Joseph Campbell on making the impossible choice
Entering the forest at its darkest point
April 08, 2021
In retelling a story of King Arthur in his book The Masks of God, mythologist Joseph Campbell describes a group of knights embarking on the quest for the Holy Grail. Their quest begins like so:
They had decided to ride forth, each in his own direction, because to start out in a group would have been shameful […] When all had assumed their arms, they attended Mass and, when that was done, mounting, commended their good king to God, thanked him for the honors he had done them, and, issuing from his castle, entered into the forest, at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path…
Campbell thought this was an excellent metaphor for choosing our life’s work:
You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.
Or, put in even plainer terms:
If there is a path it is someone else’s path and you are not on the adventure.
In the Arthurian story, the Holy Grail is a metaphor for the ideal life, and the dark forest symbolizes the place we fear the most. In order to achieve the ideal life, we need to enter the place of maximum terror.
This goes beyond simple platitudes like “face your fears”. Campbell is arguing that fear isn’t just a necessary obstacle. Fear indicates the place we should go.
Is this true?
The hardest choice
One of the hardest decisions we’ll ever face is choosing what work to devote our lives to.
James Clear describes the difficulty:
How do you know the right answer? You don’t. Nobody knows the best [path], but if you want to fulfill your potential you must choose one. This is one of the central tensions of life. It’s your choice, but you must choose.
In other words, if we want the Grail, we must enter the forest. We have to make that hard decision. So the question is: what path do we take? Why did the knights choose the darkest point, the most unappealing way forward, the place of maximum terror?
Defining the darkest point
We’re rarely afraid of the choices we won’t make. I would hate being a lawyer, for example, but I’m not afraid of the idea of being a lawyer. It doesn’t fill me with dread, because I know I won’t ever choose that path. It’s a non-option.
But I am afraid of trying to make it as a writer. I am afraid of publishing this very piece. These are both things I want to do, and are important to me, but they fill me with terror.
Why? Because it’s important to me, and I might fail.
Failing as a lawyer doesn’t bother me because I don’t give a shit. Fear only enters the equation when the results matter to us. Where there’s risk involved. Where we have soul in the game.
Fear thus reveals what’s most meaningful to us.
Fear as a compass
The reason we must enter the forest at the darkest point is that it’s dark for a reason. The bright sunny path will never lead us to the grail, because we’re not risking anything, which means we aren’t pursuing what’s really important to us.
We can’t try to pretend the forest isn’t dark. We can’t pretend we’re not afraid. But Campbell is saying that fear is a useful thing. It’s a compass. It shows us what we really want, despite the darkness.