Shadows, Monomyths, and One Teacher’s Influence

Learning How to Think

Teaching is more than imparting knowledge; it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts; it is acquiring understanding.

William Arthur Ward

During my second semester of college, I took Honors English with Professor Baliani. He was warm and enthusiastic, and he helped me adjust the lens through which I saw the world. Over the course of the semester, my magnifying glass was transformed into a kaleidoscope. Building upon the encouragement of my high school AP duel-enrollment English teacher, Dr. Rockwell, I was being trained to sharpen my ability to think critically and see the world around me in new ways.

The semester was brimming over with thought-provoking content, but a few in particular stand out in my mind. We watched the 1988 PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, we read the works Carl Jung, and we dissected Plato’s allegory of the cave.

I came from a sheltered childhood, devoid of the real-world challenges that might hone one’s skills. Yet, through freshman literature, I was taught to recognize the nuance of life. I began to question the forms before me and examine my long-held beliefs. Was my understanding of the world around me based on shadows of deception or truth found through reason?

I had to know.

Recognizing the Shadows

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl Jung

Jung would have us believe that a shadow is projected by some source of light, and by recognizing and acknowledging our shadow selves we can begin to trace a path toward the light. We can set out on a path that allows us to reconnect with an immense inner potential for awareness, warmth, and wisdom. Doing so, however, involves taking a fresh view of whatever circumstance we are in, whether that involves chronic illness, childhood pain, relationship difficulties, or the loss of a job or home.

Most people choose to accept the reality presented by their senses at face value. They choose to identify as sick, wounded, unloved, and unworthy. The dark shadows cast before them are given power and then grow into daunting monsters, which become increasingly difficult to overcome.

We do have a choice, however. The alternative is to reason our way toward the true source of the shadows. The events that, at first glance, seem earth-shattering may offer an important lesson or gift–one not readily or easily recognized.

For example, with chronic illness the shadows are the debilitating symptoms experienced acutely through the senses. When seeking the light, one may discover that chemical imbalances in the body were the shadow-producing puppets obstructing the light of optimal health. When we finally make it out of the cave of ignorance, we may recognize that we are whole and worthy of living, with or without a perfectly functioning body.

Once you’ve seen the puppet master at work, the shadows are no longer frightening.

Embracing the Monomyth

That step, the heroic first step of the journey, is out of, or over the edge of your boundaries, and it often must be taken before you know that you will be supported.

Joseph Campbell

In narratology and comparative mythology, the hero’s journey is a common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed and with the power to bestow blessings on his fellow man. Prior to that English class, I had never recognized the pattern seen across books, movies, and all forms of storytelling.

We always look up to the hero. They inspire us to keep going, to try harder, and to attempt those things which feel impossible. The hero reminds that if we muster up the courage to take the first step, the path will appear before us.

The title of “hero” is not limited to Marvel characters and those who rush into burning buildings to save helpless children from the flames. Our parents, teachers, friends, and leaders may set a positive example, as well. Furthermore, you and I are allowed to claim the title of “hero” for ourselves.

A hero’s monomyth involves struggling to overcome character flaws, growing as a person, and taking an active role in their story. By recognizing our imperfections, taking decisive action, and aiming to learn and grow, each us of us has the power to be a hero in the story of our lives. The journey may vary from person-to-person, but we may all choose to follow the same character arc as we navigate the challenge we’re faced with.

Returning to the example of chronic illness, the initial symptoms may be one’s call to adventure. This may be followed by a period of denial, misdiagnoses, and declining health. Revelation arrives when the sufferer discovers a feasible solution, followed by the gift of healing. Our hero returns home with the knowledge and wisdom to help guide others through their chronic illness, if they so choose.

An Eternity of Influence

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Henry B. Adams

During that semester, I wrote a twenty-page essay intertwining the themes of shadows and light, the search for truth, and the hero’s journey. I don’t remember the details of the paper, but the process of writing it was–in and of itself–a journey for me into the unknown. It was an opportunity to explore myself and my beliefs, within the safe and comfortable context of philosophical analysis. I spent my entire spring break writing, refining, and rewriting that paper, as I was so drawn to the concepts.

The lessons taught in that first year English course did not end there. Plato, Jung, and Campbell have taken up permanent residency in my psyche and constantly poke and prod at my mind. Is this real, or is this merely a fragment of reality? Do my actions match my wishes? Which stage am I in my hero’s journey, and what action is necessary to keep moving forward?

In 2009, Dr. Baliani prompted me to alter the way that I think and because of him, my life was forever changed.

This community is filled with helpers–educators, therapist, parents, and friends. We can all be heroes and, perhaps even more importantly, we can all be teachers. We can introduce those around us to new ideas, new paradigms, and new ways of thinking. We can engage in discussions with open minds and open hearts, encouraging others to do the same. We can go out into the world, recognizing that we may be nearing the end of one of numerous simultaneous journeys, newly equipped with lessons and blessings that could change another’s life forever.

