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We Are Lived by Powers We Pretend to Understand

BY Bradley Olson October 9, 2022

Photograph by Flickr Dickson Phua(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In this MythBlast year of Decentering the Hero, this month’s theme is Fear. We often don’t seem to think about fear in relation to heroism. The heroic deed has usually been accomplished by the time we’ve heard or read of it, and by then we are more inclined to wonder at the gallantry, the audacity, and the bravery of the hero than to wonder if he was afraid. 

I think everyone probably has their own definition of fear and harbors fears that are particular to themselves; particularly those fears that come in the night, the children of the dark goddess, Nix. Even Zeus feared Nix, and Virgil insisted she’s the mother of the Furies. No wonder then, it so often seems that in darkness fear is aroused. Her children, Moros, Thanatos, Oizys, and Momus—doom, death, anxiety, and blame—haunt us in the lonely dark. The Oneiroi open the doors of our dreams to their siblings who bedevil and disturb our sleep, and make us think, Hamlet says, of that other sleep, the sleep of death upon which he ruefully reflects with a sense of foreboding, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.” (Act III, Scene I)

Everyone fears something. And everyone responds to their fears in their own ways. Fear is many things, but its essence is simply this: fear is everything in us that remains unfinished and unloved. We fear death because we yet feel an abundance of life in us, life yet to be lived, life that is unfinished. We’re often not yet done with the relationships to loved ones, to pets, or to the beauty we find in the world. The desire is always for more, more life, more experience, more joy, more love, more success…until it isn’t; until desire is sated. And we all understand that when it isn’t anymore, when desire for it is extinguished, life is relatively easy to relinquish.

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True heroism is recognizing, understanding, accepting, and working to transform these fearful impulses and emotions within ourselves; to redefine our relationship to fear, to learn, somehow, to live with fear while at the same time refusing to be lived by it. That person is no hero who attempts to compensate fear with ego-driven status, power and control, making others quake in the presence of his might. That one who seeks to overcome others and the external world by “treasons, stratagems, and spoils,” remains a fear-haunted, self-terrorized individual who never delivers the compassionate boons of true heroism but instead dispenses only chaos, catastrophe, and wide-scale misery. 

Every resistance to knowing ourselves is dangerous—explosively so, for the condition of not knowing yourself, of being unconsciously or consciously self-deceptive, avoiding the knowledge that you are not who you have always believed yourself to be, can quite literally destroy your life, and even the lives of others. The way through fear is to allow oneself to move into it rather than avoid it. Undertaking the exploration of how fear lives in me, how it distorts my perceptions of myself, of others, and the world around me; to recognize how it narrows my focus only to the threatening, the harmful, the malign. This is the way through fear: to see compassionately how fear is at work within me, and then to shift to another vantage point which reduces fears paranoia and frenzied, panicked, acting out. The shift to compassion and centering compassion within ourselves is one important key. Rilke wrote to a young poet saying, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Tremendous healing potential is unlocked when we begin to see that the fear we project into the world is really something unfinished, something un-nurtured and unloved in ourselves. 

Understanding fear from this perspective is difficult, however, because the cultural message insists that to be heroic, one must be without fear. Heroism is synonymous with fearlessness in much of literature, particularly in the literature of the Medieval romances. In Wolfram’s Parzival, for instance, the narrative is that Parzival is fearless: “He weighed his javelin in his hand, saying: ‘What have I heard? Oh, if only the Devil would come now, in his fearful wrath! I would take him on, for sure! My mother talks of his terrors––I believe her courage is daunted.” (52)  And, “God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival, who feared few terrors.” (63) In fact, the only thing Parzival (and Gawan for that matter) fears is disgrace. 

