Sunday with Joseph Campbell

Posted: October 20, 2008 in prison, general, teaching, The Hero's Journey Workshop
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This weekend I began watching Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, a series of interviews conducted by Bill Moyers with the Joseph Campbell. At one point Moyers asked Campbell about evil. How one should respond to the existence of evil? What purpose does evil serve, if any, in living a conscious life? Moyers pointed out that in many western religious traditions it is important to reject evil or sin, to actively work against it or to deny it altogether.


Campbell’s response was “who are we to judge the world?” He added, “It is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain.” As he and Moyers continued to discuss this topic it became clear that in Campbell’s opinion evil certainly exists and because it exists it is naïve to act as if it doesn’t. Even more so, it is naïve to act as if it does not serve a purpose both in the individual life and in the world as a whole. Campbell’s advice seemed to be not to work against evil because it is a function of the universe, and who are we to disrupt that precious and sacred balance?


Campbell’s advice to Moyers, when Moyers pressed him on holding a pacifist attitude, was that people should get involved, participate in the evil. By that I did not take him to mean that one should go out and knowingly commit acts of evil, but rather, participate by not shying away or walking away from it. Participate by acknowledging evil’s existence. Try to learn from it. Perhaps even appreciate it for what it is capable of shining light on. Get mired in the complexity of evil, how the closer you get to it the less clear it becomes who is right and who is wrong (particularly when you look back over the course of history sometimes).


Campbell said during the interview, “Horror can be the foreground of a wonder.” I feel the validity of this statement when I am working with the guys up at Monroe. The horror of whatever acts they have committed has brought them to their confinements. Now confined (perhaps also a horror), there is an opportunity for great personal transformations, an opportunity to pause for a moment and experience the wonder of looking back over their lives from a place that is set apart from their ordinary lives, as well as the wonder of realizing there are changes they can make to do it better next time (if they are lucky enough to be granted another opportunity on the outside).


Listening to Campbell made me realize that one of the things I appreciate about the experience at Monroe is that there is no argument over the existence of evil. Up there it is clear that every man in the room is capable of hurting someone else. We can all stop pretending. And if we don’t have to pretend that we are all good, kind and well-behaved all the time then we can actually get down to talking about what it is to try and live this human life – what it is to have an authentic human experience with all its bliss and all its horror. Campbell said that he thinks the fourth function of myth is to show us how to live a human life under any circumstances. In prison that is the ultimate challenge – to hold on to your humanity. Perhaps prison then, is indeed, a modern mythic journey. Perhaps it is even a journey for all of us — whether we find ourselves on the inside or the outside.



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