The Ordeal into Integrity by Michelle Katz
We have now arrived at the part of the Hero’s Journey that is call the Ordeal. This is the life-or-death crisis, the moment of facing our great fear, the most difficult challenge and experience, that has us fall to our knees and meet ourselves in the face of failure. It brings us the question of survival: will we survive; do we even want to? If we do, how? What is life, after such a huge experience of death? This is a central and essential part of the Journey. It is the death-rebirth place that mirrors the fundamental experience of a rite-of-passage. Just as in a rite-of-passage, the ordeal has us approaching our greatest fear, or surrendering everything we know for wild and troublesome ambiguity, or doing the unthinkable (like living alone in the woods without food or shelter for 4 days and nights), it is the experience of dying. This can be a time of great doubt and questioning, reflection on the past and grief. It is in this time in our journey that we may wish to give up, as we feel we are unable to take on one more thing.
Though the ordeal may be one big happening, (a divorce, loss of career, the death of a loved one, depression, etc.…) and the struggle may be external or internal, the experience is one that ebbs and flows. We come to dance with defeat, know failure intimately, move between feeling our strength and our weakness, and somehow find a way to the ultimate victory, the way to ourselves.
The most vital aspect that gets revealed, in the whole arch of the journey and particularly in the time of ordeal, is that the greatest tool that we have is ourselves! In the abyss we come to know ourselves and will never be the same afterward. The Abyss is the place of initiation. The place of death in order to be reborn with a greater sense of purpose, insight and power.
As I write this, I recall the Great Ordeal of my most recent passage through this journey. I had just come out of hiding, a long 7 months in the inner most cave, reflecting on the past, anticipating my greatest fear come true. I had emerged, trying my best to be in the world and find some new normal, while waiting for the moment the ordeal would begin. And then it came, a letter from a lawyer that had me questioning everything I am. And though I thought I had lost everything already, I discovered how much more I had to lose. My career, the man I loved, my good name, so much money, my truth, friends, the ideas I had about the good in people and the world, and most of all, my own integrity. Letters kept coming, and more and more I felt the call to die. The harder I fought or resisted, the stronger the call to let go became. Being in this existence was too difficult and hardly felt worth it. Huge powerful monsters seemed to circle around me everywhere I turned, and all I wanted to do is surrender to them, lie down and have them do their work of taking me away.
Remarkably, much to my surprise, again and again, I would hear the whisper of those who came before me, the mentors and allys that encouraged me on. In those words, bit by bit, I began to uncover and discover what they were seeing in me. A spark that became a flame, a flame that became a fire, and a fire that lite up the world for me.
When facing those monsters that felt far more powerful than me (at least in societal terms, of money, recognition, and prestige), I meet failure and defeat over and over again. I let die so many parts of me, one after another, and though I wished life would be over many times, I lived on into the uncovering of the greatest gifts within me, and they were hungry for life!
In the aftermath of the ordeal, I did, without a doubt, give birth to a new me. I found that I had just experienced the greatest initiation of life. I discovered a mature purpose, what I am meant to do in this life, how to meet conflict, ways to define what I need in relationship, how to speak and know my truth. I came to navigate a more realistic world that demands all of me to show up. It asks me to release shame, and accurately define my values.
When I was young, I always hated when adults would ask me what my values were. I could easily rattle off words, but I struggled with connecting to what those words as values meant to me. It felt like a meaningless activity. But after the ordeal, I know my values as they live in the marrow of my bones, in the blood vessels of my veins, and deep in the gut of my soul.
The most significant of all value for me is Integrity. The quality of having strength in who I am and what I know, and feeling whole in this as it guides my actions in the world, not be swayed by others or situations. I am who I am, intentionally, purposefully, resolutely. And the Ordeal, alongside rites-of-passage practices have brought me here.
Come join Oaks Counsel, to know the Ordeal in your story, or to meet it fully. Check out our various programs and offerings, and particularly the Day Quest on March 25th, with a focus on the Hero’s Journey.