is what the heroine reaches in the last stage of the journey. Despite Murdock’s emphasis on the continuous nature of the cycle, this often means that the wholeness that is achieved by the heroine at the end of their journey then works for the rest of the heroine’s life. It is tempting to believe in, and to search for, a wholeness that is so encompassing that it accounts for all possible futures, but the Seeker Journey builds on the understanding that this is unlikely.
The reality is that we will change, and our context will change, and we may reach a point where our understanding of ourself, of the world, and/or of our relationship to the world no longer works for us. This does not mean that the wholeness we reached in the past was false or incomplete, only that it no longer works now.
For example, consider Anna, who has been taking care of her children for the past two decades while her partner has worked outside of the home and been the family’s sole financial provider. While her kids were growing up, Anna felt that her family relationships and her work within the home were important, and she felt wanted and needed. Anna understood who she was and how she fit into the world around her. Taking care of her family was meaningful and fulfilling for Anna, and she enjoyed focusing her time and energy on these things. Later, as Anna’s kids grow older and move out of the house, less of Anna’s time is spent directly focusing on her children, and she begins to feel lost. She is no longer sure of what to do or how to fill her days with a sense of purpose.
3. The seeker recognizes (consciously or unconsciously) that something about their worldview and reality no longer match.
A sense of mismatch–resulting from the disconnect between our understanding of life and our actual lived experience–clues us into the fact that our wholeness no longer works for us. This sense of mismatch may happen abruptly or it may slowly occur over a long period of time. In either case, the seeker may realize that the mismatch exists in a sudden moment, or come to acknowledge it gradually. It is likely that the seeker will feel some sense of disequilibrium before they recognize the mismatch. However, it is the recognition of the mismatch that prompts the journey.
4. The seeker acknowledges that they want to find 1) a new worldview or 2) a new reality to resolve the feeling of mismatch.
After recognizing the mismatch, the seeker must acknowledge that they want to resolve the mismatch. They might seek to adjust their worldview to match their reality, or to adjust their reality to match their worldview.
In the context of the Seeker Journey, seeking refers to the intentional search for a new understanding of yourself, the world, and/or your relationship to the world. This search may stem from a subconscious yearning or from a self-awareness that something new is needed due to changes in yourself and/or the world around you.
5. The seeker identifies some change that they think will resolve the mismatch.
After the seeker decides that they want to change something, they have to decide what they want to change. Even once they decide whether to focus on adjusting their worldview or reality–or some combination thereof–there still exist many ways to go about doing so.
We can return to the example of Anna. Eventually, her lack of direction grows into a feeling that she can put into words. She tries to get out of the house more and meet new people–she tries joining a book club, picking up gardening, going to the gym more, and takes a few art classes–but her original sense of wholeness or purpose doesn’t return. Eventually, Anna decides to try a more concrete change in her life. She has always enjoyed cooking and previously worked as a chef, and she decides to go to culinary school, which is something she had considered doing before she had her first child.
6. The seeker pursues this change.
Many things are, of course, easier said than done, and the desire to do something does not always indicate that someone actually will do something. It’s not enough, then, for the seeker to simply identify something that they think will resolve the mismatch. The seeker must also actually set out to accomplish this change.
Depending on the change, this first step can take the form of a great many different actions, and the pursuit of the change may operate across many different time frames. It is also possible for the seeker to pursue more than one type or level of change at the same time. Each change that the seeker pursues at any point in their journey faces three possible outcomes.
Outcome A. The seeker cannot achieve the change they want…
First, the seeker may not be able to achieve the change that they are pursuing. Anna might not be accepted into any of the culinary schools she applies to, or she might be accepted only to realize that she can’t afford the tuition. Or there might not be a school near where she lives, and she and her partner might not be willing to relocate. When this happens, the seeker may seek a different path towards the same goal. The seeker may become frustrated, angry or hopeless. The seeker may try to return to a previous process point, worldview, or reality. The seeker may go through all of these responses, in any order, and any number of times, or they may only go through one of these responses. If the seeker continues making progress on their journey, then they must ultimately identify and pursue a new change.
Outcome B. The change is achieved but it does NOT resolve the mismatch…
Alternatively, the seeker may achieve the change they are pursuing, but it might not end up resolving the mismatch after all. Anna might get into a school, but feel out of touch with her studies because she has been out of school for so long, or feel unable to connect with other students because she is older than most of them. Like before, the seeker may become frustrated, angry, or hopeless. They may try to return to a previous process point, worldview, or reality. To continue their journey, they must ultimately decide to pursue a new way forward.
Unlike in Outcome A, the seeker is more likely here to intentionally recalibrate their journey through a series of questions. For example, the seeker may ask themself: Is what I’m doing getting me closer to the match I’m seeking? The answer to this question and any follow up questions (How is it getting me closer? Why is it not getting me closer? What part of it is or isn’t working? What might do a better job of getting me closer?) will likely cause the seeker to adjust the change they are pursuing, or the ways in which they are pursuing this change.
Anna already has some experience as a chef, and she might decide that she doesn’t need to be a sous chef working at a prestigious restaurant, so a culinary degree isn’t necessary for her to find a satisfactory position. Instead, Anna might focus on returning to the workforce and finding a job based on the experience and knowledge she already has. She might talk to other chefs that she knows, talk to restaurant owners, and/or visit local community gardens.
The seeker might also–or instead–question whether the match they are seeking is actually the match that they need to create a new form of wholeness. In the context of the Seeker Journey, a profound match is a match that will most wholly resolve the experience of mismatch. A profound match is a “true” or “complete” match between the seeker’s wholeness and reality. It is functional and meaningful. This match places the seeker in a new state of wholeness, and the search for this match is what guides the overarching seeker journey. There may be shallow (rather than profound) matches that the seeker makes during the journey on their way to making their profound match. These shallow matches may still be important. With all this in mind, during the process of recalibrating, the seeker might ask themself, Is the match that I’m working towards a profound match? The answer to this question and any follow up questions (What parts of it are or aren’t a profound match? Why is or isn’t it a profound match? If it isn’t a profound match, why was I seeking it? If it isn’t a profound match, is it still a worthwhile one?) will likely cause the seeker to reassess and possibly adjust their desires, discontents, and current (still incomplete) sense of wholeness.
As she talks to people to try to find a job as a chef, Anna learns that there is a center in her community that provides nutritious meals at low prices to working parents. Anna might question whether working as a chef in a traditional restaurant position is actually what she wants to do, and she might instead explore working or volunteering at food co-ops, food pantries, or community organizations, or she might consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group.
It is also possible that the seeker will believe that they have realized their match, but later recognize that they are actually still experiencing a sense of mismatch. This recognition is likely to spur a recalibration.
Outcome C. The change is achieved and it DOES resolve the mismatch…
Finally, the seeker may achieve the change they were pursuing and find that it does resolve the mismatch. The resolution of the mismatch may occur suddenly, or over time. In either case, the seeker may recognize that they have resolved their mismatch in a sudden epiphany, or it may take time for the seeker to feel sure that they have resolved the mismatch.
At this point, the seeker has not returned to the start of the journey, because although they are once again in a state of wholeness, they are not in the same state of wholeness. The seeker might stay with this form of wholeness until they or their context changes, at which point the seeker might embark on a Seeker Journey again, this time moving through a markedly different series of steps and changes, and seeking a different match.
