If you’re a nerd like me, then you know that the title of this post comes directly from the Lord of the Rings. That title in particular is the title that protagonist Bilbo Baggins names his book, essentially chronicling his story that takes place in The Hobbit.
If you’ve read that book or seen the movies, then you know the story. (Mild spoilers ahead.) Bilbo, a child-sized adult person called a hobbit, is reluctantly pulled into a grandiose adventure led by dwarves and a wizard to reclaim the dwarves’ lost kingdom guarded by a dragon. Throughout the earlier parts of the journey, Bilbo is fearful and sheepish of every thing or event they encounter, only to turnaround as a hero figure toward the end of the journey by helping take down the great dragon Smaug. And at the end of the journey, he returns back to his home and normal life, simultaneously the same Bilbo yet also an entirely different Bilbo.
The story of The Hobbit is not a unique one. Many have chronicled similar stories of a hero leaving home, going on an adventure, and returning home a different person. The Odyssey is a great example of this, as is the whole story of Moses.
There… and back again.
I suppose the big question is, is there a heroic journey that everybody can go on? Do I need to slay a dragon to make sense of my own life? Of course, the answer is no, because dragons don’t exist, silly goose. (My 2 year old calls me “little goose” or “silly goose” frequently right now, so it’s currently at the forefront of my vocabulary.) If everybody had to go on a grandiose adventure to save the world, then that would mean the world is a lot more chaotic than we’d probably like it to be.
Still, I think the metaphor of the hero’s journey is an important one and one that, yes, everyone has the opportunity to go on. It might not look like hanging out with a bunch of dwarves to reclaim their homeland, but there’s still something.
So let’s talk about what leaving home, what the journey is, and what the return looks like.
Home is interesting because depending on your situation, home could be very literal or very metaphorical. If you grew up in an abusive home, then leaving home will be a very literal experience for you. I hope that this is not your story, but there still is a sense of “home” regardless of a brick and mortar structure.
When I talk about “home” then, I’m talking about the stories and experiences that made you into the person you are today. That definition is inescapable. Those stories and experiences could have been very negative or very positive or — like most of us would say — somewhere in between.
Honestly, this can be very difficult for us to assess, especially if you’re in a “good” spot in life. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anybody to have to use suffering as a vehicle for their journey, so if you’re doing great, that’s all good with me. The thing to remember, however, is that continued goodness is not promised, even if some church pastor tells you if you follow the Bible to the letter. So it’s possible that your hero’s journey doesn’t come until much later in life.
It may be that leaving home means leaving aside ideas or worldview you thought you’d never set down. I reference the Bible and church a lot because that is most certainly my “home.” Growing up in the church, I loved the Bible because of the weird science fiction-like aspects of it, so much so that I decided to attend a Christian university intent on becoming a pastor. The Christian faith was everything to me, and I loved every inch of it. Not wanting to focus too much on my story here, I fortunately had enough bad experiences with the church that the start of my hero’s journey was as clear as day. You could have almost set up a full starting line, bullhorn and everything.
Once you begin to see beyond the walls of your home, you begin to wonder if there’s something else out there to explore. What have I been missing out on? Is there something out there that will make sense of this? Have I been thinking about this incorrectly my whole life?
Thus you leave home and begin the journey.
As you can guess, the journey — much like the home — can again be very literal or very metaphorical. The old troupe of people going on a spiritual journey to India is real for this very reason. Not putting down a literal pilgrimage to some place, but the journey definitely has to be you hopping on a plane for 14 hours across the ocean. The journey is simply an exploration beyond the stories and experiences you grew up with.
Comedian Pete Holmes writes about his journey at length in his fantastic book Comedy Sex God. (Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.) His journey was a mix of a divorce, leaving the church, doing mushrooms, and sleeping with strange women. That sounds like quite the ride! My own journey thus far has been much more “boring” but equally profound. It’s consisted a lot of reading books, listening to podcasts, and going on long walks through nature. All this stemmed by a lot of relatively minor but heart wrenching experiences brought on by the Christian church.
My point is that everybody’s hero’s journey looks different, so don’t be disappointed if yours isn’t the wild romp of Pete Holmes’ life. It’s all grist for the mill, and folks like Pete and I drink from the same water now though we received that water from different wells.
This one can be a tad confusing because for the person who literally needed to leave home to start their journey, returning home doesn’t make much sense. Likewise, if your journey was more metaphorical, then perhaps you never left your physical home and thus are… well… still in your physical home. #deepthoughts
Returning home is more this idea of going to live back in the world now as a changed person as a result of the journey. Bilbo, while he returned to his hobbit hole in the Shire, was forever a changed person even though he continued on with regular hobbit life after his hero’s journey. And with me, I’m still the same David who is married with two kids and gladly working at a major corporation. I love Mountain Dew just as much today as I did as a nerdy 12 year old boy at Scout camp pounding down as many as I could because mom and dad weren’t there to tell me, “Son, you’ve had enough.”
But I am not at all the same person I was just a few years ago. Today marks the start of the final month of my 20s, and it’s wild to think how far I’ve come even in just the last year. I started this decade thinking I wanted to be the pastor of a church. Now, I am more spiritual than ever but have expanded my views beyond the Christian church in a major way.
I’m sure some people might wonder if I hate Christianity and hate the church, and the answer is a big no. I may have removed myself from church life, but I am more profoundly interested in the Bible and teachings of Jesus more than ever.
The beautiful metaphor the Bible uses is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Somehow, the message of that metaphor got co-opted into “Accept Jesus or GO TO HELLLLL,” in a very snarling, goblin-like voice. But the resurrection wasn’t a one time event. Jesus talks about dying to ourselves and being resurrected into a new life. I always thought that meant some post-life whatever, but I’ve come to experience this directly as the hero’s journey. I died to myself — my experiences and stories that fundamentally defined my life — and rose again into a new life, a life that looks very much the same yet very much different.
The Kingdom of God is indeed here and now.
So friend, I wish for you all the best. If your life is going great, then keep on keeping on. The journey awaits you another day. But if something is nagging at your soul… I encourage you to follow where that leads. Truthfully, it will likely get darker before it gets lighter — just as Bilbo conquering the great dragon — but I promise you that there is a return to this journey.
And though you will be home once again, you will never be the same again.