Three Life Lessons From Joseph Campbell

On a moonlit drive to Ohio, that famous question was put to me:

If you could invite one person, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would it be?

After a moment of staring out into cornfields, I responded.

“Joseph Campbell.”

The driver nodded her head. “That’s a good one,” she said.

“Who’s Joseph Campbell?” another passenger asked.

Campbell was many things — a writer, a mythologist, a teacher, an academic — but to me he was the introduction to the idea of discovering a philosophy to live by. Campbell is commonly known as “the father of modern mythology” and his work represents my first exploration of how mythology could and should impact modern life.

I was first introduced to The Power of Myth, his interview with Bill Moyers, at 15, and revisited it for the rest of my teenage years.

There are some experiences you look back on for the rest of your life and point to as pivotal moments in the process of becoming who you are. Reading The Power of Myth was one of these moments for me.

And The Power of Myth isn’t even really a book — it’s the transcript of an interview. It’s not some labored over text, it’s just a conversation.

That’s how good Campbell is.

Really, I took something away from every page of that book. But here are the three biggest themes that I saw throughout the book that impacted my life. Maybe you’ll take something away from them, too.

Perspective Matters

“In other traditions, good and evil are relative to the position in which you are standing. What is good for one is evil for another. And you play your part, not withdrawing from the world when you realize how horrible it is; but seeing that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder.” — Joseph Campbell

I grew up in a very religious household, which made “right” and “wrong” pretty easy to determine. I think that it’s useful to align your moral compass with a text (like the Bible) or a doctrine (the Catholic Church), especially when you are young and trying to learn how the world works.

But the fact is that the world is more complicated than that. At a certain point, you need to trust your own feelings and perspective and do what is right for you.

And you especially need to realize that this is what the people you encounter in life are doing.

Now I’m not saying that every decision has moral merit. There are some universal truths that I think most people can agree on and live by — and it is these universal understandings of the world that allow us to co-habitate with other people.

But people make their own choices based on their own perspectives, and we can’t reduce those choices to being “wrong” just because they aren’t the choices that we would make.

It’s easy to judge. It’s easy to get angry. It’s harder to try to understand.

But it is in understanding that we connect to other people, that we learn and grow and enrich our lives.

Life Is Supposed To Be Sorrowful

“Life is, in it’s very essence and character, a terrible mystery — this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been.” — Campbell

When I was a little kid, sometimes I would lay in bed at night and pray to God. I would pray to feel all of the pain of my life in that one instant, and I would wait in the dark, bracing myself for that moment of horror.

I wanted to get it over with.

But of course, these are the thoughts of a child. The world doesn’t work this way.

Life is painful, and it is sorrowful, but that is how it is supposed to be. And in the pain, we see the world anew, we learn about ourselves, and we grow. As Campbell says, “this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder.”

It’s hard to be so rational when you are actually in pain, when you’ve lost someone or you face your mortality or you question your purpose in life.

Living means change and change means loss.

But strength comes from embracing this loss and moving forward.

‘All life is sorrowful’ is the first buddhist saying, and so it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow — loss, loss, loss. You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way, for this is surely the way God intended it.” — Campbell

Follow Your Bliss

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” — Campbell

At 15, when I first read The Power of Myth, I didn’t know what my path was in life. I didn’t know what college I wanted to go to, where I wanted to live, or what career I wanted to make for myself.

Ten years later and I still haven’t figured much out! But I do know this:

If I want to feel truly alive, I have to follow my bliss.

“The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call ‘following your bliss.’” — Campbell

For the past ten years, I’ve trained myself to reflect on my experiences and determine at what moments I feel deeply happy.

As soon as I find something or someone that makes me deeply happy, I hold onto it, despite time, distance, money, or any other obstacle.

When I tore my meniscus in 2011, I had surgery and did the rehab so that I could get back to ultimate frisbee as soon as possible.

When choosing a graduate program, I used the opportunity to move to Chicago and explore a city that I loved.

When I graduated from school, I continued to read and write so that I could learn on my own.

Campbell taught me to use my time wisely in order to maximize my happiness.

Understanding yourself and your purpose is such a vast and difficult thing to do.

But it’s exciting to know that each day, you can learn a little more. Each day, you have the opportunity to wake up and read a book or see a movie or have a conversation that will change the way that you see the world.

I’m grateful for what I’ve learned so far, and excited to see what’s around the corner!



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Jen Sanfilippo

Jen Sanfilippo

Writing about the ideas I get stuck on 📝