The Hero's Journey Part 6:
The Third Initiation:
The Time of the Wounded Healer
"That’s what we storytellers do.
We restore order with imagination.
We instill hope
again and again and again."
Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks
If the First Initiation is about developing capacity, and the Second Initiation is about setting a moral compass, then the Third Initiation is about creating legacy. Although it is often called the Initiation into the Tribe of Elders, this language is always coupled with the understanding that we do not earn the designation of Elder simply by growing older. Instead, becoming an Elder requires the willingness and ability to practice particular skills that, with tricksterish joy and deep compassion, honor the unique gifts of genius in everyone. Now the Hero, guided by the archetype of the Wounded Healer, must figure out how to play a role in the world of ordinary reality that will honor the hard work he or she has done in the Underworld.
"What makes an elder, a heartfelt spirit,
a clear mind, a talented heart,
one who is young while old and old while young,
an activist for the Soul? . . . "
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
from How to Be an Elder
By definition, elders are the only ones with the training and experience needed to play the role of Wounded Healer. From our knowledge of the Hero's Journey, we can see that this task involves at least four duties: (1) Intercepting warrior heroes and wounded warriors, hopefully before they have slipped too far along the Path of Undoing, (2) "Tricking" wounded warriors into attending properly to Second Initiation tasks, (3) Encouraging wounded warriors to cross the threshold into the Third Initiation, and (4) Collaborating in the creation and protection of a legacy of value. InThe Second Adventure of Life: Reinventing Mentors and Elders, mythologist Michael Meade helps us understand what's at stake in this work. As he says:
"Vision usually reenters the community at the two ends of adult life:
with the culture's oldest and the culture's youngest adults.
When the conversation between these ends breaks down,
then the legacy of the life of the elder is not delivered into the culture and the young person is not encouraged to live long enough to make a similar gift.
In the process, both are rejected at a deeper level than contemporary culture even thinks about. So, it's a very serious conversation and a very serious loss when the conversation doesn't happen." (Adapted)
Michael's words take on urgency when we realize that, perhaps inevitably in a culture such as ours that has for so long idolized youth and the individualistic Hero, role models for conscious eldering and effective mentoring can be hard to find. What does the right kind of trouble look like at this stage? Frustratingly, the task can feel a lot like the blind leading the blind, and this deficit signals dire consequences for our children, our families, our seniors, our relationships, our communities, our cities, our nations, our planet. So how do we learn to be elders? Listen to William Stafford, a poet of partial Native American heritage:
"Out in the mountains no one gives you anything
And you learn what the rules were after the game is over.
By then, it's already night and it doesn't make any difference what anyone else is thinking or doing
For you have to turn into an Indian.
Then you remember stories,
and you know that the tellers were part of all they said
And everyone is part of it, even you.
And they are all around you.
But if you are too afraid, you will never find them."
from What Happens When You Get Lost
"Then you remember stories . . ." So, if we know how to see it and if we are courageous enough to look, instruction on how to be an elder is to be had - in old stories, but also in new ones. For example, take a look at this 15-minute TedTalk:
In this short slice-of-life story, we meet Dr. Peter Attia, surgeon, researcher, and former ultra-endurance athlete. We also see evidence of all three initiations. The first initiation is implied by the fact that he is an accomplished surgeon. While practicing his trade as a good, competent, and physically fit doctor, he encounters a patient whose condition triggers his underlying hubris (awakening Second Initiation). As he describes it, as soon as he saw that she was "fat," he was flooded with feelings of "bitter contempt," believing that she had caused her own illness (First Initiation ego). Three years later, he faces a personal crisis (deepening Second initiation) that calls his medical knowledge into question along with the basis for his contempt. Taken aback, he thinks of this patient. He recalls that although he gave her the best care he could (First Initiation ability), he is humbled (Second Initiation insight) by the thought that his attitude was abusive. In telling his story, he is offering instruction on how to make the transition to morally responsible action (Third Initiation). In so doing, he identifies important parts of a legacy of value: the ability to perceive when you are wrong, the willingness to admit it, and the humility to ask for forgiveness. Finally, the emotional tone of his delivery demonstrates how difficult it can be to break the trance that could have held him in silence and denial. By succeeding, Dr. Attia returns to the world with the gift that is uniquely his to give. He tells his story and demonstrates the power of the elder.
"Tomorrow there'll be more of us. Miranda. American."
A Wrinkle In Time
All of a sudden, it seems, the world tingles with Third Initiation expectation. The Bridging the Gulf program on the hero's journey can be used to launch on-going and collaborative processes of education, sharing, and community to support this work. As more of us find our way to communities of others skilled in the work of defining and protecting legacies of value, the impact of the elder grows exponentially. Please join us.
"The service we render to others is really
the rent we pay for our room on this earth.
It is obvious that man is himself a traveler;
that the purpose of the world is not
'to have and to hold'
but 'to give and to serve.'"
SIr Wilfred T. Grenfell
Medical Missionary to Newfoundland and Labrador