an empire of her own: the heroine’s journey ( + a woman’s quest for her own thing)
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them. — Oliver Wendell Holmes
I’m at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon, an annual conference for creatives, the brainchild of Chris Guillebeau.
I got up this morning to a newsletter from Chris Brogan about building online empires.
Dominating the world.
Both Chris and Chris are using these terms in a playful way. Still, what would the world look like, I wonder, what kind of world could we make, if girls grew up talking with this level of confidence and ambition? Shoot for the moon, you might catch the stars. Girls and women achieve, no question, but we have this habit of doing it in a good-girl kind of way: we try to be perfect instead of truly great.
We talk about leaning in, about sitting at the table, about finding that mythical work/life balance. We talk about fitting ourselves into a masculine model of success that wasn’t built for the rhythms of motherhood (or parenthood in general, although you don’t see quite so many articles about men downscaling their goals and aspirations). We talk about staying in the game. We don’t talk about triumph or greatness and what that might look like for women, not just as professionals but creatives and artists and educators and healers and rising young entrepreneurs.
We don’t talk about how we could manage to “have it all” over the course of a life — if we stop buying into this apparent belief that life ends at 40 or 50 or when the kids go off to college. As if there aren’t a lot of years left over. As if a woman doesn’t yearn to create her own thing, whatever that might be, whatever money she might earn from it.
Meanwhile the culture feeds us stories about female politicos and CEOs as unnatural castrating he-women; about brilliant but loveless female artists who become obsessed with the men who won’t have them (because they go home to traditional wives) and throw themselves off bridges or stick their heads in ovens or wander aimlessly in the rain until they’re carted off to insane asylums; about female entrepreneurs as mompreneurs (where are the dadpreneurs?)
Stories like these – that get inside our heads, under our skin, and into our subconscious the way only stories can do – not only play down the power of women, they teach women to play down their lives.
I was telling a woman about my last blog post, how pleased I was when Rosario Dawson retweeted it as a “call to greatness”.
“Radiance?” the woman said.
“No,” I said. “Greatness.”
— Rosario Dawson (@rosariodawson) July 6, 2013
“I thought you said call to radiance. I like that much better.”
I like that phrase too – call to radiance – there’s a touch of the poetic about it.
“Because greatness is –“ The woman grimaced. “But with radiance you just –“ And she made a gesture as if light beams were shining from her head.
“Greatness is a bit of a male word,” I said, as if in agreement, but then I thought: Why? Because it implies ambition, and ambition is nasty and distasteful and so very unladylike?
When you radiate, you just are. You can, as they say, “be yourself.” Even if a lot of work goes into that, it can seem natural and effortless, as if you fell out of bed and rose up beaming.
Greatness requires action, sacrifice, dogged perseverance, focus and selfishness: you can’t become great at anything when you’re doing everything for everybody else. When you go after greatness, you do it openly; people see you investing all that effort in your own apparent agenda and for your own apparent interests. Which is why we’re maybe not so comfortable applying the concept to ourselves instead of the men in our lives (or we want in our lives).
Except then we get frustrated and restless with our own perceived smallness. We talk about the need to play a bigger game. We buy books and courses that promise to show us how to do that.
How can we play a bigger game if we don’t have the words for what that bigger game is or could be?
There is so much conversation about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, built into the culture like a road for people to follow. Recently I learned that there is a heroine’s journey as well: Campbell, probably because he’s not a woman, wasn’t interested in exploring it. Instead of questing for her own self-actualization, a woman was, to Campbell, the goal or prize for the hero: his damsel in distress, his arrival point (or fatal temptation).
The heroine’s journey – which you see in what one blogger refers to as girl underground stories — involves sacrifice, descent, the confrontation with darkness that ends in death and rebirth. No rainbows or unicorns or Disney songs here. There is, instead, an encounter with the Dark Goddess, so the heroine can absorb her knowledge and power and return, fully integrated, to the everyday world.
It’s an initiation into a wiser state of being, and it doesn’t happen once but many times within a heroine’s lifetime.
When you feel lost or depressed — when the ground shifts beneath your feet — when you pull down into the depths of yourself to face the demons there, you are the heroine gone underground. It might take days or weeks or months or years but eventually you rise, stronger for the broken places.
(Just as women can be heroes, men can be heroines. Both genders embark on both types of journeys.)
The original heroine was the goddess Inanna. She didn’t descend underground because she wanted to radiate — she radiated as a matter of course. She went to claim a throne. She was after greatness — and she got it. She wasn’t perfect. No one who knew her would describe her as a good girl. She was sex and love and beauty – over time and a few civilizations and conquests, she evolved into the goddess Aphrodite – but she was also learning, knowledge, achievement, power.
She’s a mythical figure, an archetype, deeply patterned into our collective unconscious. And when someone like that lives somewhere in your head, don’t you think you’re going to hear — every now and then — your own call to greatness, to self-actualization? As the heroine’s journey differs from the hero’s, a woman’s life has its own movements and rhythms, and this applies to achievement as much as anything else. Just because we might not have accomplished our dreams by 30 or 40 – or lost our way for a bit, or stayed home with the kids, or gone underground – doesn’t mean that meaningful accomplishment is no longer possible. Our dreams have a way of evolving as we do.
We like to say – and I believe – that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. It’s not the goal but the person you become en route to the goal; it’s how the goal forces you to change and stretch and grow.
An epic goal makes for an epic journey; an epic journey makes for an epic life.
So many of us want that.
That’s why we come, men and women both, to conferences with audacious names like the World Domination Summit. We are looking for something in our lives, and ourselves, that’s mythic. That glimmer you see in the distance? That’s your personal greatness, calling you onward, alight with a radiance of its own.