Anna might find a job as a chef at a local restaurant that sources its food from a local farm, where the pay, hours, intensity, and creative freedom are exactly what she needs to feel that what she is doing is important, wanted, and needed. Or she might find a position volunteering at a non-profit that provides nutritious free meals to after-school programs and discover that the connections she forms with those creating and receiving the meals give her a sense of family and a sense of purpose. Anna might shift to creating traditional meals from her Italian heritage for her friends, and expand this into a small business within her community. Whether it is a few days or a few months later, Anna comes to realize that she has a new understanding of herself and a meaningful way of relating to the community around her.
Throughout their journey(s), the seeker moves forward through a series of questions and recalibrations. The emphasis here should be on the process of asking the questions, not on finding a “correct” or “permanent” answer. The consideration of these questions and the desire for greater clarity or satisfaction prompts the seeker to keep moving, to keep seeking, and to keep readjusting and trying new paths. Because of this, the seeker must be willing to dwell in and tolerate some uncertainty and ambiguity.
The Seeker Journey has a clear end goal–achieving a profound match and finding contentment within this–but exactly how to reach this state, or even what this state will look and feel like, is not explicitly known at the outset, nor at any point of the journey until it is realized. The guiding principle of the Seeker Journey is the search for this profound match. This is what makes the journey distinct from wandering, despite the fact that multiple stages of the journey embody a sense of unknownness and the seeker may at times feel wandering. It is also worth pointing out that there is not one set way to resolve the mismatch; a number of different combinations of actions and changes may result in finding a profound match.
In an upcoming post we will explain how a seeker’s journey might be visualized as a river ecosystem.
Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
“Dalinar’s sense of wholeness may be challenged again as his reality changes, his sense of self changes, and he must recalibrate his worldview. This future wholeness that Dalinar may find will not negate the validity or meaningfulness of the sense of wholeness he has found at the end of book three. Neither context nor wholeness is static. As our context changes, and we ourselves grow and change, so too must our understanding of wholeness evolve.”
– Dalinar’s Wholeness: “Journey Before Destination”
These are the concluding words to the final post that I wrote last year about the fictional character Dalinar and his narrative arc(s) in Brandon Sanderson’s series, The Way of Kings (see also parts one and two). Consistent with the Heroine’s Journey, Dalinar had developed a sense of wholeness by the end of his narrative journey at the end of book three (which, at the time, was the most recent book in the series). However, Dalinar had gone through nearly three complete iterations of the Heroine’s Journey, and two of the Healing Journey, before he was able to reach this point. As a prominent character and narrator, it struck me as unlikely that he could continue through future books unscathed. Surely something new would happen in future books to once again challenge how Dalinar understands himself and the world he lives in.
Dalinar’s many struggles and his complex, non-linear journey towards health and wholeness in the first three books of the series exemplify the obvious that we frequently overlook: life—and life rendered semi-faithfully in literature—is never static. Often, life is not even stable for very long. The past year and a half have given many of us a harsh reminder that even if we reach a sense of wholeness, dramatic changes in our circumstances can require additional journeying.
As I wrapped up the Dalinar blog series in the midst of lockdown, and as events in my own life consistently caused me to question what I thought I knew, I could not help but wonder what would become of Dalinar’s wholeness in future books. I wondered what would become of my own attempts to readjust my worldview and sense of self as I tried to keep up with a world that was quickly changing around me. If something happened in a future book to render the wholeness that Dalinar achieved at the end of book three obsolete, did that mean that he had not really found wholeness?
The answer I came to was this: if context is not static, neither is wholeness. We have often noted that wholeness rejects binaries. Wholeness includes both good and bad, happiness and sadness, joy and pain. This means that wholeness also includes completeness and incompleteness. Wholeness includes resolution, preparation, closure, and opening. Although these were things that I could assert at the time when I published the last of the Dalinar posts, they still felt like questions, not certainties.
These questions led me to imagine a journey where even wholeness did not carry with it a sense of finality. A journey that recognized that life is inherently and perpetually in motion. A journey that would continue on past wholeness. A journey that would treat wholeness as a semi-colon rather than a period.
I do not like to think of journeys beyond wholeness as simply multiple back-to-back Heroine’s Journeys. To conflate theIllusion of the Perfect Worldwith a sense of wholeness, or the Separation from the Feminine with a sort of fall from wholeness, brings with it complications that are too complex to address within this post. But trying to work through the questions that arise if the heroine begins their journey with a sense of wholeness led me to ask:
Is it possible for someone to reach wholeness—that is, develop an encompassing and functional sense of world and self—and then later need to adjust or rebuild their sense of wholeness, without invalidating the wholeness that they had first found?
I believe that this is not only possible, but perhaps a healthy way to approach change. To adjust what you are doing and to seek out something new that works better for you is to take care of yourself. It is how we can live consciously and creatively in an evolving world.
All of these questions, contemplations, and hopes have led me to what I call the Seeker Journey, which documents the fluidity and impermanence of wholeness. Wholeness is no longer solely the goal or destination of the journey; it also becomes a starting point and process of arrival.
The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the possibility that we might leave something that has been good for us. The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the fact that whether we leave by choice or coercion, we will never be able to return to the exact same thing we once had. The Seeker Journey forces us to confront the possibility that what was once good for us might one day begin to cause harm.
As we will explore in our next posts, the Seeker Journey recognizes that there are many reasons to start a journey, and that there are many ways to move towards a functioning and healthy understanding of yourself and the world. The Seeker Journey recognizes that just because you are no longer fulfilled by or you no longer have access to something that was once good does not mean you can simply return to that same experience after the threats and uncertainties subside. Instead, you keep moving forward, in search of something new.
Following the presentation, we have received requests from several organizations and numerous individuals who were not able to attend the presentation, or who heard about it afterwards, asking if we could record and share the presentation. We are now posting the presentation here, free, for our Heroine’s Journey and Beyond audience. (The original presentation included a provocative Q& A period, but since the original program could not be taped per University rules, we are unable to include that here.)
Toward the end of the presentation, we offer a number of mental paradigm shifts that we think are necessary to transform our understanding of social action movements from fleeting hero’s journeys into sustainable heroine’s, healing, and integrity journeys. One of those ideas was to establish “15 Minute Clubs” that could encourage and support ongoing social action and engagement. Nancer Ballard is currently coordinating a 15 Minute Club pilot program. If you view the presentation and then are interested in becoming a member of the 15 Minute Club pilot program, you can let us know in the “Contact Us” section of this site, and we will get in touch with you.
We appreciate the thousands of followers and guests who have provided us public and private feedback as we have examined the perspectives of participants, witnesses, and those affected by oppressive policies and social change movements. We are grateful to those of you who have accompanied us on our journey to more deeply understand the role of journey narratives in social movements.
In upcoming posts, we will be focusing on the personal, psychological and biological underpinning of journeys and offer some new perspectives on evolving life journeys in an interconnected 21st century world.
Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
As early as 1899, American geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin proposed that changes in the climate could be the result of changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Half a century later, Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg warned that at the rate at which humans were emitting carbon dioxide, we would soon see marked changes in the climate that we would have no means of controlling or reversing. Another half a century, and numerous international efforts later, climate change today continues to accelerate rather than slow down.
Of course, the movement to protect our planet isn’t the only social movement that has struggled to achieve its goals. How is it that so many of us sincerely want social change, but find our goals so difficult to achieve?
One of the problems is that we—both social activists and the sympathetic public—are relying on social change journey narratives that do not support the goals we have.
Journey stories and narratives are important tools that we use to share ideas, convince others that they should be interested in our goals, and encourage others to actively participate in realizing these goals. Environmental protection, racial and gender equality, and other causes such as LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality, require large-scale, sustainable social change. However, the narratives that have been used to try to bring about these changes often focus on individual action and sudden high-profile moments of change that are presented as changing everything once and for all. In this post we will explore why these narratives are often counter-productive, and we will suggest alternatives that may be more realistic and beneficial for achieving meaningful social progress.
