It is only occasionally that I will do a two-parter on a person (the 20-parter and counting that I have done on my own mentor, Lynn, is the obvious and growing exception ).
But I am just so struck by the legacy of Joe Campbell, which I just “happened across” (I use that term less and less as my age creeps upward) thanks to the kindness of a friend.
For years I have struggled, looking for “it”.
What is “it”, you might ask? And would be totally justified in doing so, too.
To be honest, I am still not sure. But I know what it is not – and according to the writings of one late, great Joseph Campbell, courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation website, I am not alone in that.
“Joe”, as his family, friends and colleagues commonly referred to him, entered the workforce in 1929, when the Great Depression was running the country and there was no work to be found. In Part One of this two-part post, I mentioned how Joe famously remarked about his years of unemployment, “That was a great time for me.”
When I first read that quote, I thought, “huh?”
But then I realized that I got it. I got the spirit of what mature Joe was saying through his writings about the experiences of a much younger Joe – and what those experiences had taught him about life, love, patience, self-esteem, the value of hard work, inner growth, and most of all the much-discussed but seldom-solved “meaning of life”.
As I continued to read more of Joe’s words beyond the passage my friend sent me, I discovered that he, not unlike myself at his age, undertook a road trip (mine was a transatlantic trip) to attempt to discover his purpose in life.
What he discovered was quite unexpected. He discovered that “it” – the meaning of life, his purpose in life, whatever it was that he was actually looking for in life (as opposed to what others told him to look for or what he thought he “should” be looking for) – wasn’t in any of the places he looked for it.
It just wasn’t there.
I begin to think that I have a genius for working like an ox over totally irrelevant subjects. … I am filled with an excruciating sense of never having gotten anywhere—but when I sit down and try to discover where it is I want to get, I’m at a loss. … The thought of growing into a professor gives me the creeps. A lifetime to be spent trying to kid myself and my pupils into believing that the thing that we are looking for is in books! I don’t know where it is—but I feel just now pretty sure that it isn’t in books. — It isn’t in travel. — It isn’t in California. — It isn’t in New York. … Where is it? And what is it, after all? [emphasis added]
The closest he ever got to answer that question, from what his writings indicate, is quite in kind with some of the great words from similar explorations conducted by other immense humanitarians (Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King come to mind):
If I want to justify my existence, and continue to be obsessed with the notion that I’ve got to do something for humanity — well, teaching ought to quell that obsession — and if I can ever get around to an intelligent view of matters, intelligent criticism of contemporary values ought to be useful to the world. This gets back again to Krishna’s dictum: The best way to help mankind is through the perfection of yourself. [emphasis added]
Reading these words, in a similar way to how I felt when I read the story of Mark Bittner, the author of one of my favorite books, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”. Mark, too, spent years and years looking and looking and eventually discovered that the finding was both much simpler than he had previously suspected and also much closer to home.
Today’s Takeaway: What are you looking for? Why do you go through the things you go through? Why do you try to avoid or invite them (if applicable)? What is “it” – where is “it” – for you? These are the questions that even the greatest thinkers and humanitarians amongst us may spend their lifetimes pondering, only to arrive at an answer that applies only to them and to no one else. Interesting. And well worth pondering.
p.s. Thanks once again to the work of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, an organization that ensure that the work and words of one of our greatest teachers and literary contributors is preserved and promoted even today.
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Last reviewed: 9 Sep 2012