I first saw the TV series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, when it was first broadcast on PBS in 1988. I was a young Congressional staff member living in D.C., trying to figure out adult life. That series changed the way I think about my place in the universe. It came at a great time to help me make sense of what it meant to be the hero of my own life.
Campbell is a captivating storyteller, and as a prolific scholar of mythology and world religions he drew from a deep well of human wisdom.
One of my favorite stories he tells is of a samurai warrior on a quest to kill his overlord’s murderer. This is from the transcript of that episode:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.
Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.
The samurai’s mission was not simply to kill the murderer, but to honor his master and fulfill his duty. Killing the murderer out of anger would not have fulfilled the intrinsic call of his duty. To an observer, whether he killed the culprit motivated by honor or anger, it wouldn’t have mattered. The murderer would be dead either way.
But to the samurai, his own motivation made all the difference. He needed a crystal clear answer for why he was taking action, and a reactive response out of anger would not only be dishonorable, it would negate the reason for his quest.
You can choose your response. You can observe an unhelpful emotion take hold, but you don’t have to react. You always can choose to act in a way that honors the vision of the person you truly want to be.
Nothing is just a means to an end. Every action is an end in itself. The path is the destination, right? It’s the journey that matters.