The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, was signed by 196 countries in 2015 and became law in 2016. It was hailed as a landmark agreement to address climate change and its impacts on a world-wide basis. And it was. But signing the agreement did not change everything; in fact, it changed nothing. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global average temperaturefrom rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But that can only happen if countries actually make consecutive five-year plans to control and reduce emissions, communicate their plans to the public, support one another, and implement their plans in a manner that is consistent with the longer-term goal. Transformational change requires a slow, tedious, inconvenient, no-guarantee commitment to engage in ongoing shifts in mindset and world-orientation alongside millions of other people.
We are not used to telling stories about transformational change until after the transformation has supposedly already happened and can be romanticized and mythologized. It is not hard to see why stories that focus on the achievement of a significant milestone are more appealing to us than stories that emphasize the need for long term commitment of personal energy and resources. Social change requires an enormous devotion of time, energy, and attention by thousands and thousands of people in order to achieve even the first remarkable milestone. Success is not guaranteed and the commitment inevitably costs more than we think it will.
When that first milestone is achieved—whether a law or treaty, or recognition of injustice with a pledge for reparations—we want to celebrate our success and assure ourselves that our effort was worthwhile and that our achievement will last. We also want to believe that the extraordinary level of sacrifice, time, energy, money, and uncertainty is at an end, or at least that the change we want won’t continue to require so much work from us. Once the emergency is over; we want to return to our “normal lives.” And so we deceive ourselves into believing that the first step or milestone achievement is instead the culmination of social change, or is such a momentous first step that everything else will roll out automatically.
When the Paris Agreement was signed, people worldwide believed that we had achieved a global commitment to combatting climate change and that success would follow as a matter of course. Each country set emissions-reduction pledges and many people took for granted the fact that these pledges would be met. A scant four years later, to the horror of many, former President Donald Trump pulled the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, out of the agreement. In doing so, he demonstrated how fragile and relationship-dependent transformational change is. Signing an agreement, passing a law, or electing a new official is often a crucial achievement, but should not be confused with success or the guarantee that success will inevitably follow.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, many viewed the election of a Black American as evidence that the U.S. was finally becoming “colorblind” or “post-racial,” and assumed (erroneously) that the hard work of achieving racial equality was almost complete. It was not until twelve years later that widespread awareness of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police officers, and easy-access video proof and testimonies of the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests, jolted many Americans into fully realizing and/or openly acknowledging that racism has continued to be present everywhere and that we have a long way to go in the fight for racial justice, equality, and equity.
So how do we change our social change journey stories and narratives to reflect the real world without becoming discouraged?
First, we acknowledge—and keep acknowledging—that lasting social change of any type occurs in increments over long periods of time through the prolonged efforts of many people. This shouldn’t discourage us; this is how it has always been. What does discourage us is when we treat milestone actions as ultimate victories, because then we are doomed to disappointment. When the next bump in the road comes, we think we have failed.
We need to adjust our attitudes and recognize that a milestone or first commemorable step is a significant action rather than the destination. Actions borne of great effort can be followed by a pause, but the exertion and subsequent rest must be seen within a narrative framework in which additional action is both necessary and assumed. Perhaps if we can see significant moments or events as actions rather than ultimate victories, we can avoid burnout and complacency.
Second, we recognize broad-scale public support and participation more, and mythologize leaders less. Social change narratives are often told as hero’s journeys and as such, focus on the efforts of a key individual actor and make that person into a mythic-like leader or hero. Mythologizing a leader is often done to inspire participation, but it can also weaken social movements. Believing that we have a leader who will save us allows us to deny the necessity of long-term commitment from “normal” people. Treating leaders as special heroes also encourages us to believe that only a few special people are needed to change the world, and that only such special people can change the world.
For example, activist Mohandas Gandhi has long been immortalized for his role in India’s anti-colonial civil disobedience movement. His leadership inspired and coordinated many to peacefully resist British control and create an autonomous India, but the tax boycotts, salt marches, home-spun cloth campaigns, and other means of peaceful resistance achieved their intended success because of the wide-spread involvement of “ordinary” Indians.
Individuals can serve as inspiration and can themselves take significant actions, but the truth is that it is the millions of ordinary people who devote their time and energy to a cause who together create change, not one special person. Narratives that encourage and enable large-scale, sustainable social change must be relationship focused. That is, narratives should recognize and emphasize the importance of the actions of a broad network of actors. Within movements working towards social change, relationships create networks of support, motivation, and accountability.
We must view milestones such as the signing of the Paris Agreement or the election of Barack Obama as actions located within a web of other actions that are brought about through a multitude of relationships. Only then can we begin to build social change journey narratives that recognize the achievement of incremental progress while renewing our commitment to our larger goals and strengthening our relationships with one another.
We’d love to hear your stories of how you have persisted and inspired others to value ongoing participation and incremental progress in long-term social change efforts. Let us know in the comments!
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Stories are powerful ways to engage people, but they are usually a closed system, that is, they have a beginning, middle and end. This is part of a story’s appeal—the reader or viewer expects that whatever dilemmas the protagonist encounters will eventually be resolved physically or psychologically. Stories provide the reader with a sense of hope and completion—even if their own life feels like a tangled mess.
Stories have narrators, but a narrative is different than a story. A single series of events told by narrators with different perspectives makes each rendition of a story feel very different. The narrator’s perspective and motivations, the order in which events are told, and what events are included and excluded from the story shape the narrative and affect how we interpret the characters and events being described.
Narratives can also encompass multiple stories. Multi-story narratives can often be distilled into a single sentence or phrase, such as “The American Dream” or “Black Lives Matter.” Most importantly for our discussion here, multi-story narratives are often open ended—that is, they do not have a final resolution.
In a story or story-bound narrative, the reader enters the story-world by identifying or empathizing with the characters or situation. However, multi-story narratives often include an implicit or explicit invitation for the audience to become personally involved—e.g. to participate– in the narrative and to help determine the outcome of a story propelled by that narrative. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a declaration about racial injustice, but it’s also a call for the listener to participate in social change.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, narratives can operate at both personal and social/cultural levels. An example of a social narrative is the colonialist narrative that Indigenous peoples were better off being assimilated into the dominant European-derived culture because their native cultures were regarded as inferior. Another example of a social narrative is the American Dream’s promise that in the United States anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough.
Broad cultural narratives can be true, false, or true in some but not all situations, and they always contain a value-laden message designed to drive attitudes and/or behavior. Individual personal narratives include statements that you repeat to yourself to explain behavior and outcomes in multiple situations such as, “I just didn’t work hard enough,” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” “I should have seen it coming,” or “So it goes.”
Personal narratives that are generalized from incident to incident also contain prescriptive messages that can be helpful, harmful, or both. And, of course, personal narratives are influenced by social narratives, and personal stories and personal narratives can become part of group narratives and gradually alter broad social narratives.
In between social/cultural “master” narratives and individual personal narratives are what can be called “group” or “local” narratives. Local narratives interpret contemporary events in light of master narratives and encourage individuals to align their personal narratives with group and master narratives. Such alignment can be a powerful force for social change and/or extremist zealotry.
In Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, Steven Corman of Arizona State University describes how Islamist extremists used narratives to interpret contemporary events as threats in order to enlist local participation. The extremist narrative was designed to entice Afghan civilians into seeing themselves as defenders of Islam against the international forces assisting the Afghan government, although the international forces were in fact there to provide security against terrorists. The Taliban portrayed international forces as modern-day Crusaders bent on subjugating and exploiting Muslims, and portrayed themselves as champions of ordinary Afghans, in order to encourage Afghans to take up the Taliban’s cause. By encouraging Afghan civilians to align their personal narratives with the Taliban master narrative the Taliban hoped to create the means to expel foreign forces and replace the democratic government with a pro-Taliban Islamic Emirate.
The recently-defeated American President Donald Trump has demonstrated a similar ability to lead a significant percentage of Americans to align their personal frustrations and anger with his narrative. Trump’s social narrative contends that those who disagree with him are “elitists” and socialists who are trying to destroy America. He also claims mainstream journalists who question his misleading statements or false claims are spreading “false news.”
In his narrative trope, the President simultaneously casts himself as the victim of those who challenge his view of himself and as the protector of true patriots. The fact that the President’s policies are often less favorable for his supporters than the policies of the Democrats, and that many of his claims are grounded on implausible or demonstrably false statements is a testament to the power that socially embedded narratives have to drive beliefs and belief systems. People of all political persuasions can interpret facts to fit their narratives rather than change their belief systems to accommodate inconsistent facts. When narratives operate independently of facts or when facts are treated as fuel for a narrative agenda rather than used to test its validity, then prejudice, rigidity of thought, and polarization inevitably follow.
None of us are immune to narratives that are nonsensical or overly simplistic, or not suited to the facts of the situation. What are your personal narratives—those slogans that you find yourself repeating aloud or to yourself? Where did they come from? Do these catch-phrases serve you? Insult you? Or both? Only when narratives arise from a genuine open-minded inquiry into events rather than a pre-determined or pre-loaded interpretation of meaning and motive, do we have a chance to enlarge our understanding of humanity. How do you fight narratives that aren’t supported by facts? We’d love to hear from you.
This is the final post to a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
In our most recent posts on the the Stormlight Archive series, we examined Dalinar Kholin’s route through multiple cycles of the Heroine’s Journey and theHealing Journey. In The Start of Journey, we introduced Dalinar and his world and examined Dalinar’s first cycle through the stages of the heroine’s journey. In Healing in the Search for Wholeness, we examined Dalinar’s second cycle through the heroine’s journey and his complete healing journey (which encompasses two cycles).
Through the character Dalinar, author Brandon Sanderson demonstrates how complex, enduring, and protracted the search for a meaningful sense of wholeness can be. The Stormlight Archive also highlights the importance of internal healing as an essential part of wholeness. Healing internal wounds or fractures is necessary to find wholeness, but healing and wholeness are not the same concept. In this post, we will consider Dalinar’s third heroine’s journey cycle, in which he is finally able to push past the Moment of Truth to Return to World Seen Through New Eyes and find wholeness.
At the start of the series, Dalinar, a young warrior, was already nearly a fully realized Hero. He was young, rich, powerful, privileged, and revered. He didn’t worry about bettering himself except perhaps in regard to his physical strength. When he was told to go fight somewhere, he did. When he was told to marry someone, he did. It was as if his (Hero’s) journey had been made for him. When his wife stood up against violence and urged him to spend time with his children and be a father rather than a heroic icon, Dalinar began to consider that there could be more to life than glory and blind bloodlust. But only when his wife died as a result of his actions did Dalinar truly question his world view and his place within his world. Dalinar did not, at first, seek wholeness, but he did need healing. When Dalinar met with the Nightwatcher to change his life and then chose to forget his past actions and his wife rather than do the harder work of facing his past and seeking forgiveness from himself and others, his healing journey was stalled. However, the relief from the unbearable pain of self-loathing and grief that memory loss provided Dalinar gave him the psychic space to question his way of operating in the world rather than spending all his time overwhelmed by intense pain.
Dalinar’s brother, Gavilar, was the first Stormlight Archive character to seek a sense of wholeness (although his initial efforts were primarily focused on simply living honorably). Dalinar did not yet understand this journey, but he started to try to copy the steps out of respect for Gavilar; he tried to reject blind bloodlust by reading The Way of Kings and following the ancient Alethi War Codes. Dalinar truly began to seek a new perspective—instead of just following a laundry list of steps—when he started to receive visions during highstorms. He moved in the direction of wholeness, but could not cope with the knowledge that the Almighty was dead and consequently began another cycle of the Heroine’s Journey. Again, he moved towards wholeness, but then he could not cope with his returning memories of his past actions and his wife’s death.
Dalinar’s experience of betrayal/disillusionment when he realizes the Almighty is dead is external and global in scope; his realization of his second (self) betrayal is internal and deeply personal. To address this pain he must embark on a second cycle of the Healing Journey. Wholeness requires both an internal and external realignment, and Dalinar experiences both in extreme ways.
Dalinar eventually learns and grows in addressing both of these betrayals and continuing to seek wholeness. Although he proceeds through three cycles of the Heroine’s Journey, each cycle is part of one single, sustained, complex attempt to find wholeness. Dalinar’s multiple setbacks and adjustments demonstrate how much determination and commitment can be required to sustainably and meaningfully integrate competing cultural expectations and the way of life you want to embody.
Dalinar’s memories of his wife slowly return. At first he is shaken, but he is determined to continue to recruit allies and Prepare for His Journey. He learns that he is able to enter his visions at any time and invite others to participate in them rather than having to wait for a vision to seize him alone during highstorms. Sharing his experiences of the visions helps Dalinar persuade other leaders that his cause is true, and he recruits allies by being authentic and open with them. He learns that he does not need to appear perfect in morals and strength in order to convince people to trust him—he needs to be himself.
The coalition grows and appears strong, and Dalinar enters the Eye of the Storm. But when the capital city falls and the king (Dalinar’s young nephew) is killed, Dalinar feels that All is Lost again. He begins to struggle with the Thrill once more and realizes that he never truly overcame it. The Thrill merely lay dormant for a while. The wisdom from the Way of Kings no longer comforts him and Dalinar considers using force (returning to his masculine, mythic identity) to make his allies comply with his wishes. He also returns to alcohol to numb the pain of his memories of his violent past and his present failures.
In Dalinar’s third cycle through Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey stages, Support comes from psychological/visionary higher powers. In a vision, a young version of the philosopher author of the Way of Kings tells Dalinar that he is neither a tyrant nor a hypocrite; he is merely a man in the process of changing. Dalinar does not yet believe this, but the conversation sticks with him and later rings true.
In the third cycle Moment of Truth, Dalinar faces his past, but instead of being crippled by it, he grows and develops a more complex understanding of himself and the world. He engages with the possibility of forgiveness instead of masking his guilt with dichotomies.
Dalinar’s coalition dissolves and he enters the Thrill once more, but this time he does not use the Thrill to block out his pain. He accepts that his own pain is part of his life, and he accepts responsibility for the pain he has caused others. Crucially, he also recognizes that he is capable of good. With this new-found clarity, Dalinar is able to win the battle without causing the massive casualties that have been the hallmark of his past battles.
At the end of Oathbringer, the third book in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar and his allies have won a significant battle, but the war is far from over. Dalinar is able to accept who he is as a complex being and accept the world as a complex space. He rejects dichotomies of Good vs. Evil and Past vs. Present vs. Future. Although reading and writing are skills reserved for women in his culture, he begins to learn to read and write in order to express himself in a new way. At the end of Oathbringer, Dalinar is finally able to answer the riddle posed by his dying brother in book one, who told him to “find the most important words a man can say.”
The most important words a man can say are, “I will do better.” These are not the most important words any man can say. I am a man, and they are what I needed to say. The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says “journey before destination.” Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us. But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.
