Joseph Campbell’s Life Library


There is a story which I love, from the life of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell… who back in the 1930s, found himself in the middle of the Great Depression, a graduate without a job.

So he joined a group of like-minded bohemian friends, artists and academics, and they all moved to a hamlet in upstate New York (I think), and formed a self-supportive community… where they were able to work together, supporting each other, so that they could survive the difficult economic times.

But Joseph Campbell also had the great, good fortune to be granted access to the library in one of the big houses in the location… and this library was stacked to the ceiling with books on history, literature, art and philosophy.

So while the Great Depression swept across the United States… when Joseph wasn’t out working with his friends to help support their small community… he could be found in this library… reading.

And for the next 3 years, that was the shape of his life… work, sleep, eat, read.

Later, looking back, Joseph Campbell said that those 3 years were among the greatest blessings of his life… because being given access to that library allowed him to start to shape and refine his ideas, and it gave him access to the raw material upon which his views of human civilization were based.

He said that all his greatest ideas, discoveries, and insights could be traced back to that period of his life… those 3 years in the library.

And in that story, there is hidden a great secret about the workings of life-purpose.

You see, if you were able to travel back in time, visit Jospeh Campbell in that library, and ask him if, in that moment, he had connected with his life-purpose, if he was indeed fulfilling the Dharma for his life… he would have probably had said, No, he was just making the best of a difficult situation… instead, he would rather be a lecturer at a University or College (… and that indeed did come about later).

It was only later, looking back, that he could see, the hidden blessings, the seeds which were planted during that time… which came to flower in later years… and which still continue to inspire and uplift many people around the world, even long after Joseph Campbell’s death in 1987.

Life-purpose is weird like that… and sometimes it is in the quiet periods, or the difficult times, that the foundation for our life-purpose is laid down.

Take Victor Frankl… carrying his 1st book on Logotherapy into a concentration camp, his life-work (or so he thought)… which was snatched from his hands, and burnt in the camp furnace before his very eyes… the same furnace which probably also consumed his family, his parents… all in the space of one horrific hour of life.

Where is the Dharma in such a moment?

And yet…

And yet…

Amidst all his suffering over the next 5 years, Logotherapy was slowly and quietly reborn during those years while he suffered and laboured on in different concentration camps across Eastern Europe…

He was forced to go to the roots of human existence, and ask the question “What is the meaning to a man’s life… what gives his life meaning… what force within gives him the strength to continue?”

And because life was so harsh… so extreme… all attempts at intellectualisation were stripped away… leaving the raw and naked truth of human existence… and all his future ideas arose from that extreme journey.

And when he was finally liberated from the camps, and sat down to re-write his book… it was filled with new insight and wisdom and compassion… it had been tested in the worst fire imaginable… and his new psychological movement went on to help many people… and still does today.

OK, Victor Frankl had to suffer to find his truth, but Joseph Campbell didn’t, he had quite a comfortable time of it… so life-purpose is not always about the need to suffer.

But I do think it is about entering into those periods of life, those side-tracks and unexpected journeys, where we are made to re-evaluate, to refine, to be re-born in some way.

As John Lennon once said, life is what happens when you are making other plans.

Sometimes we have to set aside our previous plans, allow ourselves to be carried in a different direction… to gain the true knowledge, the real understanding, which allows us to reach out and help the special ones we have come to guide and heal.

And the real pattern for our life probably may only be known at its close, when all the pieces of the jigsaw are finally in place.

Back in the mid 1990s, I used to know a man who hated his job in I.T. and longed for some time off, so that he could read, think, and meditate… so the Universe made him redundant (severance in the US), with a large enough pay off so that he could survive for 12 months.

But instead of reading, thinking, and meditating, he paniced big time… and clawed himself back into a similar I.T. job, which he hated even more… and any opportunities to re-evaluate his life were lost… (at the time, I said to him “But the Universe has given you exactly what you have been asking for… why not explore it for 6 months at least?” but he wasn’t listening).

Each time I have been put into a void space… 2 redunancies, 2 economic down-turns where I couldn’t find work after studying… I have always trusted my intuition, and tried to go into the experience, even when quite difficult, to find the life-lessons and blessings within the experience… OK, not always easy, I admit… but I have found that when you do then, as if by magic, when the inner work if finally complete your life-purpose suddenly re-engages… new opportunities manifest around you… and once again you are carried forward in a direction you do indeed want to go.

Life-purpose can be weird like that… the path isn’t always straight… and sometimes you cannot see clearly ahead.

But if you keep to the path… you will always be carried forwards… and eventually to something better.

(c) Brian Parsons, November 2016.

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