You can find more from me on my personal blog:

26 thoughts on “Shadows, Monomyths, and One Teacher’s Influence

  1. Thank you for all of this, Erin. Most of all your heartfelt regard for the teachers in your life…and the impact they had on you is inspiring and endearing. I love all things Jung and Joseph Campbell…❤…but the Henry B. Adams quote was new to me…and I love it. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Oh my, yes. And “teachers” come in all sorts of wrappers, don’t they? xo to you! 💕

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    1. Thank you, Vicki! I’m certain that you’ve had a similar impact many of your students and patients. 💕 Aren’t Jung and Campbell just wonderful! So much wisdom in their works. And yes, “teacher” show up in our lives in all forms. Big hugs to you!! ❤️❤️❤️

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      1. You’re so sweet…sometimes the best we can do is try to be a positive influence as we all journey forward…and like you, I had some superstar teachers, healers, helpers on my path. Grateful every day! xo, Erin! 💕

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The theme of the day must be choice and how we react to change. I keep seeing lots of references to that today. You are so right. I’ve found that events I thought at first glance were going to be “earth-shattering” have often provided important lessons or even dare I say it, gifts that I never expected. I’m thankful now for those lessons. Thanks so much for sharing.

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    1. How interesting that the same theme is showing up everywhere, Brian. It really is an important topic. It’s somewhat amusing to look back on the “terrible” events in our lives and recognize the lessons and gifts they offered. I’ve been through some rough patches, but I don’t think I would change anything, if given the option… which makes future obstacles seem far less daunting.

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  3. Well I just love all the stuff in this post and will not pick one over another as precedent. I too had a few teachers and probably more classes than I realize that opened the door and opened my eyes to an amazing world. Education and exploration hold a key place in my life. Thanks for this lovely reminder of what waits within reach if we just extend our hand Erin 🙂

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    1. I love how you phrase that Deb: what waits within reach if we just extend our hand. YES!! It’s so true–there is an amazing world around us, and lessons to be learned, if we just open our eyes to it. 🙂

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  4. Wow wow wow – what an amazing post, Erin. Joseph Cambell, Carl Jung, our shadow selves – so much goodness! I loved this sentence, “Once you’ve seen the puppet master at work, the shadows are no longer frightening.”

    And the hero’s journey diagram is so good. I’ve heard the middle part of the journey described by Brene Brown as the hero trying to do everything they can to complete the journey without being vulnerable, until they finally accept the path that is vulnerable and then they return.

    Inspiring, thought-provoking, amazing! Thank you, Erin!

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    1. I hadn’t heard Brene Brown’s description of the middle part of the journey before, but I LOVE that…. trying to complete the journey without being vulnerable, until vulnerability is to only path forward. WOW!! Thank you, Wynne!

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  5. What a thought provoking post, Erin. I love the parallels you drew between Jung and his concept of our shadow selves and the hero’s journey (made famous by Homer’s Odyssey) into your own journey with chronic illness.

    In reading your post, I couldn’t help but think about my son’s disability and how they relate to the shadow self and the hero’s journey too. It goes to show it’s about the attitude and perspective you face these challenges with too.

    Sounds like your professor helped broaden your mind – and the true gift of education!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Ab! I think, for each of us on our journeys, recognizing and facing the shadows or darkness is a necessary step to keep moving forward. I love hearing that you were able to tie the theme back to your son’s disability and your journey navigating that as a parent. Yes! The attitude we adopt when facing challenges has such a monumental impact on things ultimately play out.

      The gift of education is the best thing any of us can give or receive, isn’t it? Especially the education that helps us see the world in news ways. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The hero’s journey was required learning when I was getting my degree in English Lit. I, too, find myself asking myself which stage I’m in, knowing that my answer can change hourly depending on my mood. Sometimes the shadow self controls the narrative.

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  7. You have expressed in words so beautifully the content of my mind and heart. Thank you for your inquiring mind that helps me to understand the workings of my own, and for the reminder that we are the masters of our own domain. And by the way, I love the image of the the Hero’s Journey visual. What a great image of the journey what we all share, now or later, whichever the case may be! Is that an original Erin creation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks you, Julia, and I’m so pleased to hear that it spoke to you. I haven’t heard the term “masters of our own domain” in some time, but yes–that’s so important to keep at the forefront of our minds. No, drawing is not my forte, unfortunately, but isn’t it a great depiction? I found that image in the creative commons. We can thank the talented soul who shared it with us for free. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! I would recommend The Hero with a Thousand Faces–Campbell did a great interview series with Bill Moyers (my first introduction), which was then compiled into a book of the name. Either the film or book would be a great place to start!

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