Thus, ironically but also inevitably, Dalinar finds a sense of wholeness when he realizes that the process of journeying does not end. Another book in The Stormlight Archive series is currently in the works, and Brandon Sanderson reports that there are many scheduled beyond that, so it is likely that Dalinar’s story and journeying will continue. Dalinar’s sense of wholeness may be challenged again as his reality changes, his sense of self changes, and he must recalibrate his worldview. This future wholeness that Dalinar may find will not negate the validity or meaningfulness of the sense of wholeness he has found at the end of book three. Neither context nor wholeness is static. As our context changes, and we ourselves grow and change, so too must our understanding of wholeness evolve.
This is the second post in a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
In our last post, we introduced the character Dalinar Kohlin in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. Although epic fantasy characters are traditionally expected to follow the Hero’s Journey, Dalinar’s story includes instead multiple cycles of both the Heroine’s and Healing Journeys. As the author Brandon Sanderson notes, “The book [series] started its life many years ago being about a young man who made a good decision. I wrote the entire book that way before realizing I’d done it wrong. So I started over from scratch and had him take the other fork, the more difficult fork. The fork that cast him into some of the worst imaginable circumstances, ground him against the stones of a world where there is no soil or sand on the ground. My goal [has been] to prove to myself, and to him, that the ‘good’ decision was not actually the best one.”
This quote speaks to the experiences of more than one character in the series, although we are focusing on Dalinar. Our first post explains how Dalinar’s initial trip through many of the stages of the Heroine’s Journey ends when he learns that the Almighty was long dead, before he finds a sense of wholeness. In the story this realization functions as a betrayal that upends his worldview and sends him on another cycle of the Heroine’s Journey. In Words of Radiance, the second book of the series, Dalinar Prepares for his (second heroine’s) Journey. He believes now more than ever that his purpose is uniting the Highprinces of Alethkar, his nephew’s kingdom. Although the belief that one has a special purpose as a leader is often a Hero’s trait, instead of desiring to become a dominant leader, Dalinar’s mission is to increase a sense of community, fight for the common good, and bring people together.
The Highprinces of Alethkar have been engaging in separate missions against their enemy, the Parshendi, in order to capture gemhearts, which are organic gemstones that harness magical energy. Capturing and possessing gemhearts is a means to increase wealth and prestige, and the missions have become a competition between Highprinces and a distraction from the real fight against the Parshendi. In the first book, Dalinar tried to join Highprinces on these missions to foster cooperation and community. After Sadeas’ betrayal (which is discussed in the first post), Dalinar tries to reduce internal competition by ordering the Highprinces to give all gemhearts to King Elhokar. This is a highly unpopular move that does not help Dalinar’s already failing soft power.
In his first Heroine’s Journey cycle in Book One, Dalinar experienced his Descent when he feared that the visions he had begun having meant that he was going mad. In the fourth stage of his second Heroine’s Journey cycle, Dalinar fears that he is a tyrant. Others try to reassure him that he is at least a benevolent tyrant and thus better than their currently weak king. Dalinar’s nephew, King Elhokar, is ineffective, young, and paranoid, but he is the rightful heir to the throne, and Dalinar doesn’t believe he has the right to supplant him and act as Alethkar’s leader.
Dalinar’s Eye of the Storm occurs at the end of book two when he loses a fight with the man who assassinated his brother and accepts that he could not have saved his brother even if he had been sober at the time of his death. This realization helps Dalinar forgive himself for his brother’s death. Around this time, Dalinar also learns that he and three other central characters are Radiants with magical abilities. Their discovery leads the humans to believe that they may be better equipped to face the coming threats than they had feared.
All Is Lost when Dalinar learns that the Parshmen—nonhuman beings who seem to possess little consciousness and are extensively used as slave labor in Alethkar—will change into terrifying powerful creatures when a new, more destructive highstorm arrives. Dalinar’s visions tell him that fighting the oncoming threat is futile. However, Dalinar believes he has options regarding how to move forward since he is a Radiant and has the Support of the other Radiants. Dalinar attempts to gather further support by establishing a coalition with other leaders.
Instead, Dalinar collapses once more when he begins to recover memories that he had chosen to forget. His potential Moment of Truth quickly turns to debilitating Disillusionment that sends him on a Healing Journey and ultimately forces him into a third cycle of the Heroine’s Journey.
Dalinar begins to remember his deceased wife despite the fact that five and a half years ago, he solicited a magical “cure” for his pain that would make him forget her for good. He also begins to remember actions from his past which caused great harm to many others. Dalinar’s entire understanding of who he is changes, and he must once again reorient himself within and without, and face many hard realities that he never properly dealt with.
Thus far, Dalinar’s Heroine’s Journey has focused on his attempt to disentangle himself from the mythic lure of the warrior status. However, before Dalinar can continue on the third cycle of his Heroine’s Journey, he must find a way to confront and forgive himself for his violent past. Although Dalinar is an epic fantasy character, his struggle with his “heroic” (super-masculine) identity, his difficult relationships with his wife and sons, his use of alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms, his reliance on adrenaline and rage, and his struggles to forgive himself for past harms, are painful challenges borne by many of us in real life.
The Hurt that starts Dalinar’s Healing Journey is the death of his wife, eleven years before the start of the first book. Readers do not learn of this until Dalinar begins to recover his memories in the third book.
While still a young warrior, Dalinar was married a foreigner, Evi ,in order to secure a Shardplate and Shardblade (see prior post for description) to aid his country’s expansionary war effort. Evi questioned Dalinar’s bloodlust and violence, and this tension between their worldviews culminated when she visited him at a war camp. She complained that he was so often absent that he did not even know his two young sons (who both adored their father as a legend). Dalinar was deeply affected by her pleas and promised to return home after the battle he was already engaged in. He tried to follow Evi’s advice and end the dispute through diplomacy instead of bloodshed, but when his efforts backfired, he became enraged and burnt the enemy’s city (called the Rift) to the ground. After the Rift was reduced to ruins, Dalinar learned that his wife had furtively snuck into the city in a last ditch effort to secure peace and had been imprisoned, and that by setting fire to the Rift prison, Dalinar had killed his own wife .
The second stage of the Healing Journey is characterized by fear and hurt as the wounded person tries to absorb and deflect the source of their wound. Dalinar’s Fear and Anger manifest most clearly when Evi’s burned corpse is brought back to the war camp. Dalinar and the few who know the truth tell everyone else that Evi was assassinated and the Rift burned as revenge. Spreading this false story serves their political purposes and allows Dalinar to deny the truth of what he had done. He directs anger at himself for killing Evi and lying about it. Four years after her death, Dalinar is still heavily burdened with grief and shame. He continues to fight in battles and experience the Thrill, but his anger, fear, grief, and shame create constant internal conflict (Stage 3), and he now hates who he is when fighting.
Unable to see a way to resolve his conflicts, Dalinar loses his ability to care for himself or others (Stage 4). He turns to drinking and drugs when he is not fighting and cannot mask his pain with the high of the Thrill. Dalinar tries to delude himself about his reliance on self-numbing and tells himself that his brother is throwing away all his drinks, but it is implied that Dalinar is actually drinking through what he purchases more quickly than he realizes. In a heart-wrenching scene, Dalinar’s young son, Renarin, brings him a small bottle of wine when Dalinar cannot find anything to drink, offering it as a gesture of care for his father. Renarin is too young to understand his father’s destructive drinking habits. Dalinar believes he deserves to be hated and hates his late wife, who he believes has convinced his own sons to hate him. When Renarin explains that Evi and the rest of the world have only good things to say about Dalinar and that they look up to him, Dalinar hates himself even more. He prays for release (eg. Death Wish, Stage 5), not caring what form this release takes.
