The Fool’s Journey: The Archetype Our Time Needs.

September 1, 2021

The Fool’s Journey: The Archetype Our Time Needs.

May 29, 2023

There is something about the much-lauded Hero’s Journey that has been a little bitter on my tongue lately. It pains me to write this as a Joseph Campbell devotee, but I have a hunch that we simply don’t need heroes right now, and instead the world needs to hear more about our heroines.

Yet, my focus is on a different protagonist, that of the Fool.

The archetype of the fool is deeply woven into the lineage of myth and story, yet where are the academic studies and pop culture books teaching us about this ancient path? The Fool is immediately more relatable, defined by a lack of ideology, a willingness to be wrong, and an ability to take great risks. It is harder to step into the Fool’s shoes, and therein lies the trick, noticing our resistance and courageously tying them on anyway.

I have spent the past ten years working in the end of life space. This began as what could more easily be seen as an accident instead of a God-or-King-anointed mission. It all started on a train ride with a single open seat in the dining car of an oversold Amtrak. I sat down, started talking to two doctors and ended up being educated that the most broken part of our healthcare system is the way we die. Together, three complete strangers decided that a national conversation about death, grief and end of life planning could substantively change the amount of suffering on the planet.

The only problem: common wisdom tells us that no one wants to talk about death. And so the Foolish trek began.

Thousands of conversations later and the creation of a project called Death Over Dinner - I found myself standing in front of the Cardio-Vascular department at the Cleveland Clinic. This was the very same group of clinicians that successfully performed the first heart transplant surgery. The majority of the folks in the room didn’t want to be there and thought that the idea of having a "death dinner" with some 39-year-old without credentials was a terrible idea. I was terrified, knowing this was a tightrope walk that could quickly destroy the momentum we had generated to enter into the inner sanctum of healthcare. I did what Fool’s do best - I took a risk, and began the dinner with a potentially volatile introduction.

"Without question all of you practice medicine, and at the very highest level in the world. And we understand medicine to be a sacred thing whose mission is to cure us, to extend life and heal that which is trying to kill us. Tonight, I’m going to ask you to do something unreasonable. Tonight, I want you to take on the idea that death itself is a medicine."

Long pause as the air exited the room.

"…and an incredibly powerful medicine. That talking about death can tell us what is most important to us, heal what we repress and give our life meaning. It is also the quickest route to the most powerful medicine I know of: human connection."

The hardened looks of the clinicians softened from the heart outward. The rest of the evening was filled with immense beauty and most importantly deep human connection.

I listened to doctors share, some for the first time, about the losses that defined who they are as healers. One doctor shared about his brother’s suicide and how that loss still lives on in every life he works tirelessly to save. I saw care teams connect on a level that felt new and foreign and deeply exciting. This Foolish idea birthed the Medical Edition of Death Over Dinner created in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic and is now utilized by clinicians all over the world.

The epic of Gilgamesh begins as a Hero’s journey. In fact, it is the proto Hero’s story, but what we don’t discuss is that at its very peak it transforms into a Fool’s journey.

Gilgamesh is the story of a powerful king who is challenged by a wildling named Enkidu who ends up becoming his best friend and soulmate. They prance about the countryside slicing up monsters. And then it happens: defeat, loss and grief.

Gilgamesh loses his best friend Enkidu in a heroic battle. The rest of the epic is dedicated to a story of heartbreak, facing fallibility and the breakdown of ideology. Gilgamesh stumbles through the forest wearing the skins of wild animals, reminding me of that moment of cinematic history in Brokeback Mountain when Heath Ledger buries his face in his lost lover’s folded shirt. The wild animal pain that is grief personified within the humanity of the mythic cowboy.

From his loss, Gilgamesh learns humility and what today we would call emotional intelligence. His words and his heart are what open up pathways, not his sword. The reason this epic has defined us for so long is not the Heroic qualities, but the utter humanity of his sweet, grieving, vulnerable, Foolish heart.

If we have learned anything from the past year it is that we are deeply fallible and that the most important tool we can bring to any situation is that old Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind. I have so much more to say and share about the epic of the Fool, and I want to hear all of your Fool’s journeys.

Michael Hebb is the Founder of Death Over Dinner and an end of life planning website called EOL.community. His second book Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner) is available in several languages. His MEA Baja workshop will be in December 2022.

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