I was a big fan of The Sopranos. I found the show riveting and insightful. After a time the violence and vulgarity got to me. I think during the years of watching it greater sensitivity had developed, and I could no longer tolerate it. In spite of that, I still feel it was a landmark show with much to tell us about ourselves.
There was one episode in particular that really stuck with me. The character Christopher Molitisanti had dreams of being a screenwriter and was working on a piece about his life. For any good story, there must be a single or multiple events in the life of the character that drives a transformation. Christopher referred to that event as an arc, and to his dismay he realized his life had none, and so not only did he not have an interesting story to write but a life that he perceived was heading nowhere. In a discussion with Paulie he said, "Where's my arc?" Paulie pointed out that this whole concept of arcs does not apply to real life and only to made-up stories to entertain us. However, I would beg to differ with Paulie. I know of many people--some I have written about on my blog, including me, who have had arcs--and whose lives monumentally changed. Joseph Campbell refers to this as the Hero's Journey.
Often the arc involves a loss of some kind that takes the hero in a new direction. It's like a death to an old life and a birth to a new. In spite of that, an arc need not involve a physical death--although it might. Ultimately, it involves a challenge that stretches one beyond one's current capabilities. The stretching may involve seeing things in a new way, taking on an adventure into the unknown, going against tribal or societal norms--any number of ways. It is a kind of call from your spirit to transform. If you don't answer the call, you live a life of quiet desperation--dying just a bit everyday. Some even take to suicide from the pain of an unlived life
One of my favorite stories of real-life transformation was the co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, John W. James. His arc was the death of his infant child. While sitting on the beach contemplating suicide, an idea arose as to how he might push through his overwhelming grief and come out the other side. And so he went to work to develop and apply this method to himself and things improved. After a time many grief-stricken folks spontaneously began showing up asking for help. Today he has Grief Recovery workshops and has been helping countless people worldwide. Sometimes our losses do provide a springboard to help many people. Who would have known that the death of that sweet little baby would have given rise to such an important hero's journey?
I have had multiple arcs. The most important one was that trip to the . I did not know when I walked into that cold corridor to the locked facility what interesting turn of events might be waiting. Many times our adventures are not external, like Frodo--but deeply internal like mine. If you are friends or family to a person whose life is destined to be a hero's journey, it is a double-edged sword. You may have to bear witness to their struggle or be embarrassed that they are not fitting into societal norms. Your role may even be to support them in some form. Though it may seem like a thankless job, know that you are blessed--for by bearing witness to their transformation, you may be transformed too. Their struggle becomes your arc. If you can see the big picture of what might be going on, then you might realize how lucky you are to be a part of spirit's magic.
I believe humanity is approaching a planetary arc given what is going on environmentally, politically, socially, and economically. In many places in the world that arc is already being experienced. Many of us carry on like we are not affected or that nothing has changed, but we may soon get pulled into our own hero's journey as the squeeze on our resources continues. What is required to pass through the arc is a kind of flexibility that can be challenging to maintain. I'm talking about flexiblity on multiple levels--especially one's value system, because our values will determine our habits. That may be the biggest challenge of all for we feel we are defined by those values. If we give them up or modify them, who will we be?
The hero's journey is about expanding the definition of who we are. It is an honorable role to play, because upon making that journey successfully--you serve as both a transformative and inspirational force. You show the world that an ordinary person truly is capable of the extraordinary. We need these examples as we face a time that calls for extraordinary action from ordinary people like you and me.