Of course, some people enjoy retirement, but since I have been writing about happiness later in life, many people who were successful earlier in life have reached out to me to say that retirement has been brutal: They feel unhappy, aimless, and bored. In search of—well, they’re not quite sure what—some have made bad choices, tanking their marriages (leading to what social scientists call “gray divorce,” which doubled in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015) or making stupid business decisions they don’t think they would have made when they were still employed. One person told me, “Since I quit working, I feel like a stranger to myself.”
The hero’s journey is great when you’re in the middle of it. The trouble comes when your strengths start to wane, because now you’re off script. People rarely change the story they’ve constructed for their lives; they rage, instead, trying to pound their lives back into the story line, often with sad results.
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But this rage is born from a misunderstanding of the hero’s journey. Defining it in terms of three phases, as I did above, makes the mistake of leaving out one last, critical phase. The literary scholar Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that many great myths involve a subtle twist after the triumph in battle. He calls it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold.” “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world,” Campbell writes. “The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.” In other words, the end of the true hero’s journey is coming home and finding a battle to be waged not with an external enemy, but with one’s own demons. Win that final battle—the hardest one of all—and true victory is yours.
Consider the case of King David. He kills the lion; he beats Goliath; he vanquishes Israel’s foes and unites the nation’s twelve tribes. From shepherd boy to supreme ruler of his nation, David’s journey is the hero’s journey. But the story doesn’t stop there—it continues in the second book of Samuel, where we find the exalted King David in his post-victory life, hanging around his palace with a lot of time on his hands. He wakes up from a nap, goes for a walk on the roof of his palace, and spies a neighbor’s beautiful wife, Bathsheba, taking a bath. Famous long story short: David pursues an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and impregnates her. Then he sends her husband off to die in battle to cover his disgraceful misdeed.
Ancient Israel’s greatest leader, a man of impeccable valor and discipline, comes home from his triumph, and then falls prey to his own petty lust. Heroism turns to villainous rot not from anything on the battlefield, but precisely because of the “banalities and noisy obscenities of life,” in Campbell’s words. In failing to live an ordinary life, David failed in the last, hardest phase of the journey: being the master of himself.