In Healing Journeys it is often a slight, random, or even tragic event that leads to a small lift in energy that spurs the beginning of lasting change. Dalinar’s brother, Gavilar, is killed while Dalinar is drunk at a party. Dalinar blames himself for failing to protect his brother. But before his death, Gavilar asked his assassin to tell Dalinar to “find the most important words a man can say.” When this message is successfully relayed, it becomes a turning point. At his brother’s funeral, Dalinar makes the Decision to Get Well. He apologizes to his sons for being a poor father and decides to visit the Nightwatcher—a being who possesses Old Magic and is supposed to be able to “change a man.”
Dalinar goes to the Nightwatcher and asks for forgiveness. Although Dalinar is willing to give up alcohol and bloodlust as “fixes,” he is still looking for someone/thing external to take his pain and guilt away. The Nightwatcher can change men by giving them material possessions, skills, and power (hero’s traits of success). When Dalinar insists on forgiveness instead, Cultivation, who can be understood as goddess of growth and nurture, appears. At first she tells Dalinar that he has gotten what he deserves and is reluctant to offer help. But Dalinar isn’t ready to forgive himself and thus cannot unconditionally love himself. Eventually, Cultivation says, “I WILL NOT MAKE OF YOU THE MAN YOU CAN BECOME. I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THE APTITUDE, OR THE STRENGTH, NOR WILL I TAKE FROM YOU YOUR COMPULSIONS… BUT I WILL GIVE YOU… A PRUNING. A CAREFUL EXCISION TO LET YOU GROW.”
Cultivation explains that the cost will be to lose all memories of Evi. In his pain and desperation, Dalinar believes that he never deserved Evi to begin with and he accepts the goddess’ offer. Evi becomes a blurry memory. Dalinar cannot remember what she looked like, nor any specific interactions they had. Even her name sounds to Dalinar like mere rushing air when it is spoken out loud by others. Having forgotten all events related to his wife, he accepts the lie that his wife was assassinated and the Rift burned as revenge. Dalinar’s healing journey stalls.
When Dalinar’s memories begin to return five and a half years later, Dalinar begins the second round of his Healing Journey. He remembers his wife’s name, and this memory re-ignites his Hurt. He does not yet recall all the events that led to Evi’s death, but he knows that Evi’s death led to his years as a drunkard and his decision to visit the Nightwatcher. He is confused as to why his memory is now returning since the Nightwatcher’s curse (the exchange for her gift of change) has never been known to disappear before.
As his memories return, Dalinar must face his Fear and Anger again. He feels like a hypocrite for condemning others who have killed innocents to obtain power when he himself has done the same for less. He hates the popular myth that he fights ruthlessly but with fairness and honesty because he now knows that it has always been a lie. As he Loses Love for Himself and Others once more, he questions how he can live with this returned pain and again expresses a Death Wish. He thinks that if there were any justice in the world, he would have been killed long ago. However, Dalinar now believes that “wishing for ignorance” is “the coward’s route.” Dalinar realizes he cannot return to ignorance and avoidance, even though he does not yet think it possible to face his past.
Meanwhile, Odium, a god of chaos and destruction who has killed other gods, including he Almighty, is now trying to kill Cultivation. Odium describes himself to Dalinar as “emotion incarnate,” and tries to convince Dalinar that he and Odium are not so different. Dalinar begins to believe he is dishonorable and not worthy of being a Radiant. The Alethi capital city falls, the king is killed, and Dalinar recovers his full memory of the destruction of the Rift. All of his coping mechanisms have failed him; he realizes that he never truly overcame the Thrill and the ancient ethical guide, the Way of Kings, no longer comforts him. Dalinar starts drinking heavily again and abandons his leadership of the coalition.
This time his Lift in Energy is the result of a dream/vision in which he talks with the philosopher author of the Way of Kings, Nohadon. Nohadon gives advice that Dalinar once told someone else, pointing out that a hypocrite is “nothing more than a man who is in the process of changing.” Echoing Dalinar’s brother’s words (to find the most important words a man can say) in a slightly different form, Nohadon encourages Dalinar to search for “the most important step a man can take.” Dalinar again makes a commitment to Get Well.
Dalinar again reaches Stage 8—the Decision to Forgive. His memory of meeting the Nightwatcher and Cultivation returns, helping Dalinar to realize that he must forgive himself, not be forgiven by others or simply ask a higher power for forgiveness. Once Dalinar realizes he must forgive himself, he is finally able to move forward toward Unconditional Love. Dalinar finally claims responsibility for Evi’s death and on the battlefield, he refuses to let Odium take his pain. He reaches Stage 10–Healing and Understanding–when he enters the Thrill and instead of becoming lost within it, thanks the Thrill for giving him strength in the past and leading him to his current understandings. He is able to look back at the man he was when he burned the Rift and say, “I understand you,” and know that that his past self and current self are one person.
At the end of the third book, Dalinar achieves the final stage of the Healing Journey. He rejects the possibility of being king and begins to learn how to read and write (which is socially taboo for men in his country). Writing becomes a new way to express himself that has nothing to do with violence or bloodshed. Dalinar accepts his pain and responsibility for what he has done. He realizes that he cannot be himself and help those around him if he tries to compartmentalize his experiences and live an existence devoid of pain. With this acceptance, Dalinar faces the uncertainty of the continuing war.
In our next and final post, we will examine Dalinar’s third cycle of the Heroine’s Journey, which occurs concurrently with his second Healing Journey and in which his forgiveness of himself is crucial to forming his new understanding of the world and his place within it.
This is the first post in a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
A linear journey story is easy to follow and sells well because it satisfies our need for simple, straight-forward solutions, but it often doesn’t accurately translate our life experiences within a complex reality. In our last post, we considered some recent Academy Award Best Picture winners that feature incomplete, unorthodox, or aborted journeys. In this post, we will examine the Stormlight Archive books, an epic fantasy series in which one of the main characters goes through the stages of the Heroine’s Journey three times and the Healing Journey twice before reaching a satisfying, integrated healing and wholeness.
The epic fantasy genre is best known for its classic Hero Journeys. Epic fantasy novels and series usually feature vast worlds that differ from Earth and contemporary civilizations in key ways, magic systems, fighting and warfare, and heroes that elevate their kingdom’s status or achieve grand solutions. However, in the Stormlight Archive, author Brandon Sanderson takes the genre built for a Hero’s Journey and twists readers’ expectations by introducing more complex journeys that can speak to the reality we inhabit. The Stormlight Archive series takes place a world called Roshar, which includes a multitude of human kingdoms and the native non-human population, the Parshendi. Many of the main characters come from Alethkar, a kingdom whose territory is divided and ruled by Highprinces. Although the books involve many characters and sub-plots, the series broadly follows the refounding of the Knights Radiant, a mythical group of protectors who guard Roshar from magical destruction. In exploring the human condition, Sanderson places many of the characters under great stress and has them struggle to make sense of past traumas. Here, we will consider only one of the main characters, a man named Dalinar Kholin. Although introduced in the first book of the series—which currently includes The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer—much of Dalinar’s story is not revealed until the third book.
