University can be an overwhelming place. In many ways, it’s a time of transition, change, and entering the unknown. It can be a positive experience for students, but it can also be accompanied by extreme stress and negativity. For most, the workload experienced when entering into university is like nothing they’ve experienced before, and it can especially seem like too much to process for students new to the city.
When I began university, it was the first time I had lived anywhere outside of my childhood home. I went from living in a relatively small town to living in downtown Toronto. I needed a strategy in place that could allow me to take the most from my classes, and I felt constantly uncomfortable with the pace of the city around me.
Throughout that school year, I felt that I was inflicting stress and tension on myself without any tangible benefit. I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel — there seemed to be nothing I was striving for. It was hard for me not to get bogged down by every class, every study session, and every assignment.
My frustration and exhaustion built to the point where I knew I needed to make a change. After my first year, I decided to take a break from school entirely and reflect on what exactly I was even doing. Was being at U of T, let alone university, even a positive path for me?
During my time away from school, I realized that higher education was important to me, but that if I was going to gain the valuable education and experience I hoped for, I would need to adjust my approach and my mindset.
Embarking on my journey
I realized that university was an adventure I needed to embark on! Much like Bilbo Baggins leaving Bag End or the daring adventures of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, I needed to go on what author Joseph Campbell calls “The Hero’s Journey,” in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
In the book, Campbell lays out a similar pattern in the archetype of the ‘hero’ encountered within religious and mythological stories across many cultures. Broadly speaking, this pattern follows a few major steps: the call to adventure, crossing into the unknown, facing trials and challenges, transformation, and returning to the ordinary world with rewards.
Campbell believed that this process was symbolic of the journey of self-discovery and transformation that every human being must go on and return from in order to be a fully realized individual. If this journey has been recognized as a significant part of development across so many cultures and stories, why not apply it to the challenges a student must face and overcome in order to thrive at university?
Leaving the ordinary world
Before university, I lived in the “ordinary world” of the hero’s journey. This part of the journey can be illustrated by Harry Potter living with the Dursely’s on Privet Drive, for example, before he is whisked away to the world of magic. We see it when Luke Skywalker decides to leave his normal life on Tatooine for the rebellion. In my “ordinary world,” I went to high school, played basketball, and hung out with friends, but I felt like I wasn’t experiencing much of what life had to offer.
However, coming to Toronto, entering classes with over a thousand people, and having to seriously sit down and study for the first time felt like maybe too much of a jump into what Campbell describes as “the belly of the whale” — the moment where Bilbo finds himself in Smaug’s lair, or when Harry meets Voldemort for the first time, surrounded by Death Eaters in a graveyard — the moment where the hero finds themselves in the thick of their adventure.
Applying the mindset that university is a process, during which you will face challenges and difficulties, makes the challenges feel more manageable. It is your mission to face these challenges head-on, triumph over them in any way you can, and transform as a result.
In fact, many heroes have risen from the ashes of the harsh battles of studying. I think of approaching my studies much like Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, approached war. In the blog post The Hero of Heroes: Marduk vs. Tiamat & The Significance of Speech, the author, Chris Mukiibi, echoes this approach, explaining how you can apply Marduk’s strategy in a legendary battle — during which he defeated the primordial dragon-like chaotic force of the world, Tiamat — to your own life.
In the legend, Tiamat is seeking to destroy the gods, and Marduk volunteers to face her. The conditions are that if he prevails he will become the king of the gods and be given possession of the tablets of destinies. Marduk faces Tiamat, capturing her in his net, slicing her with his sword, and creating the earth and the sky with her body.
Marduk’s act of capturing chaos in a net could be understood as the need to narrow your focus and intention while studying. Dividing a text you are reading into manageable sections would then reflect Marduk’s act of slicing Tiamat with the sword. Lastly, using learned information to increase your own knowledge and create new ideas would reflect Marduk’s creation of the earth and heavens using Tiamat’s body.
The hope is that you’ll end each year with a better understanding of yourself. At the end of university, not only will there be that internal treasure — the experience, the skills, and the personal understanding that you’ve gained — but also the promise of furthering your future and career opportunities.
That isn’t to say that everyone should become Batman or rush into burning buildings in some grand heroic fashion, but I advise you to channel the hero archetype. Everyone faces different circumstances that lead to totally individual challenges in life. Many people don’t start university coming from an “ordinary world” — many students have already experienced incredible hardship and trauma before beginning university. But even if the structure of the hero’s journey doesn’t perfectly fit your life, there is still wisdom that can be found in it. I believe that the pattern within the hero’s story teaches us that there is value to be received from facing “demons” and challenges head-on.
It also doesn’t have to apply just to school — it could be interpreted as the process that you embark on as an individual during university, the opportunity to look into the internal “otherworld” of the subconscious, and conquer the demons that reside within. Whether this is through learning how to take care of yourself in the big scary world of Toronto, working through challenges in university counselling, learning how to socialize in new environments, or simply making your own meals, you can always apply the hero archetype to your big challenges. Even one of the greatest heroes of all time, the demigod Hercules, dealt with some of the loveliest, menial tasks you could imagine. One of his great ‘Herculean’ labours literally was cleaning years of accumulated horse dung.
Whatever your challenge may be, detaching yourself from the current struggle that you are experiencing and looking at it as a means to transform and become the hero of your own story instead is a mindset that will hopefully lead you back to your own Bag End with pockets filled with your dragon-hoarded gold. Become the hero of your own story, master your own life, the master of your own universe, and transform into a character that would amaze you if you watched their story on the big screen.