Joseph Campbell, that great Jungian scholar, identified a narrative pattern called “The Hero’s Journey.” This literary configuration shows up almost universally across time and culture. Like his mentor, Carl Jung, he contended that this archetype was descriptive of one’s psychological development as well. In the classic hero’s journey, the main character must confront his or her worst fears in the midst of an ordeal. Having made it through this dark valley, the protagonist proceeds through the rest of his or her life with a newfound sense of self that includes a generous response to life and community.
I have received permission to take you on an excursion into a real life hero’s journey. These journal entries were made by my daughter Lizzie, three years ago at this time, when she navigated her way through her school’s sixth grade initiation rite: Solo Night.
As the name implies, Solo Night, involves sleeping alone, out of ear-shot, and eye-shot of anyone else. For this adventure, students are assigned an isolated location under various rock outcroppings in Shawnee National Forest (Southern Illinois). Each adventurer is provided a candle, a journal, a pen, and a snack. I invite you now to unfold your Crazy Creek chair and sit next to me as a twelve-year-old hero of mine navigates the pathways of her own transformative hero’s journey.
Entry One: “Not an Ounce of Fear”
“I’m expected to be kind. I am expected to be a leader. I’m expected to learn well with other people. I’m expected to follow in my siblings’ footsteps. But right here, right now, I am on Solo Night! With only my candlelight, a few snacks, and a sleeping bag, I am alone. I can be me, and nobody cares. I stare out into the shadows cross-legged in my sleeping bag and close my eyes. I repeat my full name over and over in my head and take deep breaths. This is how I always wanted to feel. The rain fell like beads being dropped on the floor all at once and my candle never went out. 2 frogs jumped on my Thinsolate pad, and one landed on my shoulder. This is when I felt most myself. I laughed and was content. I’m about to go to sleep happy, with not an ounce of fear knowing I’ll be okay.
Entry Two (Later in the Night): “Why are so many animals attracted to me?”
Just kidding! I’m really scared, there are 5 frogs, a slug, a salamander, and a really big spider, and I don’t know what to do. At first it was kinda cool having so many frogs and other animals, but now I’m kinda freaked out. The salamander is black with many white spots, and the frogs blend in with the grass. Wish me luck (I’m so scared). Ahhhhh! Add a lizard and a snake to that list. I don’t know if I can sleep ever again. I am so scared. Also, a huge black spider came over, dipped its leg into the candle wax then just walked away. WHY ARE SO MANY ANIMALS ATTRACTED TO ME?
Entry Three (Later Still): “Actually, I’ve come to peace with it.”
Actually, I’ve come to peace with it. I pictured all of the previous 6thgraders who have done Solo Night over the past thirty years, all lined up next to where I’m sleeping. Some of them were crying, some were laughing, and some were sleeping. It made me think that I am going to be added to this long line of different experiences in this spot, and I’ll make it through. I just have to stay positive and go to sleep. Goodnight!!
Entry Four : “ This is the biggest Challenge of My Life.” (Abridged)
I’ve never been this homesick before…There’s nobody to comfort me…I’m so scared. It’s so late…Maybe it’s that I took my cold medicine that my mom said would keep me up too late or something…I can’t go to sleep…Why is this so hard?…In the beginning I was tired but now it’s impossible to go to sleep…I don’t know what to do…I have letters from my family but they make me miss them more… I’m so sad…It isn’t solo night if I don’t do it alone… I’m gonna be awake till the sunrise or something. Please let me go to sleep. It’ isn’t working. This is the biggest challenge of my life….
Entry Five: Morning of Solo Night… “I made it!”
I made it! I can’t believe I made it. I faced my fears. I was brave and determined like I knew who the real Lizzie was. I’m very proud of myself. This was a huge challenge for me, and I’m so glad I did it. Now I can say, “I slept alone.” And the coolest part was that a salamander came by my candle, and just sat there, and then came and pushed up against my sleeping bag by my leg. I think the time I knew I was safe, and when I was the bravest was when I blew out my candle and rolled over. That candle to me was my comfort for the night, but it was also a source of light, a source that would let me see all kinds of spiders, frogs, and other animals. It made me most scared. Sometimes you have to let go of what comforts you the most if you want to be independent.
In many Christian denominations, the “Feast of All Saints” was celebrated this week. Dorothy Day, that great Twentieth Century scholar, agitator, Christian, and servant of the poor was loathe to identify herself with the title, “saint.” She didn’t want people dismissing her work on behalf of the poor as something reserved only for a select few individuals who occupy an elite celestial barracks in a Catholic Mount Olympus beyond the clouds. Saints, she contended, were real people with real histories, and real faults too. They were people willing to wrestle in the dark with their own fears, and to come out of it all with a deep sense of purpose and mission. They are the ones like my not-so-little girl who are willing to surrender comfort, and in that surrender to find their real freedom in God.
What is it in your life that beckons you to step out into your own personal Solo Night of the Soul? Are you willing to blow out the candle, step into the darkness, and trust that an inner-unseen light will see you through till the morning?