Chapter 13 in the series Myths and Dragons
“Thou art That”
He got a bit of criticism for it. His intention was not to give an open invitation to a life of pleasure. Joe was a warm and smiling and respectful man, but he sure wasn’t a hedonist. If anything, his message was almost the complete opposite. But he did understand how he could be misunderstood, and so offered to edit the phrase.
“Follow your blisters.”
The work that will require your entire heart and soul and mind is the work that will give you both blisters and bliss. But, he didn’t change that first word, “follow”. Brilliant. It’s the most important part of the advice. Bliss or blisters are consequences and not always in our control. Where we end up isn’t always in our hands. But it’s the action, our own behavior and attitude, we need to get right.
I don’t think Joe meant “follow” as in “be led blindly”. And he didn’t live in a time of social media, so I don’t think he meant it as “click a button and passively get updates about other people’s lives”. Blisters and blisses aren’t things to collect or enumerate. Please don’t just casually know of them. Earn them.
“Follow”, for me at least, means “let it be master and guide”. Don’t tell your blisters or blisses how it’s all going to be. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are in charge, not you. But the word also means “copy”, or “apply it to your situation.” Your blisters and blisses make up a map with directions. How do you get somewhere or build something or achieve any goal? Well, follow the directions!
Joseph Campbell is also known for another quick quote of wisdom:“Thou art that.”
I don’t think Joe had to edit this one. This simple quote is a great start to understanding the power of story. In story, the world is not a place of things. We don’t read a story for what’s real. We don’t go to a play just to get an understanding of the props. Stories are worlds of actions and consequences. Story gives us characters that are caught in circumstances that make them act, and then those characters have to deal with the consequences.
What are we supposed to do when we don’t know what to do? What happens when we are confronted with a problem that forces us to do something? How do we deal with new information that could change how we see the world? How should we change how other people see the world?
These are the kinds of questions stories try to help answer, so that when we do find ourselves in these situations, we have a guide or a teacher, or at least some directions. That is what Joe was talking about. It might just be a story you’re reading, but it might just be about you. And if a situation comes up when you don’t know what to do, you just might be able to navigate your way through it because you thought about how things played out in a story, or you saw someone else in a similar situation.
Messiah – a “Thou” or a “That”?
How are you supposed to read a Messiah story? What does it mean if some hero comes dashing in to save the day? Messiah stories create a tricky problem of attitude – should we “wait for a Messiah” or should you “trust in someone else to save you?”
If you do, you’re not following your bliss. If anything, you’re telling your bliss to come and get you. But also, in Joe’s words, you are not putting yourself in the story. “Thou” sure ain’t participating in “that”.
For example, I don’t think the Jesus of the Bible ever waited for his God to do something. Jesus just went and did it. And dealt with the consequences. A lot of heroes in stories do just that.
Sure, we all need help from time to time. But we have to live our own lives, take on our own responsibilities and participate in our own stories.
For me, one of the most meaningful parts of the Jesus story is that he died while trying to bring a little change in how people lived their lives. It’s kind of good to keep in mind. Your bliss and your blisters can kill you in the end. But maybe it will be worth it because maybe someone will get the message. It’s unfortunate that you might be the one that ends up suffering with blisters, or even something more serious like death, but suffering and death have always been the price to pay for life. How meaningful that life is depends on how you act.
In the larger story of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus didn’t say to each other, “This is great! The Messiah has come and saved us. We can now wait for God to make things right.” If anything, it was the complete opposite. It was more like, “Wow, we have a lot of hard work to do if we’re going to change how people treat one another. We better get to it.” And most of them found deaths that were as bad as any crucifixion. Some even worse.
Blisters and bliss.
Would they have taken up those blisters without the promise or reward of some heaven, some paradise where what should be and what is align perfectly? I don’t know. But would they have taken up such lives and deaths if they didn’t believe they could change what is into what should be? These men, according to their stories, believed what should be was more important than life itself, and definitely more important than what was real. I think their efforts would be more meaningful if they weren’t up there in heaven, as the saying goes.
There’s a funny thing going on in some Christianities. Some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of an eternal Hell that they have deconstructed it to mean something other than perpetual fire, pain or punishment. (Examples here and here.) Some have even abandoned the concept altogether. I think this is a half-step in the right direction.
Was Jesus a Messiah? In the Biblical story, well… maybe. But was he really the Messiah?That’s a tricky question, and I don’t think that’s the point, really. That leads down a road where we could end up talking about something we cannot really know.
The story that Jesus left behind is an incredible example of actions, consequences and expectations. He really didn’t fit the expectations. If anything, it seems he was trying to change the expected order of things in his day. And that’s what the last stages of the Hero’s Journey are all about. The writers of the Jesus stories seemed to understand Joe’s words of “Thou art that.” Maybe if you want to change your life or the lives of those around you, you better start working on something more important than simply what is. And when you find something more important than yourself, and give it your blisters and your bliss, you become something more than yourself. And you can even transcend the suffering of existence by trying to change a part of the world from what is to what should be. But there are always consequences.
If you believe what should be is more important than what is, and you willingly to dedicate your life and your death to it, doesn’t the idea of heaven rob this noble effort of its meaning? Heaven and Hell might act as good exaggerations or analogies in stories, meaningful comparisons to inspire good actions, but to treat them as specific and certain ends is placing too many expectations on poetic and inspirational storytelling. The phrase is “Thou art that!” and not “Thou shalt be rewarded in the end.”
Maybe we shouldn’t get so hung up on beliefs and expectations, and instead get our stories straight. Maybe then we might be able to see how important other people are in our story, and our role to play in theirs. Maybe we even need a new story to tell us these things.
Maybe what a Messiah story should tell some people is this: if you wait for a Messiah, you might just end up killing him or her when they happen to come along. And then how well off are you?
Christians worried about the integrity of their story have a simple and modest alternative available. Instead of saying, “Jesus is my savior and grants me eternal life”, another meaningful thing to say would be, “Jesus is my model for behavior in this life.” This would restore the original function of story and save anyone from making claims about things they cannot know for sure.
Life is not about being saved. There is a choice when it comes to attitude. Embrace and participate in your own suffering, be thankful for any help offered to you, change what is to what should be, and most importantly, follow your blisters.
Now wouldn’t that make a good story?
What do you think?