Joseph Campbell and Me

Joseph Campbell, and Wife modern dancer Jean Edman Campbell 1939 By Source, Fair use,
Joseph Campbell, and his Wife, modern dancer Jean Edman Campbell 1939*

The Journey.  Okay. This summer I’ve had the chance to read a whole lot written by other breast cancering babes.  I have also ended up clicking through to many editorial articles.  After about the third time I saw a snarky remark about the “ubiquitous journey” of breast cancer I changed the byline on my blog from ‘A wild transformative journey’ to ‘A wild transformative adventure’  I know, weak.

After thinking about it some more, I am changing it back.  Because thinking of the process as a journey seriously helped me through.  I didn’t know I was living a cliche at the time.  And then I started wondering “Why all the judgement and cynicism?” Why is the common usage of the breast cancer experience as a journey so maddening for some people?

I admit that I had a similar flare of intolerance when I first entered the world of death, hospice and natural burial work. I had to work though some issues I had with the way people refer to death, and the autopilot responses everyone hears at funerals.  I’ve come to be less irritated by “She’s in a better place.” Or “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Spoken in that strange cheery monotone.

Why? Because the ways that people talk about and structure how they deal with serious emotional events like death and illness do vary a lot, however in many ways there is a sameness, a predictability to our responses.  Cliche? Stereotype? Hackneyed phrase? Trite? Well of course. We are all reaching for words to describe a common experience, at a time in which our brain is short circuited by grief, or fear or downright panic. Of course we say the first thing that pops into our heads.

I am changing my byline back to Journey because it describes what has been happening to me, and continues to happen.  It is a journey that hopefully will lead me to myself, because it sure as hell does not lead back to the life I knew before. Journey is simply a word for process.

I wonder if some of the eye rolling around “The Ubiquitous Journey” stems from pain people feel when they realize that it sometimes is a one way journey to the underworld. The “Year of Treatments, and then back to your old life good as new!” storyline is pure bullshit for most people. However it’s promotion may give the impression that some women have a walk in the park, while others die on a battlefield.

The thing that gets me about this hierarchy of suffering, is that if someone is diagnosed with stage 1A breast cancer they are likely to go through a very similar treatment regime to my 3C diagnosis. Getting an “early” diagnosis does not necessarily reduce treatment difficulty.  And getting an “early” diagnosis is not a guarantee that you will never progress to metastatic disease.  Being diagnosed with a serious illness is a life changing event. Whether that is diabetes, heart disease, or cancering. It isn’t about stage.

Or maybe the pain that causes them to lash out is related to something else. I can only guess. It might be related to the pain people feel when they are going through something difficult, or conversely when they are not.  We tend to create these rules about who gets to feel what, pretty much if you are not at the top of the sh**storm pyramid you don’t count. Lashing out can be a defensive ploy. Another move in the endless who’s right game. Positioning to be eligible for compassion.

Being able to understand yourself is a basic human need. We reach for definitions to do this.  We align ourselves with others who resonate at a similar frequency. For what ever reason the Journey moniker doesn’t work for some people, it does not change that it actually really works for me. We have great capacity to influence others – sometimes unknowingly. When I found myself cringing while reading that article that derided the use of Journey, it was an example of how sticky shame is.

It reminds me of the torturous process of naming our first son. Prior to his birth we had two names picked out, one girl one boy.  Unfortunately I spoke with some of my family about our name choices prior to his birth. Big mistake. When he actually arrived I was haunted by their judgmental comments. It literally took us two weeks to settle on a name, and that really only happened because the Midwife arrived at the house for a 10 day check up and said, “I turned the paperwork into the state. I put on the name you were trying out the last time I was here. We can still change it if you need to.” We had in fact moved on to a new name, but we took it as a sign and moved back to his official-with-the-state name. He absolutely could have pulled off the pregnancy name, in many ways I feel like it is his secret name. But what’s on his birth certificate is a name that has worked well for him. Even if he may choose to change it in later years to something he feels suits him better.

When we had our second baby I chose not to share our name ideas before he was born. And you know what? When you are holding a baby in your arms people feel much less free with their advice and criticisms about your name choice – at least to your face. Once it was a done deal, and we were resolute our choice, was not questioned.

Any time something sets us apart from the center line of Society, whether this is our gender identity, the color of our skin, our spiritual practice, or a serious illness, there are forces that will attempt to put us back into a box that is more comfortable for them.  But once you are out of the box, it is like being born – there is no going back. You are no longer that mythical thing, “a normal human being.” It is up to each of us to sing our song, to tell our tale from whichever fringe we find our selves in.

I like Journey, and think that it is a word open to anyone. I like that Joseph Campbell described the human experience as The Hero’s Journey. I think that it describes what a ride on a Pooka’s back is pretty well. We all have to muddle through as best we can. If what we say sounds a bit hackneyed at first, just give us a minute. After a while, the shock will wear off and deeper words will pour out as we better understand the lay of the land.  We might choose new words to express our experience, or we may hold on to the old tried and true ones. Regardless we actually don’t need to have the approval of everyone else to define ourselves for ourselves.

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.”
Joseph Cambell

* Image By Source, Fair use,

10 Comments Add yours

  1. shiborigirl says:

    nail hit square on by hammer.

    1. Iridacea says:

      Nice to miss the thumb!

  2. Cancer truly is a journey, with twists and turns and unexpected unfoldings. I think the word is apt (and I use it on my blog, too!).

    1. Iridacea says:

      Thanks- that’s what I mean about resonate. I actually think that it really works for many people. Those for whom it doesn’t are on their own trip. Pun intended.

  3. Sue Skinner says:

    I’m riveted. Are you going to reveal Sam’s first name?


    Sue S

    1. Iridacea says:

      Only if you are really nice, and sign anything I ask, and jump up and down three times, and pinky swear.
      P.S. Have a great week off

  4. roobieerants says:

    Yup! Yup! I have been contemplating some of the same issues throughout my ‘journey’-the hierarchy of suffering was how I’d thought of it and this sense of qualifying for compassion that is present. Your summation is comfortingly familiar and wonderfully written-such a joy to read.

  5. Iridacea says:

    Thanks. I made a little sign on my desk at work that says “Everyone is Eligible for Compassion.” to remind me to be kind even when someone is triggering my irritation in some way. My hope is that by practicing will lead to more love, that it might be contagious. thanks for reaching out.

  6. “Positioning to be eligible for compassion.” I love what you say here. That’s what happens. We all position ourselves hoping I am one of those picked for empathy, compassion, for love and care. In reality, each of us matters no matter what others feel the need to reject. I’ve had people look me in the face and say “lucky you, a reduction and a tummy tuck, and it’s paid for”, “you know you did this to yourself. You don’t get any sympathy from me.” I could list 50 unkind things people have said. And after the sting wore down, I could tell you why each one of those comments was said. The comments are about them. Not about my pain. And so I remember the love I’ve been shown by the 50 x100 in my life that do better with choice of words. Thank you for your writing, and the journey you have shared. It is a journey, no matter how painful.

    1. Iridacea says:

      Thank you for stopping by with thoughtful words! “Each of us matter no matter what others feel the need to reject.” So strange how our inner demons spill out onto others at times, resulting in unkind words. I’ve been thinking about how sometimes a person might reject an idea, that from my perspective seems very detrimental to them, but perhaps from their perspective it is empowering. There is so much anger around the perceived pressure for a “good attitude” during cancering for instance. Something that can be empowering for me might be disempowering for another. Taking a deep breath, letting the “sting” pass, and remembering to offer compassion towards them and what ever pain cause them to lash out is a goal. I’m not there yet most days, but mediation is helping. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences.

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