I recently began delving into the works of Joseph Campbell (1904-87), whose writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a singular authority on the human experience. Campbell first appeared on the radar screens of many people via a PBS series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers — “The Power of Myth” — that first aired in 1988.
Campbell’s intellectual depth and breadth were remarkable. His work mixed academic disciplines, especially literature, theology, history, anthropology, and psychology, in examining the stories and myths that create surprising commonalities among our different cultures. Even though he was a professor for many years at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, he connected the dots in ways that few people residing in the silos of academe ever manage.
Campbell’s most famous advice, repeated on many occasions, was follow your bliss. He suggested that following our bliss will lead us to the life paths that have been awaiting us. When we reach this point, opportunities and connections seem to materialize. In the PBS series, Campbell replies to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we’ve found our path:
All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. . . .
As an educator, Campbell’s advice is music to my ears. Throughout my career as a law professor and lawyer, I’ve encouraged law students to discover and pursue their passions. After all, the most satisfied lawyers are those whose work engages them, and I want my students to discover their true vocations.
And yet, I realize that follow your bliss can disintegrate easily into the most banal forms of encouragement. Joseph Campbell was not a superficial person, but his signature line is tailor made for every soon-to-be-forgotten commencement speech, from junior high to graduate school.
Furthermore, let’s acknowledge that many of us who might encourage others to follow their bliss are among those for whom that philosophy has more or less worked. In the meantime, there are other folks who have tried to follow Campbell’s advice and encountered frustration and disappointment, despite their best efforts.
Indeed, one of the myths generated by an ever-growing pile of self-help books and seminars is that if you just work hard enough at it, you can realize all your dreams. Campbell easily can be misread to suggest that. And nowadays, with the success of books such as The Secret, that message has devolved to suggest that if you simply wish for something to come true, it will.
Finally, remember what psychologist Abraham Maslow said about how basic survival needs must be met before we’re able to strive toward reaching our full human potential? Let’s understand that for those who are struggling mightily just to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads, these higher level aspirations may appear as far away as the moon.
Nevertheless, following one’s bliss remains a worthy objective and philosophy, whether for a young person just graduating from high school, an adult recovering from a personal setback, or a retiree who feels there is some unfinished good business before her. This is what fills our lives with hope, zest, and maybe even joy, right?
And if the idea of discovering and following one’s path in life resonates with you, perhaps you’ll benefit by taking a deeper look at Campbell’s work.
But be advised that you have to be open to this stuff, and on this point I speak from personal experience. Ten years ago I would’ve unfairly dismissed Campbell’s observations about mythology, legends, and stories as a lot of babble, but today I welcome his worldly insights. I’m especially appreciative that he brings these insights to the level of helping us understand our places on this planet. This is no small gift for anyone who is trying to create a more meaningful life.
To learn more
“The Power of Myth” PBS series, featuring Joseph Campbell being interviewed by Bill Moyers, is probably the best introduction to Campbell and his work.
Hat tip to career coach and consultant Terry Del Percio for urging me, during the course of a Facebook exchange, to finally break open and watch “The Power of Myth” DVDs that I had purchased months ago.