The fear of shame is a common element in martial or chivalric cultures, and shame is not limited to the Western World. Samurai culture, for instance, is likewise deeply shame-based and in it, shame can only be redeemed by a form of ritual suicide, which I’m inclined to see as an unfortunate literalization of the death of the ego; egocide literalized becomes suicide. The attitude of fearless heroism places one in dangerous proximity to what Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, referred to as “The inflated ego of the tyrant.” Perhaps what saves Parzival from this ego-dominant stance is his utter naïveté. Likewise, what spares Gawan from that fate is his preternatural humanism coupled with a robust spiritual life.  

But accepting fear is merely one part of the equation; there is also the business of Amor Fati, not just the acceptance of, or resignation to, our respective fates, but the actual love of one’s own fate. Professor Campbell writes that fear “… is the emotion that arrests the mind before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause. What does that mean? That is the key to the whole thing: the secret cause.” ( Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, 35) 

What is the “secret cause”? The secret cause is one’s fate, one’s destiny, and as such we may welcome fear as evidence that we are living the life we are destined to live. But that is so difficult to do in practice as there is so much of the unknown in us and around us, so much of life is out of individual control—things the ego hates most. Living consists of being lived by powers that shape our lives, powers that we, as W.H. Auden wrote, pretend to understand, powers that push us up against limits, plunge us into the twists and turns of life, and conjure the unplanned, the unforeseen, the catastrophic, even the joyfully unexpected blessing, too. 

All these powers that work on us are the revelations of one’s destiny. They all point to the secret cause, our own destiny, our own fate, and constitute the circumstances of our own individual lives. When we affirm Amor Fati we commit to not only accepting our lives, but loving the very life we have, not wanting it to be different in any way. If we can do that well enough, just that one thing, we set to work finishing all that is yet unfinished within us and from this new perspective, we see everything as a revelation of the Divine. That is the true achievement of heroism.

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

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“Question Period” from Thou Art That

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“Question Period” is the seventh chapter of Joseph Campbell’s collection of previously unpublished work titled Thou Art That. It is a transcription of some questions, and Campbell’s responses, asked after lectures and captures some of the more off-the-cuff remarks from Campbell.

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The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life.

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The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society

In this challenging and provocative work, Dr. Carl Jung—one of history’s greatest  minds—argues that civilization’s future depends on our ability as individuals to resist the collective forces of society. Only by gaining an awareness and understanding of one’s unconscious mind and true, inner nature—“the undiscovered self”—can we as individuals acquire the self-knowledge that is antithetical to ideological fanaticism. But this requires that we face our fear of the duality of the human psyche—the existence of good and the capacity for evil in every individual.

In this seminal book, Jung compellingly argues that only then can we begin to cope with the dangers posed by mass society—“the sum total of individuals”—and resist the potential threats posed by those in power.

“A passionate plea for individual integrity.”—The New York Times Book Review

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Myth Resources

The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society

In this challenging and provocative work, Dr. Carl Jung—one of history’s greatest  minds—argues that civilization’s future depends on our ability as individuals to resist the collective forces of society. Only by gaining an awareness and understanding of one’s unconscious mind and true, inner nature—“the undiscovered self”—can we as individuals acquire the self-knowledge that is antithetical to ideological fanaticism. But this requires that we face our fear of the duality of the human psyche—the existence of good and the capacity for evil in every individual.

In this seminal book, Jung compellingly argues that only then can we begin to cope with the dangers posed by mass society—“the sum total of individuals”—and resist the potential threats posed by those in power.

“A passionate plea for individual integrity.”—The New York Times Book Review

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Thou Art That

Thou Art That is a compilation of previously uncollected essays and lectures by Joseph Campbell that focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here Campbell explores common religious symbols, reexamining and reinterpreting them in the context of his remarkable knowledge of world mythology. According to Campbell, society often confuses the literal and metaphorical interpretations of religious stories and symbols. In this collection, he eloquently reestablishes these metaphors as a means to enhance spiritual understanding and mystical revelation. With characteristic verve, he ranges from rich storytelling to insightful comparative scholarship. Included is editor Eugene Kennedy’s classic interview with Campbell in The New York Times Magazine, which brought the scholar to the public’s attention for the first time.

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