Lake with mountains in the distance and a glowing cloud

It’s often said that life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It might, however, come with a few indicators, like lights on a dashboard. The trick is knowing how to read them. Some of these indicators have even been documented for us, though it seems we have trouble keeping track of this information across the generations.

I’ve been depressed several times. Not a momentary, take-a-deep-breath-and-get-over-it depression, but a scary, “What on earth is wrong with me?” depression that stopped me in my tracks and required professional help to get me back to carrying on. These have been the only times I’ve ever felt genuinely, deeply unwell, for which I’m grateful. When I look back on those times, they each involved feeling an urgent need to do something, but either not knowing what it was or not believing I could do it. Truthfully, I only fully understood what was necessary after I’d done it and could look back.

Before I go any further, let me be clear. There are other causes of depression. I hope we can agree on this? Talking about one source of depression doesn’t mean I think it’s the only source. But this one happens to be mine, so it’s especially interesting to me.

I’m so used to modern medicine, modern technology, modern solutions, that I took for granted that the treatment I received for my depression must be at least a bit modern. Modernity, or modern culture, is literally defined by a rejection of the myths and “unscientific” knowledge of past cultures. So imagine my surprise when I recently learned that humanity has always known that depression can be an indication that we’re rejecting something important. It isn’t a modern idea at all. Our current culture seems especially forgetful about things like this, preferring the view that everything in the past is nonsense and we’ve only recently learned anything useful. But if you look at our literature, legends, myths, and unconscious models, it’s right there, even in the oldest stories. If you look carefully, it turns out we do have something like an instruction manual. We just have to be willing to give it some credit.

Last fall, I took a continuing education course at the University of New Mexico on religious influences in Fantasy literature. In the first lecture, Eleanor Cooley, our instructor, gave us a diagram of the monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey, a formula or template that most of the timeless human myths–and many of our favorite stories–seem to fit, across all cultures and religions. The formula involves an individual who goes on a journey to an unfamiliar place, experiences a crisis, achieves a victory that requires personal transformation, then returns home in a changed state. We first explored how the pattern appears in major world religions and mythologies, both eastern and western, then returned to it over and over as we looked at historic and modern fantasy literature, from Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. (It’s also common in classical literature and science fiction. Examples include Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Star Wars, and The Matrix.) I was amazed by how universal this simple formula is.

But the Hero’s Journey isn’t just a successful formula for a good story. It’s successful because it’s a roadmap of the human experience, shared in story form by our predecessors and retold by each generation. Each element in the formula is symbolic of a phase in the development of the human spirit. Each of us recognizes bits of our own life and personal journey in the story, consciously or unconsciously. It’s that recognition of one’s own experience, in a grander and more epic form, that makes the Hero’s Journey so universally successful. It’s about us: all of us. And because we’re human, and not so different from our ancestors after all, it contains information about us that we can use. In fact, it’s sort of like a guide book.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero-to-be initially resists the journey, a step referred to as “refusing the call.” The opportunity presents itself, but the comforts of home and the status quo seem preferable to unknown risks and rewards. Bilbo Baggins’ behavior at the start of The Hobbit is an obvious example. The prophet Jonah’s refusal to go to Nineveh is another. The same pattern appears with Prince Siddhartha in the story of Buddha, Odysseus in Greek mythology, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Even Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, hesitates: a point emphasized in its retelling in The Wiz. It’s hard to think of a popular adventure story where this doesn’t happen.

Especially in older stories, refusing the call results in the hero becoming troubled, irritated, restless, unhappy. He or she can’t find peace. Nothing seems right anymore. Even the familiar seems alien. Things that used to make the individual happy or content no longer do. This sounds an awful lot like what we call depression. Depending on the story, this resistance and its consequence can be over quickly or it can drag on for years. But the hero doesn’t get over it until he or she chooses to accept the call, whatever it might be.

Two things are important about this. First, it’s meant to be universal. All heroes, even we everyday heroes, do this. We all resist the Hero’s Journey, otherwise known as our personal growth and transformation. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. Second, not all resistance is unhealthy. It’s only unhealthy if it makes you uncomfortable, irritable, sad, or restless. Those are the signs of a Hero’s Journey.

There are, of course, many other elements to the Hero’s Journey: the initial resistance is just the beginning. But it’s a part I can identify with a lot. I’m really good at resisting genuine change and transformation.

When I’m not depressed, I find it amazing that stories we’ve passed down for generations can relate an experience I struggle with myself: and not just the experience, but also how it feels and what it (might) mean. When I’m depressed, I can take comfort in knowing that this experience is something familiar, both to me and to people from ages past, and–although feeling like it has no reason is part of the experience–I know there might be a reason, if I allow myself time to find it.

Whenever you watch a movie, read a book, or simply listen to a great story and it starts with the main character holding back or refusing a challenge, only to ultimately accept it, it’s the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey. It’s an invitation to recognize that feeling in our own lives and learn from others’ experiences. That feeling of restlessness, discomfort, dissatisfaction, and out-of-placeness is one of the indicators we’ve inherited, and it’s been part of the stories we’ve heard and told since before written history.

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