I’ve been thinking about the archetypal hero’s journey. Specifically, the moment when the hero realizes that they are the only one who can slay the proverbial monster – and they have to do it alone.
It’s the moment when the best friend or sidekick falls away, and the hero is called to test their meddle. To fight an injustice, save a village, carve a new path. I’ve been thinking about the hero’s journey because one of my only weekly tune-in shows, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, culminated on that note.
(Spoiler alert if you haven’t yet seen the series finale but intend to. Fan girl moment for those who have – it’s great, right?)
Rebecca Bunch, the main gal in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has been attempting to find true love since season one. She moved to West Covina, Calif., from New York City to pursue a relationship with Josh Chan, her summer camp crush from years ago. The story evolves from there.
In the final season, there are now three men in love with Rebecca, and she must choose between them like on an episode of The Bachelor. Who will she end up with? She could hardly go wrong – Josh and his rivals, Nathanial Plimpton and Greg Serrano, are equally wonderful (and evolved!) men.
But Rebecca realizes that she cannot make a choice about her future because she does not know who she is yet. We are set up to believe she’s got three options to choose from when, in the end, she realizes there’s a fourth: the hero’s journey.
It turns out that the show’s comedic musical numbers – peppered throughout every episode and staring all of the cast members – were a figment of Rebecca’s imagination, and now she gets it. She’s an artist and performer, and her job is to bring her mind to life. This is a mission she must complete alone.
I can think of another compelling television character – also a woman, also creative, also in love – who chooses to go her own way. At the end of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Miriam Maisel decides to tour the world as a comic, opening for singing star Shy Baldwin, over marrying Benjamin Ettenberg, the handsome doctor.
She picks her dream over love, and it’s a brave choice. After all, the year is 1958, and she was already gazing at wedding gowns in magazines.
“Everything’s different,” she tells her ex-husband, who is on a journey of his own – as is her dad, as is her mother. It’s a great show if you haven’t seen it.
“I can’t go back to jello molds,” she says. “There won’t be ‘3 before 30’ for me. I just made a choice. I am going to be all alone. For the rest of my life.”
What women “should” become is still so deeply engrained in our culture that it takes fortitude to follow another path.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set 60 years ago – 60 years! – and yet it could be a show about contemporary America and in essence would not feel anachronistic. Think about that. Women still battle the assumption that if they aren’t married, something is “wrong” with them. Our culture is still debating whether women are as funny as men, and we are still stalled at the intersection of comedy and beauty.
You’re funny? But you’re so beautiful!
Anyone can have a dream that requires protection.
A sense that “I have to do this alone” is rooted in our fragility and also our strength. Relationships are fragile, including our relationship with ourselves. New identities are fragile, too – not fragile like glass but fragile like babies.
Think about babies. We’re surprised by their rubbery strength and resilience. Who hasn’t marveled at the ability of a toddler learning to walk? They take hard hits and get back up. They push away the hands that try to help. They want to figure it out on their own.
The work of learning who we are and what we want from life? Establishing our identity – our values, spiritual beliefs, the purpose of our existence, and what we want – no one can do that for us. We do it, yes, alone.
I’ve recently watched two documentaries on rock climbing, The Dawn Wall and Free Solo. Both are stories about men scaling the granite wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and both are stories of how relationships fit in with big dreams.
In Free Solo, Alex Honnold is questioning whether he can be as dedicated of a climber, and complete his solo ascent up El Cap, if he has a girlfriend. Will she take away his focus? Will she detract from the goal?
In The Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell channels all of his focus into climbing after his marriage falls apart. And yet he isn’t alone, or not entirely. He enters into a new partnership with fellow climber Kevin Jorgenson. It’s a coupling of a different kind – a union of shared values and goals and aspirations. It’s the story of the hero going on a journey with a sidekick.
I can relate to that. In the years after completing my MFA program in poetry, my identity as a writer seemed flimsy and thin were it not for my partnership with fellow writer Morgan Lucas Schuldt.
It was tough to explain to people the nature of my dedication and connection to Morgan. A lot of it had to do with a sense of purpose, work ethic, and drive. We were aligned. It’s like we were facing the same direction and walking side by side, and the future was a blank canvas. Or a giant rock wall.
There was another layer of complication in Morgan’s life because he had cystic fibrosis. He knew he didn’t have much time left – and I knew he didn’t have much time left – and that added to a sense of urgency and drive. I played the role of best friend. I was the apprentice. That doesn’t mean I was less than – it means it wasn’t my time yet.
Morgan died seven years ago. Afterward, I had to figure out how to be a writer on my own, and it took a very long time. It’s like I was set on the hero’s journey but forced down a path by circumstance, not choice. I had to wrestle with becoming the hero of my own story.
Part of spiritual evolution is growing a spine. It’s learning to define our person against the circumstances or against the odds, and there’s no single way to do it. There’s no right or wrong.
It’s brave to go forward alone. It’s brave to show someone who you are and ask them to come with you. The hero’s “I have to do this alone,” moment is often simply a way stop in the bigger-picture journey.
The thing is, each of us gets to choose how our story plays out, but sometimes the assumptions about what it’s “supposed” to look like – or our stories of limitation, or our comfort level as the best friend – are so deeply engrained that we cannot see that we have a choice.
It takes time but it’s not a passive act. It takes investment, too. Be flexible and forgiving with yourself. Allow parts of yourself to be under construction. Trust what is opening up.
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.