Sermon 3/6/16 – HJ7 – The Ordeal: In the Belly of the Whale by Karen Andersen
The story of Perseus, in Greek mythology, is fairly well known in our culture, and Perseus is best remembered for his greatest ordeal: the battle with Medusa. It’s not that Perseus’s story doesn’t contain all manner other important challenges and ordeals, but that battle in particular, is the scene we remember; the image of the seemingly undefeatable snake-headed monster being cut down by the hero. And how does Perseus achieve this? You know the story…how does he find a way to meet this powerful Gorgon in battle? (Look to someone in the crowd to answer)
That’s right…he used his shield as a mirror. The symbolism is clear, and it gets right to the heart of the lesson of part 7 of our Hero’s Journey series: The Ordeal. I think that the most important symbolism about The Ordeal is more about the mirror than the Gorgon.
In Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he titles the chapter about The Ordeal stage of the Hero’s Journey, “In the Belly of the Whale.” That phrase, for many people, might first bring to mind the story of Jonah from the Bible. I never liked that story, though, growing up Catholic. It didn’t make sense to me that a supposedly loving God could be such an authoritarian brute. The lesson my young mind took away from it was DO WHAT GOD SAYS OR ELSE! And Jonah doesn’t really fit the role of the hero to me; being forced by God to sit in the stinky belly of an actual whale for a few days to “think about it,” and then being summarily expelled from said whale, doesn’t feel much like something you want to sing a song about around a fire, or brag about at a bar.
Around here, thoughts of ordeals involving whales tend to go in another direction entirely, so I couldn’t help but choose a pertinent reading today from Moby Dick. Melville is a master of the ordeal; not just the physical struggle, like the details of men landing a whale from a small boat, but the mental and spiritual struggles of ordinary men in constant close proximity to death. He has a way of describing a person at his lowest that sounds as though it comes from a personal place of darkness, a place of experience. Our hero, call him Ishmael, right in the first paragraph of the first chapter, describes a feeling that every one of us has felt at some point:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
“Going to sea” and “stopping before coffin warehouses” may be metaphorical for most of us, but we understand a damp, drizzly November in the soul just fine, not to mention an occasional urge to knock someone’s hat off. As Melville said, “All men live enveloped in whale lines.” And this is what I’d like to talk about today; not how larger-than-life heroes battle dragons and beasts, but rather, the skirmishes that take place in dark corners of our minds, the fights against fears and failures, the struggle with our own spirit, the wrestling with our will, and the losses that gnaw at our hearts. These things can just as easily drag us down into the pit, or toss us into the abyss, as any fierce beast.
So, sometimes we’re pushed into the pit by things beyond our control, like the death of a loved one, or a tree falls through the roof, or a car runs a red light. It’s that really crappy hand tossed at us by that dealer who smiles all the time. I think maybe the bigger, life changing things events and accidents of life are a little easier to cope with, if only because you can name it. “I’m in a funk because my house was foreclosed on and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” You can focus your efforts in overcoming one beast and usually find a decent support group to help when a tragedy strikes, throwing you a line when you need one.
The more insidious beast is the one that’s fashioned from a lot of smaller things that are harder to be specific about. This is where we get phrases like “the last straw,” you know, the one that breaks the camel’s back. A thousand little things are just as heavy as one big thing, but they’re much harder to keep aloft, aren’t they? And then, critical mass is reached, and you can’t hold even one more thing, and when it gets tossed on the pile anyhow, the whole thing comes crashing down. And now you’re in the pit, and you can’t point at anyone one thing and say, “that’s it, that’s the thing I need to deal with so I can pick up all these pieces and get back in the game.” No, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s like a blank puzzle with no border pieces, and you don’t even know where to begin, how to start to put it all back together.
We’ve all been there, church. Sometimes you’re in it for a day, and sometimes its years, but we’ve all been there, at the end of our rope, tight in that halter that Melville talks about. So, when it’s all tumbled down around your feet, how do you cope?
I used to read the classics, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, Celtic Wondertales, Greek Mythology, and Rudyard Kipling stories to my boys when they were young, and some of the stories were very scary, and rather grim. I read them anyhow, because I loved those stories when I was growing up and wanted to share them. Since the time when my kids were young, a lot of parents have looked at those stories and thought they were unnecessarily violent and brutal. Kids shouldn’t have to think about wolves with long teeth who want to eat them, right? We need to shield them from such awful things! We surely want to give them a happy childhood, but I don’t think we do them any favors by fitting them with blinders early on. Maybe those old stories are meant to be told to our children to help them cope when the wolves inevitably come to blow their house down, and real life comes rushing in.
Because, as much as we need hope, it isn’t enough when we’re in the pit. If hope is a thing with feathers, to cope is a thing with scales and claws. It’s like the weight we feel when we’re in the pit makes us too heavy for mere feathers to fly us out. No, we must scrape and scratch and scrabble our way out.
This is where we develop the skills to cope…there’s a reason they call coping a skill. It’s because we have to learn and develop healthy ways to do it. We often experiment with all manner of unhealthy coping mechanisms before we begin to develop real skill. The classics, of course…excessive smoking, eating, drinking, drugs, sex, and all manner of new-fangled mechanisms like binge-watching Netflix (guilty), playing hours of video games, and living within a bubble of social media.
These are all fine ways to numb the pain, to turn your mind from the chaos, to make the ordeal of living bearable. But if life is just bearable, guess what? You’re still in the pit. So, what skills can we develop to win the battle with ourselves and claw our way out when we’ve fallen in? It will be different for everyone, but one thing that helps across the board is going back to part one of the Hero’s Journey, and decide to leave the same old place. Just picking your head up off the pillow can be hard, but then you can count putting your feet on the floor as a first step. Hoping helps, but it’s essentially passive. Coping is active. Get out of your comfort zone, do something to distract yourself, like you have to do with a kid who needs stitches. Here’s my favorite coping technique: I call it “Shut up and walk.” Leave your phone in the car, and go. Anywhere. Meditation helps for some people. But I think the healthiest way to cope is to do it in a group. When you’re alone in the pit, with a thousand small problems, support won’t always come to you. You have to actively gather your allies. And I’ll tell you right now you probably have many more allies than you think, just by being in this room on a regular basis. The important thing is to poke your head out of the pit and look around, stretch out a hand and see how many hands reach back. Remaining alone in the abyss, eyes to the floor, unmoving, is untenable.
Facing an ordeal is, by nature, difficult. In the abyss, in the belly of the whale, is where we battle our own demons. Think about Perseus and the mirror…in the mirror lies the monster, and one of the most difficult things any of us can undertake is honest self-reflection. The monster is fashioned from all of our fear, hurt, shame, grief; all the deep emotions that pin us down in the pit. And the mirror is foggy to our own eyes, not a true reflection. We don’t see clearly what our faults are, nor do we see clearly what our strengths are. This is why we need others: to help us recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and give us a hand up. The ordeal is all around us, all the time; we live enveloped in whale-lines. And the Hero’s Journey keeps whispering the same thing in our ear along the way, even in the darkest places: This is our story. We all experience these challenges and ordeals, and if we fight, find good ways to cope, the dragon will be slain, the beast conquered. For now. The story does continue, after all. And remember…rock bottom is the firmest foundation on which to build.