Over many years from childhood through our formative teenage years and into the adult realm, we often come to believe distorted and untrue stories we tell about ourselves and the stories that others tell about us. Consequently, we can start to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our values and who we really are. This can lead to us becoming disconnected from the meaning of our lives and our core purpose. The eventual outcome is a deep sense of isolation from the world and the people we share it with.

The reason I became a therapist is to help people reconnect with their true values and what matters to them in their lives. The journey of life has infinite potential, but to discover these possibilities, we must live in a way that is creative and meaningful. People usually come to therapy when they have become isolated from the meaning of their lives.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested there are three available paths in life:

The Village Life

This is where we play out the routines of the ego…It is also what is frequently defined as the ‘normal’ path, which requires us to live within the roles and conditions imposed by mainstream society. The ‘ideal’ or ‘normal’ story frequently goes along the linear line, starting with a happy childhood and family, then progressing toward excellent grades at school and university; successful job and career; happy marriage and family of our own; great houses, lots of money, travel, retire then die. For some, this path may work, but rarely without obstacles. However, for most of us, myself included, we choose to leave the village.

Sometimes we may have no choice. We are excluded from the village by having the wrong skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack of money. We can also be pushed out by trauma, or we can choose to leave because we are no longer comfortable with what the village offers and the lack of meaning it brings to our lives.

Campbell suggests there are two other possibilities:

The Wasteland

This is the shadowland of the village that T.S. Elliott described as the wasteland. This is not a happy place and the people who live in the wasteland often inhabit a dark space of apathy, cynicism and depression. It could also involve the toxic world of addictions and substance misuse, violence and despair.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the wasteland as children and then find a way out. We can also find ourselves in the wasteland when a significant relationship is in crisis or comes to an end, or when a loved one dies and we are left alone with the grief.

When people seek help in therapy, they generally have at least one foot in the wasteland, or… they could also be up to their chest and sinking fast.  The story about therapy they have told themselves and that others have told them, is that it is intended to help them get back to the village, so they can become ‘normal’ again. Sometimes that is a possible and desirable outcome, but I believe that therapy should also be about exploring what led to the ‘village exile’ and to listen to what our mind and bodies are telling us. Fortunately, we do not have to accept the story about therapy we have been told, and we do not have to accept that the only outcome is a return to the village. There is another way forward.

The Journey

The ego world of the village and the darkness of the wasteland are opposite extremes in total conflict with each other. The journey offers us a way to re-author our story of where we have been, how we got to this place and where we want to go next and beyond. The Journey rejects the extremes. We are no longer compelled to follow the path of blind conformity, nor do we need to totally reject the village and seek to hide in the darkness. Our unique journey is a great mystery that unfolds as we re-write the script of our lives and discover new awareness and possibilities.

Campbell describes this as ‘the call’, when something is awakened within us. It can happen in childhood or when we are inspired by creativity in literature, art or music. It can happen when science or the natural world absorbs us. It can also happen when we share a deep connection with another person, such as a romantic partner or a child.

Some of us hear this call and quickly respond by re-writing the scripts of our lives as we discover our purpose and mission. Others hear the call and reject it to pursue the expectations of others and conform to village life. That was my own story. I knew my path when I was 11 years old and even articulated it in great detail. When adults would ask me what I wanted ‘to be’, I would always answer ‘psychiatrist’. However, I rejected my call and was lured by the illusion of  ‘success’.

For many of us, there is a wake-up call, which often comes at the middle of life’s road when we are in our 40’s. For some, it happens much earlier and for others, like myself, much later. However, eventually ‘the body keeps the score’. The wake-up call usually comes in the form of health problems; relationship break-ups, addiction, depression, anxiety and all the other reasons people seek help from a therapist.

I encourage everyone I work with to separate from the problems that have been preventing them from living the life they want. I help them to explore the stories of their lives, embracing the strengths and resources that contradict the problem story and helping them to ‘re-author’ a new story, celebrating the heroine or hero and discovering a new journey of transformation

Peter H. Fowler