Heroic Fear, Foolishness, and Creative Ecstasy
To begin, I offer you two words:
Dive into them past the vague gloss of vowels and consonants as we are wont to do with unknown words; say them aloud, and you will find that they roll off the tongue rather resonantly. If words have umami, they’ve got it. And a certain onomatopoeia, too, as they are both words for the fear of failure, and induce a slight twang of fear about pronouncing them correctly.
Atychiphobia springs from Ancient Greek tuche for luck, with that quiet negating prefix “a,” meaning, literally, fear of misfortune. Kakorrhaphiophobia emerges from the Greek kakos, meaning “evil or bad;” the same root as the word cacophony.
Specifically, this fear is rooted in the fear of embarrassment and ridicule. It is not simply a worry about misfortune, but instead, a projection of the cacophony of scornful laughter that echoes when we have publicly failed, whether in our imagination or reality. Some etymological thought connects atychiphobia with an Old French word for scorn that means to literally “break off someone’s horns.” This is the fear of being made smaller and powerless, of being laughed at, and ultimately being seen as a fool.
For people who are stricken with an extreme form of these phobias, they can become crippling barriers to almost any action. Few of us are completely immune, even if not haunted by clinical levels of phobia. Feeling foolish is a particularly powerful invitation to shame, and can too often keep us from exploring, daring, or creating.
The archetypal hero seems to be the antithesis of this fear, and this foolishness, at least at first glance. To be heroic is, most often, imagined to be confident, and competent, and conquering. However, in the manner of archetypes that contain their opposites, even mythic heroes struggle with whether they want to be heroic. One of the steps Joseph Campbell articulates in the hero’s journey is a refusal of the call to adventure.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell suggests that what might keep a potential hero from answering the call to his or her journey are the tendrils of an ordinary life, entwining with a stasis that dulls the sound of the call. He writes:
Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered for it is possible to turn the ear to other interests. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.
While boredom, or hard work, or culture might be convenient excuses to turn away from adventure, I believe that they are actually camouflage for something deeper: fear of failure. Atychiphobia. Kakorrhaphiophobia.
How often do we turn away from a true desire because we convince ourselves that we have something more important to do? Even though that “something important” is ultimately small and prosaic? “I can’t turn to write the article I’m enticed by because I need to clean my oven.” (As an aside, I bought oven cleaner today.) That is the responsible choice: work before pleasure. Commitments before audacity. Even though we are ultimately dulled by that choice, we can relax into feeling virtuous, and silence our desires.
But, if we tug apart the instinct for the seemingly principled, unselfish choice a bit further, what lies underneath it is fear. Fear that we will not succeed. And that we will be a fool to even try, and the world will laugh at us as we fall on our face. So we clean our ovens, refusing the call to be something grander than ourselves, and lose our opportunity to bring gifts and insights back to our communities.
While few of us are likely to strap on swords and quest after a mythic challenge, one of the most literal calls to action we can feel is the urge to create. As we struggle with the journey of making—be it a dance, a piece of writing, a business—we brush up against the metaphors of the hero’s journey. To answer the call of the imagination, we must find the courage to push past the fear of ridicule.
Several years ago, rather awestruck as a former modern dancer, I interviewed choreographer Twyla Tharp for a radio show I hosted. We talked about what makes good art, and specifically, good dance. She was passionate that modern dance should be about courage and audacity, echoing painter Henri Matisse’s aphorism, “creativity takes courage.”
She continued: “Modern dancers should be doing things no one else is doing, and it should come from the gut. Desire is the first thing a modern dancer should have. Skill can be developed. But if you don’t have desire as a modern dancer, forget it.”
In The Ecstasy of Being, as he is critiquing modern dance that fails at its goals of transcendence, of the expression of “life-power, life-courage, and the ecstasy of being,” by becoming overly intellectualized, Campbell asks irascibly, “who can but wonder why our dancer has to be letting the insipidities of her unimpressive brain come between the fountain source of her genius and the marvel of that all-expressive body on which she has been laboring the better part of her life?”
I think, in that connection between the intuition of the body and creativity, both Tharp and Campbell begin to articulate how we might find that audacity.
