A Call to a Collective Adventure
In 1968, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson tried to make a phone call and heard a sound familiar to anyone that remembers the age before cell phones. Beep, beep, beep, beep. The sound not only informed the caller that the party they were trying to reach was currently engaged with someone else, but it also announced with incessant alarm that your attempt to connect with another soul was rejected and hopeless in that moment. For the time being, you would remain alone.
As Nilsson sat listening to the rhythmic reminder, he thought about the isolation the moment created. He considered the loneliness of the experience. He kept listening and eventually imagined the tones as the opening of a song. He would later scratch down lyrics to accompany the experience describing how the number one was the loneliest number. Less than a year later, the band Three Dog Night would make famous Nilsson’s song about the experiences we have when we are alone.
Of course, some experiences are best had by ourselves, and some adventures can only be undertaken alone. Since Joseph Campbell introduced his ideas about the Hero’s Adventure in 1949, untold scores of people around the world have found a framework for understanding the challenging journeys so present throughout literature and history, and their own journeys as well. The journey that Campbell described was that of an individual. Though the journey involved the participation of helpers, mentors, and others, the journey itself was a solitary one. Campbell tells us that “Myths derive from the visions of people who have searched their own most inward world. Out of the myths, cultural forms are founded.” (Pathways to Bliss, 24)
For myths, like dreams, arise out of the imagination. Now, there are two orders of dream. There is the simple, personal dream where you get tangled up in your own twists and resistances to your life, the conflict between wish and prohibition, the stuff of Freudian analysis, and so forth…But then there is another level of dream, which we call vision, where one has gone past one’s personal horizon and confronted the great universal problems, the problems that are also those rendered in the great myths. (25-25)
We might then say that while our personal journey is undertaken alone, there is a larger, parallel journey undertaken by society.
Campbell’s ideas about the journeys of the individual have transcended almost every human boundary and transformed the lives of thousands, if not millions. As our world has continued to get more complicated since Campbell’s death in 1987, cultural conversations have not only expanded how the individual’s journey is understood, but also progressed to include a conversation about our collective journey together—a journey that expands beyond humanity to the ecological and all living entities on the planet. Could Campbell’s ideas about the journey of the hero also be framed for the benefit of our collective evolution?
To be clear, the collective heroic will never subvert the importance of the journey of the hero, the heroine, or anyone that does not embrace those binary labels. In a sense, this collective journey has been with us since the beginning. The individual journey is always, in fact, contained within the collective journey. We see the collective journey depicted in the ancient myths and right up through Dorothy and her companions on the yellow brick road. Of all the superhero stories that Marvel has told in the past 25 years, the largest box office draw was when they sent all the heroes on a journey together in Avengers: Endgame. There seems to be a recognition of the importance of undertaking the adventure together. Bob Walter, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, has been sharing ideas about this journey of the collective heroic, which he terms the heroic ensemble, for decades. The need to embrace the shared journey we travel together has only continued (and will continue) to grow.
Many realities about life that once would have been deemed alien to us are now part of our ordinary world, which is the first stage that Campbell describes in the heroic adventure. While we see mass disagreement about how a good or bad story is defined in this ordinary world, few would argue that there is likely a better story out there for us. There seems to be a universal dissatisfaction with our ordinary world—the type of dissatisfaction that inexorably pushes individuals and cultures toward the next stage that Campbell described, the call to adventure. While we might struggle to articulate it and argue about the language that should be used around it, our collective society is sensing something like a call—a call to adventure. The great universal problems that Campbell spoke of are still very much with us, and they only seem to be becoming more complex and intense. The dark reality of these problems creates a call that echoes in each of us.
That eternal, unending beep that inspired Harry Nilsson years ago was the signal of a refused call. But a new urgent siren is sounding. It is the call to collective adventure for our heroic ensemble. May we answer it with courage—together.
Sign up for our popular weekly taste of myth and its relevance today along with occasional news and special offers from JCF!