Heroic journeys

The view from Mt. Tam this past weekend

The view from Mt. Tam this past weekend

Part of me expects life to feel good all of the time, and so part of me is always disappointed when it doesn’t. There’s hope: I tell myself a steady-state life doesn’t make for a very good story. But it can still be hard to see the shape of a story I’m in.

What’s helped is learning about the hero’s journey—and, later, the heroine’s journey. The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure; moves on to departure, struggle, and triumph; ends with a homecoming. When I’m in a struggle, I’ll sometimes (but not always) remember to Google “hero’s journey” and try to understand where I‘m at and why it’s hard. These patterns help me find the shape of the story I’m in.

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Upside of Stress that opened my mind. I just went back to my Kindle highlights to find a passage worth sharing, and found 50 highlights! That’s a lot, even for me. These parts jumped out:

Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.

High levels of stress are associated with both distress and well-being. Importantly, happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness. Even though most people view stress as harmful, higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health, and satisfaction with our lives.

People who said they were under a lot of stress right now also rated their lives as more meaningful. Even time spent worrying about the future was associated with meaning, as was time spent reflecting on past struggles and challenges. As the researchers conclude, “People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”

For me, what turns stress into meaning is realizing that something I care about is at stake, and imagining that one day I’ll share the story of the dragons I’ve slayed and everything I’ve learned along the way. If it feels like I’m in a cave or a pit and there’s no hope, well: that’s just the part of the story where you lose hope in order to make what’s at stake more vivid.

I don’t always remember to look for the story I’m in, but when I do, it always helps. I’m writing this to share some hope with you and to etch the idea more deeply in my mind, so that maybe it comes to me sooner next time.

Diana BerlinReading