“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
This most quoted line from Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist, comparative religion professor and author of The Masks of God and The Hero With a Thousand Faces, helped turn the modern world on to the importance and prevalence of myths.
Even though we grew up with myths and archetypes — fairy tales, Bible stories, Greek and Roman mythology — most of us didn’t connect the dots back to our own lives. Heroes were either the stuff of legend or the great men and women we admired, like Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony.
But thanks to Campbell, who died 26 years ago this week, we learned that we’re all the heroes of our own lives. Our lives are mythic. By viewing things from a symbolic level, we can learn to take things less literally, become happier and more fulfilled and recast our struggles as necessary steps toward getting there.
A Living Legend
To call Joseph Campbell a Renaissance man is to downgrade him. In addition to his studies in biology, math and medieval literature, Campbell was a master of languages, having learned Latin, French and Old French, German, Japanese and Sanskrit. The man was an assiduous reader: In his late 20s he devoted nine hours a day to that passionate pursuit. He was also a masterful athlete, becoming one of the fastest half-mile runners in the world at the time.
Among his influences were psychoanalytical pioneer Carl Jung, authors James Joyce and Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso and the great Indian teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he randomly met on a ship while crossing from the U.S. to Europe. Their conversation is what inspired Campbell to abandon his Catholic faith and study Eastern religions.
After reading and teaching Joyce’s magnum opus Finnegans Wake, Campbell expanded on that author’s theory of the “monomyth” and renamed it the hero’s journey, which he felt was summed up in his favorite quote from the Hindu scriptures: “Truth is one, though the Sages know it as many.”
Many Americans became acquainted with Campbell and his “follow your bliss” mantra when PBS aired Bill Moyers’ now legendary six-part interview with him in 1988, shortly after his death.
At that time, the “alpha” boomers were in their early 40s, establishing careers and families. The youngest of our generation were just getting out of college and beginning their professional lives. And while some folks believe that young people follow nothing but their bliss (Cf. “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll”), that’s not the kind of bliss Campbell was referring to.
To Campbell, following your bliss meant doing the things your heart most deeply desires — as opposed to slavishly honoring the obligations and roles we believe our families, communities and society expect us to. Confucius supposedly said “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but it’s a lucky minority who can say that’s true for them.
Most of us, for one reason or another, disobey that other great admonishment to not postpone joy. Oh sure, we all have our share of fun and happiness, but Campbell’s kind of bliss isn’t fleeting. It’s the deep, pervasive, abiding sense we get when we know we’re doing our life’s work and actively pursuing our passions and loves, not settling for less. Bliss comes first from self-knowledge: who we are, what we want, what our souls crave.
Similar to George Bernard Shaw’s famous proclamation “Youth is wasted on the young,” I feel — at least from this midlife perch — that bliss is more readily attained with age. Our skin might not be as tight, we might be a bit slower or creakier, but hopefully by 50, we know who we are, we’ve paid some dues and we’ve come (or are slowly coming) to the realization that life really has an expiration date. If we don’t take action to bring lasting bliss into our lives, it might just elude us.
How to Find Your Bliss
By now, with any luck, we have both this wisdom and greater means to pursue our bliss. A huge part of our mission at Next Avenue is to tell stories of people who’ve done this and to get pundits to share the ways we all can get our bliss on.
Neuroscience has indisputably established that our brains can improve with age. One of the truly exciting things about getting older is that we actually have different tools that make reinvention easier.
We also know that love, romance and sex can — wait for it — be better after 50. Things may not be the same as during our hormonal heydays, but because we know ourselves more deeply and are more skillful advocates for getting our needs met, many people agree that intimacy is far greater.
While a lot of boomers are facing challenges at the workplace — because of the economy and the usual generational burnout or downsizing — this can actually be the best time of our professional lives. We’ve developed skill sets and acquired priceless experience, plus we’re often more patient and nimble when it comes to problem-solving.
Finally, in our personal lives, many of us have reached the point where we can draw a pretty well-defined line in the sand between what we want and are willing to sacrifice for and what we won’t accept or do. We own our sovereignty, new maturity and place on the wheel of life. There will always be challenges, but according to a recent survey, we’re optimistic about the future.
I’d be willing to bet that even if you haven’t thought about “following your bliss” in a while — or ever — if you step back from your life right now and thought about what propels you forward, you would acknowledge you are at least trying to follow your bliss.
And that’s all you can ask of a hero.