Dalinar Kholin is an unlikely candidate for the Heroine’s Journey. As a young man (before the start of the first novel) he is already a conventional Campbellian hero. He is privileged by his inherited nobility as a Highprince and by being the younger brother of the king, Gavilar. He is also an established and terrifying fighter, known as the “Blackthorn,” who becomes even more powerful and lethal due to his possession of a rare sword called the “Shardblade” that can sever the soul from the body, and of Shardplate, magical armor that enhances his strength and speed. Dalinar’s fighting abilities are also heightened when he is in thrall of the Thrill—the force that many men experience in battle (but rarely explicitly discuss) that gives them a lust for killing and enables them to continue fighting despite their injuries and exhaustion. At the same time, Dalinar is also a tool. He follows his older brother’s orders without question and without understanding his brother’s overall plan. This all changes when his brother, King Gavilar, is assassinated (in the prologue of the first book), leaving his unprepared son as heir in a kingdom intent on vengeance and divided by greed and internal fighting. No longer able to simply wage war when and where his brother tells him to, Dalinar must finally figure out for himself who he is and who he wants to be.
Prior to Gavilar’s assassination, Dalinar exists in his Illusion of the Perfect World. As the Blackthorn, Dalinar fits into the world he inhabits, and his skills are exactly what his expanding kingdom wants. This illusion is punctured when Dalinar cannot protect his wife, or later, his brother, and both die violent deaths. Dalinar is disillusioned with the world he thought he knew and his place in that illusionary world. He turns to alcohol when he isn’t fighting and does not have the Thrill, and eventually he does not experience the Thrill on the battlefield. Instead of experiencing glory and hazy euphoria, he sees and feels pain, death, and destruction. Dalinar begins to grapple with is the idea that the valorization of war and high masculinity may bring humanity closer to disaster, not deliverance.
Readers are introduced to Dalinar as he enters step three of the Heroine’s Journey– Preparing for his Journey. He reads the Way of Kings (a philosophical book in Roshar that the first book in the series is named for), and reconnects with an ancient set of honor codes called the Alethi War Codes. He uses these texts as guidance to try to reorient his life away from disorder, selfishness, and gratuitous violence. Dalinar is still seeking knowledge outside himself, but he is trying to find a new way of living that works for him. He is no longer content, nor wants, the heroic warring role he has always had.
Dalinar begins his Stage Four Descent when he starts to receive visions during highstorms. These visions supposedly come from the Almighty (a Roshar near-equivalent to God), and show Dalinar scenes of a forgotten past that can be used to understand current and coming events. The highstorms form an intense weather system that brings brutal storms that can last for hours, but the storms are also a source of life because they refuel the gemstones that Roshar’s inhabitants use to power their societies. Dalinar’s near-epileptic fits during these highstorms undermine his authority as a political and military leader, and even Dalinar becomes unsure of whether he can trust his visions. He seriously considers abdicating his role as Highprince to his son, Adolin. His son, instead, convinces him to find a way to test the veracity of his visions. With the help of Dalinar’s brother’s widow, Navani, they record the visions to determine if they offer valuable insights into the past or if Dalinar is going mad.
Navani realizes that Dalinar’s visions provide the key for translating Dawnchant, an ancient language that no one has been able to decipher. Reassured of his sanity, Dalinar abandons his intentions of abdicating, and enters the Eye of the Storm. In his visions, the voice of the Almighty tells Dalinar that he must “unite them,” which Dalinar initially interprets to mean uniting Alethkar’s highprinces to provide a unified front against their enemy, the Parshendi. The Highprinces have, instead, been competing to see whose attacks on the Parshendi are most successful, and, thus, who is most powerful. Dalinar believes he is beginning to successfully unify the Highprinces when he convinces Highprince Sadeas to commit to a joint attack whose goal is to bring greater peace and cooperation within the kingdom and to defeat those who assassinated his brother.
However, Sadeas betrays Dalinar, withdrawing his troops from the battle and leaving Dalinar’s troops completely surrounded by the Parshendi to face certain death. Dalinar feels that All is Lost. His new attempts to live honorably have not convinced the other Highprinces to trust and work with him. Dalinar and some of his troops only survive because a runaway soldier enslaved into Sadeas’s army, named Kaladin, Supports Dalinar by saving his life (Stage Seven of the Heroine’s Journey). Taking a stance against the current Alethi culture, Kaladin also supports Dalinar’s decision to not kill his enemy while she is incapacitated. In return, Dalinar promises to free Kaladin from his position as an enslaved soldier in Sadeas’ army.
Sadeas refuses to free Kaladin unless Dalinar gives Sadeas a Shardblade. Sadeas assumes this is a laughable proposal that Dalinar can never accept, since Shardblades are so rare, difficult to obtain, and extraordinarily powerful. Dalinar then experiences a Moment of Truth when he is faced with a difficult moral decision of keeping his word to free Kaladin or protecting his own power/identity. When he hands over his Shardblade to uphold his promise to Kaladin, Dalinar demonstrates that he cares more about human life and his word than he cares about power, prestige, and public opinion. Although the story could end here with an affirmation of a new world order, instead Dalinar experiences a new betrayal that completely shakes his worldview and launches him back through the stages of the heroine’s journey a second time; Dalinar learns that the Almighty is dead.
To begin a second journey arc and go deeper, a person or character cannot merely face and conquer a new obstacle or set of obstacles. There must be a new betrayal and disillusionment that causes the person to completely rethink everything they thought they knew or had learned. To go on a new journey, you cannot just patch up the problem or work harder to “fix” it. Most importantly, you cannot just do more of what you’ve been doing. Something new is required. In our own lives we may be about to complete a journey and graduate, get married, have a child, get a job promotion, leave home, or finish a long-standing commitment. Then something else occurs that prevents us from completing that journey, which upends our understanding of the world and our place in it. In Dalinar’s case this happens when he learns that the Almighty no longer exists.
The Almighty has been the external embodiment of a larger moral code and world order. When Dalinar learns that the Almighty can be, and has been, killed, Dalinar questions the source of morality. Instead of being able to rely on external wisdom for how to best live his life, Dalinar must find his own wisdom. In our next post, we’ll show how Dalinar moves through the Heroine’s Journey a second time and then undertakes a Healing Journey in order to find healing and wholeness.
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Now that over one third of the world has been ordered to stay at home unless they are working in essential services, people are watching a lot of movies. So, we thought this would be a good time to update the Heroine’s Journey Project Drama and Film page and to offer our thoughts on three recent Academy Award winning films, Moonlight,The Shape of Water, and Parasite, that challenge conventional journey arcs.
The 2016 Best Picture winner is a three-part coming-of-age drama about Chiron, an African American boy in Miami, Florida who wrestles with bullying over his sexuality and with a pervasive drug culture neighborhood.
In Part 1, a Cuban drug dealer finds Chiron, who has been dubbed “Little,” hiding from a group of bullies in a crack house. The drug dealer, Juan, takes Chiron to his own house where he and Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, make up a spare bed for Chiron. When Juan returns Chiron to his mother the next morning, Chiron’s mother, Paula, punishes the boy for worrying her although she is an addict and often out later herself. Juan and Chiron continue to spend time with each other and Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. When Juan sees Paula smoking crack with one of his customers, he berates her for being addicted and neglecting her son. Paula lashes back at Juan for having sold her crack in the first place. She suggests she knows why Chiron is bullied by his peers, saying he walks like a girl. The next day Chiron tells Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother and asks what “faggot” means. In a surprising departure from machismo, Juan describes it as “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” He tell Chiron that it’s okay to be gay and that he shouldn’t let others bother him. Chiron asks Juan whether he’s really a drug dealer and leaves when Juan answers truthfully. In short, in Part I, the film evokes and shatters masculine stereotypes, mixing objectification (Juan vis a vis his customers) with sympathy (for Chiron), indifference (Juan’s attitude as a crack dealer) with tenderness (for Chiron and Teresa), denial and bravado (in drug dealing scenes) with perspective and sociological imagination (Juan on the beach with Chiron).