What breaks open when we answer the call to create, leaving rationality behind, and instead follow our guts into that call when we are making? Rather than heroically defying our fear of scorn, we instead embrace it? While the cool Apollonian discipline of technique and structure underpin creativity, art begins to articulate, as Campbell says, the “ecstasy of being” only when it opens up into the irrational. When it celebrates, like Erasmus, the delights of folly.
Our metaphoric heroism becomes Dionysian at that moment, sensory and uninhibited, and genuinely fearless. The fool in his fullest form has no fear of laughter, but instead evokes and invites it. In that moment we can, as Robert Johnson says in Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy, we are ex stasis—standing outside oneself: “If I say, ‘I am ecstatic! I am simply beside myself!’ I mean that I am filled with an emotion too powerful for my body to contain or my rational mind to understand. I am transported to another realm in which I am able to experience ecstasy.” (p. 25)
For me, this is one of the most tangible ways that we might enter into the mythic power of the archetypal hero: by entering into the metaphor of a foolish hero as we create, savoring all that evokes; that is truly answering the call. And if we’re very lucky, it might just grant the boon of ecstasy for those who meet what we create.
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The Humbling of Indra (Esingle)
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In this introduction to Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, Joseph Campbell begins his fascinating overview of the central symbols and myths of the great Asian religions by examining the very basis of myth, and by retelling the ancient Indian tale of how the greatest of the Hindu gods was brought low at the moment of his greatest triumph.
News & Updates
April 8 is recognized in many traditions as the birthdate of the historical Buddha. In Hawaii, it has been designated “Buddha Day” since 1963.
Also today, Jains begin Aymbil Ori, a nine-day fast, each day corresponding to one of the nine navpads or “posts” of the faith.
April 9 begins the Bahá’í month of Jalál, meaning “glory.”
When looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures followed by wreckage were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You’ll see that this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.
Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life
No other god of the Greeks is as widely present in the monuments and nature of Greece and Italy, in the sensuous tradition of antiquity, as Dionysos. In myth and image, in visionary experience and ritual representation, the Greeks possessed a complete expression of indestructible life, the essence of Dionysos. In this work, the noted mythologist and historian of religion Carl Kerényi presents a historical account of the religion of Dionysos from its beginnings in the Minoan culture down to its transition to a cosmic and cosmopolitan religion of late antiquity under the Roman Empire. From the wealth of Greek literary, epigraphic, and monumental traditions, Kerényi constructs a picture of Dionysian worship, always underlining the constitutive element of myth.
Included in this study are the secret cult scenes of the women’s mysteries both within and beyond Attica, the mystic sacrificial rite at Delphi, and the great public Dionysian festivals at Athens. The way in which the Athenian people received and assimilated tragedy in its immanent connection with Dionysos is seen as the greatest miracle in all cultural history. Tragedy and New Comedy are seen as high spiritual forms of the Dionysian religion, and the Dionysian element itself is seen as a chapter in the religious history of Europe.
Ecstasy of Being, The
Joseph Campbell’s collected writings on dance and art, edited and introduced by Nancy Allison, CMA, the founder of Jean Erdman Dance, and including Campbell’s unpublished manuscript “Mythology and Form in the Performing and Visual Arts,” the book he was working on when he died.
Dance was one of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s wide-ranging passions. His wife, Jean Erdman, was a leading figure in modern dance who worked with Martha Graham and had Merce Cunningham in her first company. When Campbell retired from teaching in 1972, he and Erdman formed the Theater of the Open Eye, where for nearly fifteen years they presented a wide array of dance and theater productions, lectures, and performance pieces.
“What we need now is not a minor repair, but a major transformation of the world that can only start with the awakening of the individual soul. In Awakening the Soul, Michael Meade addresses the issue of the loss of soul throughout the world and the loss of meaning and truth in modern life. Meade shows how meaning is essential to the human soul and uses ancient stories and compelling insights to describe how soul can be recovered and how people can learn to ‘live in truth.’ Drawing from dramatic episodes in his own life, Meade shows how the soul tries to awaken at critical times, and how an awakened soul is crucial for finding medicine to treat the ailments and alienation of modern life.”
Tyler Lapkin L.Ac. MTCM
Social Media Coordinator
Joseph Campbell Foundation
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