Stepping Beyond the Ordinary World

What it means to Cross the Threshold on the Hero's Journey


Crossing the Threshold is a symbolic act of commitment and transformation. In the West, it's traditional for a new groom to carry the bride across through the doorway of their home or bedroom, signifying the adventure of facing life's challenges together.

In the mundane world, a threshold is simply a boundary—a stream that separates one field from another, a fence bordering two properties, or a simple doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

In the archetypal realm, the layer of the human subconscious that recognizes universal patterns, a doorway becomes a Threshold between one world and another. The Romans even had a god of doorways, Janus. Representing the doorway between the physical and spiritual realms, Janus was invoked before prayers and petitions to any other gods.

As the title of this newsletter, Crossing the Threshold alludes to the Hero's Journey (also called the monomyth), a pattern of transformation that appears in stories from all over the world, dating back to prehistoric times. The Hero's Journey provides the template for every popular movie and TV show.

In the Hero’s Journey, The Threshold represents the gateway between the familiar Ordinary World and the unpredictable Special World, which operates by a different set of rules. In these stories, as in life, Crossing the Threshold requires a leap of faith. It’s the point of no return, much like diving into a pool, transitioning from the realm of earth and air to the underwater world, where the rules of survival are very different.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy steps through the doorway from her black-and-white Kansas house into Technicolor Munchkinland.

In The Matrix, Neo swallows the Red Pill, allowing him to escape his illusory prison and face humanity's terrifying reality.

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan ushers Luke Skywalker through a stormtrooper checkpoint, casting a spell over the guards, to find passage off Tattooine.

In Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, As Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins pass a spot marked by a scarecrow, Sam stops to remark that the next step will be the furthest from home he's ever been. Then he makes that step.

Wonder Woman is an entire movie of threshold crossing: the chasm, the ocean, No Man's Land, etc. Each threshold gives Diana access to more of her powers.

The Special World of Covid-19

The novel coronavirus has caused sweeping changes to our lives, rendering the world unrecognizable from what we knew last year. Humanity received a collective Call to Adventure. Like the cyclone that whisked Dorothy to Oz, Covid-19 thrust us abruptly from the Ordinary World into the Special World.

Hearing the Call doesn't mean you've Crossed the Threshold. Most people are still trying to come to grips with just how uncertain the future really is. 

We've made up stories to make sense of the situation:

'Two months of isolation and then back to normal.'

'Okay, maybe four months."

"We'll have a vaccine in 18 months."

"Or January!"

"Or perhaps never."

This is the mind, the ego, trying to fit the Special World with all its terrifying uncertainty into something it can understand.

We crossed into the Special World without the opportunity to make the decision, as when the cyclone dropped Dorothy into Oz. But Crossing the Threshold is a voluntary act, a physical demonstration of commitment. Dorothy stepped out the door and into Oz of her own free will. You're now in the Covid-19 era, like it or not, but how you relate to this unfamiliar world is up to you.

Trying to fit your previous life into these new circumstances may be impossible, especially if it was highly social. Zoom calls may seem like a poor substitute for the office, happy hours, and parties. Another strategy I don't recommend is getting drunk, or some other denial tactic, and waiting for it to pass.

Most of us can do the most good by staying home, but when the Hero is activated, staying home doesn't feel like enough. We need to contribute. Coworkers, family, and clients need dependable allies.

Everybody's Hero's Journey is unique. Service workers, ER doctors, working parents, and nursing home residents all face different outward journeys, but the inward journey is the same. We must work together to survive and adapt. The Hero's Journey is made on behalf of the community—in this case, all of humanity. Otherwise, it's just a path to self-satisfaction.

From Mundane to Magical

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

With the power of imagination, any ordinary door can also be a portal into the mythic realm. 

The next time you notice a doorway, try this exercise:

Before you step through, stop. Take a moment and consider what it is you want on the other side. Define your quest, even if you know exactly what you want. Name it. Are you turning on the light, brewing coffee, answering the phone, grooming? 

Whatever the mission, pay attention. Observe yourself taking each action.

Notice any obstacles, challenges, or distractions, no matter how small.

When you've achieved your goal, walk back through the same doorway, and take another moment to reflect.

Try this same exercise the next time you open your computer. What are you logging in to do? See if you can stay on your quest without getting distracted. When the task is complete, close your computer and reflect on what you did, what you overcame, and what you learned.

I promise it's more fun than doing the same thing on autopilot. If you do this exercise and want to share your experience, please do so in the comments.

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