In Part II of the film, the plot seesaws between increasing cruelty and powerless good intentions. Juan has died and the teen-aged Chiron spends his time trying to escape bullying at school and with Juan’s nurturing former girlfriend, Teresa. Chiron’s mother’s crack addiction progresses and she more openly abuses Chiron, begging and threatening him for money for a fix. A classmate, Kevin, is Chiron’s only friend. One night Kevin sees Chiron at the beach, and they smoke a joint let down their defenses, talk, and then kiss. Kevin masturbates a shy Chiron. The next day the leader of the school bullies threatens Chiron, and Kevin is manipulated into punching Chiron, believing that this will save Chiron from a worse fate. When Chiron refuses to surrender to Kevin’s punching the gang beats up Kevin. The next day an enraged Chiron smashes a chair over the bully’s head. The police arrive, and Chiron is sent to a juvenile hall. Rather than meeting and succeeding at increasing difficult obstacles as would happen in a hero’s journey, Chiron is caught in downward spiral in which neither he, nor sympathetic others, can protect him.
In Part III, machismo faces off against emotional connection and reality. Chiron, now a much larger, muscular adult, goes by the nickname of “Black.” After being released from prison, he becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta. His mother, much the worse for wear, now lives in a treatment center. One day he receives a call from his old friend Kevin who invites him to visit if Chiron is ever in Miami. Chiron visits his mother and tells her he is dealing drugs. His mother expresses regret and apologizes for not loving him when he needed it most and tells him she loves him even if he does not love her back. Later Chiron drives to Miami to visit Kevin, who now works as a cook at a diner. Kevin tells him he has a child by an ex-girlfriend and although the relationship is over, he enjoys acting as a father. When Kevin asks him about his life, Chiron is silent. Chiron asks Kevin why he called and Kevin plays a song on the juke box that he says reminds him of Chiron. After Kevin serves him dinner, they return to Kevin’s apartment. Kevin tells Chiron he is happy although his life didn’t turn out as he had thought. Chiron then breaks down and admits that he hasn’t been intimate with anybody since their encounter years earlier. Kevin comforts him and they embrace. Although the could suggest a happy ending, the film rejects the easy ending. Instead, the film closes with a flashback of young Chrion standing, alone, on a beach looking at the ocean where Juan taught him to swim, and where, later, he and Kevin would kiss. The beach may signify that it is still possible for Chiron to choose again, to envision a different future, but he is standing alone. There’s no suggestion that such change would be glamorous, quick, or easy.
Shape of Water, the 2017 Best Picture winner, is a dark fantasy about a mute young female cleaner, Elisa Esposito, who works at a high security government laboratory where she falls in love with a humanoid-like amphibian creature.
Elisa, who was found abandoned by the side of a river with wounds on her neck as a child, communicates through sign language. In the laboratory she begins to visit the Amphibian Man and non-verbally communicates with him. When she learns that his keepers (an American researcher and a Soviet spy posing as a researcher) plan to harm the Amphibian Man, she persuades her next door neighbor to help her save the creature. They plan to release him back into the ocean, but Elisa must bring him to her apartment until it rains and the canal that leads to the ocean is open. Various complications and a somewhat bizarre sex scene (unless one views the film as metaphor) ensue, and viewers discover that the Amphibian Man has magical healing powers. The laboratory researchers discover the Amphibian man is missing and chase Elisa and her neighbor to the canal where they are about to release the Amphibian Man. The lab researchers shoot the Amphibian Man and Elisa, but he is able to heal himself in time to slash the shooter’s throat and jump into the canal with Elisa. Underwater, the scars on Elisa’s neck open to gills, and Elisa and the Amphibian Man embrace.
In the voice-over narration, the next door neighbor states that he believes Elisa and the Amphibian Man lived “happily ever after in love.” Because the neighbor can’t really know what happens after Elisa and the creature sink into the ocean, the story can be interpreted as a hero’s journey in which two misfits find themselves and have a “happily-ever-after” conclusion, or as Elisa dying while trying to save a “creature” that will never be accepted in the world, or as Elisa and the creature attempting to flee (successfully or unsuccessfully) a world into which they will never fit. As a fairy tale, The Shape of Water follows the conventional hero’s journey arc. To the extent that one views the film as metaphor, the story can also be interpreted as a heroine’s journey metaphor in which Elisa is pursuing wholeness whether one interprets the Amphibian Man as an aspect of Elisa (and following Maureen Murdock’s heroine’s journey arc) or as a separate outcast who supports rebirth of Elisa’s true full creature self (Victoria’s Schmidt’s heroine’s journey arc).
Parasite, the 2019 winner and first non-English language film to win Best Picture, is a dark “thriller” directed by Bong Joon-ho (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won). The movie follows the lives of a poor South Korean family of four, the Kim Family, who live in a small basement apartment and are trying to survive on low-paying temporary jobs. A friend of the twentyish- year-old son, Ki-woo, suggests that Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family. Once he is hired as tutor, Ki-woo sees additional opportunities that could come from working for the Parks. He helps his sister, Ki-jeong, pose as an art therapist to secure a job as counselor for the Parks’ hyper-active son. Ki-jeong then gets the Parks’ chauffeur fired, and the Kims’ father takes over as the new chauffeur. They then get Parks’ housekeeper’ fired, and the mother becomes the new housekeeper. Although the Kims’ rise in fortune looks something like a Hero’s journey and they sporadically see themselves in that light, the father continually disavows any plan or vision of sustained success.
Sure enough, when the Parks go on a camping trip and the Kim family assembles in the Park’s home to revel in the luxuries of the mansion, the former housekeeper returns and reveals that her husband has been living in a secret bunker below the house built by the prior owner. The original housekeeper and her husband’s deception are eerily similar to the the Kims’ who keep their own family basement living arrangements a secret from the Parks. After bad weather disrupts the camping trip, the Parks return home early and a melee breaks out in the Parks’ house. After several more plot turns in which a member of the Parks family, the Kim family, and the original staff’s family are killed, the movie ends in the Kims’ basement apartment where the son, Ki-woo, is writing a letter to his father, vowing to earn enough money to purchase the Park’s house, set him free, and reunite the family. Although the actor who played Ki-woo has suggested in interviews that he believes this could happen,
Parasite’s director has stated that he believes Ki-woo’s dream is only a fantasy and that the story’s characters end up where they started. Each family is “parasitically” dependent on the other as they focus on getting ahead; each family loses some of its members but gets nowhere. There is no economic/class journey arc because both families end up where they started (minus a member) and no one seems the wiser for having lived their story. The beauty of Parasite, is that it takes our natural (or at least conventional) inclination to expect that the story will become a Hero’s Journey (underdog wins) or a cathartic Tragedy (greedy characters get what they deserve) and teases and then frustrates our expectations while provoking us to reckon with class inelasticity both literally and metaphorically.
Although the majority of the winning films follow the Hero’s Journey pattern, there has been a significant increase in Heroine Journey films in recent years. More recently, film makers have also gravitated toward making movies that involve ambiguous journeys (The Shape of Water) or resist concluding a journey arc (Moonlight and Parasite). We believe this trend is based on an increasing recognition of the complexity of an interconnected global world and the legitimacy of multiple perspectives. We’d love to hear from our blog readers on what films you have been watching that follow a Heroine’s Journey, include multiple journeys, or provide variations on a journey arc as a meta-statement on the content of the movie.