Gandalf asked me yesterday if I thought he was in the Abyss--one of the stages of the Hero's Journey. Also called the Supreme Ordeal, the Innermost Cave, the Belly of the Whale. It's a singularly awful place, as full of stench and bile and rotting flesh as any fish's belly you could imagine.
I told him yes. I do think he's in the Abyss stage of the Hero's Journey. As I told him this, a part of me thought I should be glad for him--I mean, he is a hero, after all, and he is on the journey every hero must take. But I'm not glad; I'm just angry. And sad.
The Abyss, the Supreme Ordeal, the Innermost Cave...Despite their dark overtones they all still sound so mythic and pure--a final test of valor that calls you forth to face the dragon and makes you look very noble indeed. I mean, what's not to admire about a hero facing down a dragon?
But the real Abyss, the real Supreme Ordeal, looks nothing like that. It's not noble; it's humiliation at its worst.
Life is beautiful, but it is not fair. Some are unreasonably blessed--charmed, as it were, to live a life of ease and prosperity that far exceeds their merit. Most, thankfully, see their blessing for the ridiculous injustice that it is, and live in humble gratitude, or if they are truly brave, choose to give it all away for the sake of the many whom life has not so graciously favored. But a few are fooled into believing that it was their own cunning and ability that afforded them such an unnatural level of success, and their pride puffs them up like a pig with a gold ring in its snout. They are the most unpleasant people I've ever met and all the more so because they are generally blind to their own misguided arrogance.
On the other end, however, there are those who are unreasonably battered by life. And this is where the Abyss of the Hero's Journey shows its true colors. For the Supreme Ordeal that the hero must face comes not head on, but from the side. It hits him in unexpected places, in ways that are, first and foremost, utterly unfair. It breaks all the rules. Its intent, you quickly realize, is not to best you in your strength, but to demoralize and humiliate you in an area of unexpected weakness, and to do it in such an extreme way that you simply lose any strength or will to go on.
It is the quintessential low blow. It's not pretty. It's not valorous or noble. It's ugly and humiliating and gritty and very very real.
Still want to be a hero?
Yes. I do. Despite all this, I do. And I know Gandalf does as well. Because, as awful as the Abyss is, or can be, one simple truth holds the hero to the path: The Abyss is not the end of the story.
It tries to make you believe it is. That's the goal of the Abyss, by the way: to make you believe you've reached the end of all hope. The last stop. The place of absolute, irreversible failure and loss. And there is a kind of death that you must indeed pass through in this stage, so it definitely feels like the end of the story...at least, the end of the story as you have known it. But the true hero knows that resurrection awaits on the other side. And so, even though he may die, his hope does not. He trusts that there is still more story to be told.
Think Abraham with Issac on the altar of sacrifice.
Think Shadrach, Meschach and Abedneggo in the Fiery Furnace.
Think Jesus on the Cross.
Gandalf sent me these two YouTube vids, in which someone has detailed the stages of the Hero's Journey in the life of Neo from The Matrix (parts 1 and 2, respectively). I found them thought provoking, and thought you might as well.