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The Downside of Following Your Bliss?

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    I think the person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave. Work begins when you don’t like what you’re doing. There’s a wise saying: make your hobby your source of income. Then there’s no such thing as work, and there’s no such thing as getting tired. That’s been my own experience …”

    When this quote appeared on the Joseph Campbell Facebook page several years ago, about two-thirds of those commenting on the post found these words struck a chord for them – but about a third believed this was just a pipe dream from someone “who lived a life of wealth and privilege.”

    Many people miss that, after advising students to follow their bliss, Campbell often added a caveat that this also entailed a willingness to embrace years – or even a lifetime – of hardship and poverty in pursuit of their passion. Bliss does not come easy with a guaranteed income . . . which corresponded with Campbell’s own life experience.

    Though Campbell’s childhood was comfortable, the collapse of his father’s business during the Great Depression brought that to an end. Joseph did earn money to cover expenses in college, and his doctoral work in Europe was funded not by Dad, but by a Proudfit scholarship he was awarded based on his Master’s Thesis. (Joe banked over $3,000 in earnings during his college years – a significant sum back when the average annual income of most wage-earners was less than half that – and he used those savings to help his family when his father’s business fell on hard times).

    But Joseph Campbell had first-hand experience throughout his life with turning down lucrative offers in favor of the financial uncertainty of following his bliss (starting with dropping out of the doctoral program when he realized he couldn’t expand the subject past its specialized field to match his passion for myth, art, and depth psychology – thus giving up what would have been a cushy teaching berth at Columbia; as a result, Campbell never did earn his Ph.D.)

    Dropping out of the doctoral program was followed within days by the October 29, 1929 stock market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression and the failure of his father’s business (a fall hastened by the elder Campbell’s alcoholism). Joseph Campbell retreated to Woodstock for five years (despite the disapprobation of acquaintances in New York City who openly referred to Joseph in his presence as “a bum”).

    Yet when Campbell was eventually hired to teach at Canterbury Prep school (to boys of junior high age), he discovered the job was weighted more toward discipline than teaching subjects that were part of his passion. Instead of being grateful for a steady income and any job in perilous economic times, Joseph quit at the end of the year to follow his own bliss, even if that meant he’d “go back on the Depression.” Friends from Woodstock days have recalled how Campbell was as poor as everyone else (renting a 6 x 8 shack without heat or plumbing for $20/year at one point).

    Eventually he was offered a position at Sarah Lawrence, which was then a new, avante-garde, nontraditional college. However, the assumption that Joseph Campbell lived a plush life in the field of academia is a projection of our own stereotypes. All throughout Campbell’s career he kept to a tight schedule, teaching only three-quarters time at Sarah Lawrence (which meant less money than other faculty) so he could spend another 36 hours every week on research and writing.

    Campbell and his wife, dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman, lived in the same cramped, barely 600 square foot apartment in Greenwich Village from 1938 to 1982 (Jean finally convinced him they had to spend the money to buy an air conditioner in the mid-1960s, when Campbell started suffering from fainting spells during the hot New York summer).

    Yet throughout his life, Joseph Campbell turned down potentially profitable offers that would have taken him away from his bliss (even paying back advances on books when publishers would not allow him to pursue his own vision). According to the executor of his estate, in his best year Joseph Campbell never earned more than $15,000 combined, from teaching, book royalties, and speaking fees – that’s a far cry from wealthy! And Joe had no retirement from Sarah Lawrence, no pension, nothing to count on beyond Social Security; part of the reason he kept up a relentless schedule of speaking tours across the country was that he needed the money.

    So, while Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss” in place of following money is a recurring message he finds throughout all mythologies, he is also speaking from his own experience.

    Do his words ring true in your experience?


      He was not unhappy not gaining materialistic wealth from his virtues, as his children were of another everlasting source, being fruits of (almost) immortality. Cast into his time with earthly and epochal challenges, discipline was his framework to gather the yield ‘beyond the horizon’. Not the most obvious choise for the many of us, whatever the circumstances – nothing is granted in the end. The choise of the broad way or the small path, in times and places of one’s experience, we’re all in the downward current seeking an upgoing opportunity, or a reassuring, meandering spell to the all forgetting ocean of nothingness. The dubble edged sword.

      He’s not known for it, but it proofs he’s a good dancer anyhow.

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