Life Lessons From 'The Wizard of Oz'
In her new book, scholar and philosopher Jean Houston leads us on our own 'hero’s journey'
Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.
In 1984 she founded a national not-for-profit, The Possible Society, to “explore new ways for people to work to help solve societal problems.” And more recently she developed the Social Artistry leadership model used by the United Nations Development Group.
Houston, 75, has studied or collaborated with such prominent thought leaders as Joseph Campbell, Margaret Mead, Helen Keller, Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley and Hillary Clinton, whom she helped write her best-seller, It Takes a Village.
She has taught and worked with leaders in 108 countries and has authored close to 30 books. Her newest, The Wizard of Us, draws on L. Frank Baum’s classic tale to illuminate one's personal journey to awakening, complete with history and cultural lessons, spiritual wisdom and practical exercises. She explains that we’re all heroes in our lives, but most of us either ignore or refuse our “call to adventure” or get stuck along our own Yellow Brick Road.
I recently chatted with Houston on the phone. While acknowledging the timelessness of this important myth, she told me she feels that given the precarious condition of the planet, its message and call to action has taken on a new urgency.
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Why did you write this book, why is this myth so relevant, and why is its message so critical now?
We are living in mythic times, and given the range and complexity of current problems — from failing economic, health-care and educational systems to a planet that’s in serious ecological crisis — we need to gather the resources now to prevent global crisis.
My book, The Wizard of Us, deals with that great iconic tale, The Wizard of Oz. My very good friend Joseph Campbell studied 240 different examples of the hero’s journey and wrote a lot about that. But I always complained to him, “Joe, you have not allowed for the heroine’s journey.” And he said, “Is there one?”
You’d better believe it. It follows a similar structure of the hero’s journey but in some ways is very different, with its emphases on compassion, of going with a team, of leaving an outmoded situation and moving together into the deeper reality of which we are all a part to discover the lost parts of ourselves and our life’s larger possibilities. And Dorothy Gale exemplifies this beautifully, and these ways of being the world are more important now than ever.
I’ve been traveling the earth for a very long time, and the world that I used to see back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s looked very, very, very different from the world we see today, which is clearly a world in great stress. As we reach the second half of life, as traditional cultures have always done, we are required to bring our acquired knowledge and experience to repattern, restructure, rewire, rethink, regenerate and repair our world.
That’s what happens in The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy moves into another kind of reality, which is really the collective unconscious of the human race in many ways. She moves from a monochromic to a chromatic world as she steps into Oz, where everything is effulgent and curved and full of colors and little people who represent a kind of higher order (the Lollipop Guild is like an early-Renaissance civilization). And then comes the great guidance, the higher self — Glinda the good witch.
From there, Dorothy meets the disempowered parts of herself: the disenfranchised mind, the Scarecrow; the disenfranchised heart, the Tinman; the disenfranchised courage, the Cowardly Lion. But together they discover they have a great mind, a great heart, extraordinary courage and are able to conquer their demons and finally meet the wizard (who they discover really isn’t much of a wizard at all, though he is a tremendous psychotherapist). And when she finally gets home, she realizes it was all in my own backyard — “it all” meaning the collective unconscious of the human race.
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Is it easier or more difficult for people in midlife to take this journey?
I sometimes refer to this stage of life as the sage years. And today, this time is being extended, and our options and opportunities are being increased. Unlike earlier generations, when men and women had just a few short years in search of subsistence, we now have the time to become who we are. We are gaining a lifespan that allows us to become sages — richly actualized human beings able to transcend the particularities of our local selves and capable of dealing wisely and creatively with the enormous personal and planetary complexities of our time.
You have easy-to-do exercises in the book. Are they helpful?
People have said so, and I have received many letters and emails telling of the shifts they have made in their own lives with consequent effects in their community lives.
As I say repeatedly in the book, we are living in “twister” times, when everything is flying apart out of the sheer excessive force of the winds of change. This is happening on the macro planetary level, but also on people’s own micro levels. The question to ask is, What have you brought on yourself to get away from your “Kansas”?
Can you share one of the exercises?
Here’s one exercise from that book that I think works for most people. You can do it in your mind, but it’s better if you draw it on a large sheet of paper. Imagine yourself as the hero in the middle of the page, as if suspended by the force of a tornado. Look down at the black-and-white farm fields below you. What do you want to let go from your outmoded past or from the present that no longer serves you. Let go of relationships that no longer serve you. Let go of your own limitation. Let go and watch them drift away into the black-and-white world below. Draw those things that you are ready to let go of.
Is it easier or harder for people after 50 to do this?
Probably somewhat easier because they take their lives more seriously in terms of repatterning and making a difference.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
A passion for the possible, the courage to be and to create the awareness that we’re living in the most significant time in human history and that we have a tremendous opportunity to do what’s necessary on a personal and a global level. I hope that this book in its own strange way will help us discover that the wizard is in us and is ready to give us some of that inner magic that allows us to move the world into new ways of being and doing.