The All-Nighter and the Hero’s Journey

If you think you’re too weak, if you’re really not sure you have the parkour skills and if you’re absolutely certain you’re going to be the weakest link and hold everyone back, it’s a really good idea to sign up for a Night Mission.

There are good reasons for this. It’s meant to be hard. If you’re cocky, sure of yourself and think this is going to be super easy, then what’s the point? Why take the challenge? To show off? To let everyone see how amazing you are?

The fact is, I don’t think anyone feels that confident. They may well be confident about completing the night and not dying, but staying up and out all night even without the parkour is pretty tough going, and with night missions being small group affairs, you’re not going to get to hide at the back while others do the tough work.

You’re going to be on the move all night. You won’t be left behind, but you will need to keep up, no matter what that takes. If you’re me, that might mean the team hauling you up to cross a dizzying height that’s enough to make you fear for your life while being fully aware that you’re not actually going to fall unless you do something REALLY stupid. It might also mean staying back and going a safer, far less glorious route when you can see that a climb is too high a risk for your current physical limits. You, and everyone else, are faced with what you can and cannot do. There is no hiding, even in the darkest part of the night. Especially in the darkest part of the night. No matter how good you are, it’s going to be a long, hard undertaking. That made the Hero’s Journey an appropriate theme for the night, really.

Everyone knows the Hero’s Journey, even if you don’t think you do. In stories around the world, a protagonist leaves home and crosses out of his or her everyday world and into a land of danger to recover wisdom, knowledge or some other prize – an “elixir.” They face challenges, puzzles, enemies, riddles and trials. They prove their worthiness in mind, body and spirit. Helped by allies, they return home having completed their quest – not quite who they were when they first left. It’s the story of Odysseus, crossing the oceans past Scylla and Charybdis to come home to his family. It’s the story of Luke Skywalker, uncovering his past to find the Force and defeat the Empire. It’s the ancient Dragonslayer, facing down the beast to save the princess. It’s in our DNA, but most of you reading this live in a time and a place designed to help you avoid the necessary discomfort of facing your own trials.

It sounds a little contrived and even arrogant. Going out on an all night parkour trip is hard, yes, but heroic? Especially with guides who are going to ensure you aren’t left behind by the group and who will step in if you’re at any real risk of injury – not exactly the Odyssey, is it? No cyclops is going to bite you in half, nobody is going to die and in 2018 London you can tap out and get an Uber home at 3am and congratulate yourself for making it that far.

This is where the night and sleep deprivation come in. When we solved each written clue, completed challenges and passed through each symbolic (and literal) gateway as a group, things got more and more intense. It sounded kind of cute at first – simulating a quest as a group, stepping further and further into a different world where everyday rules and limits were suspended – but through the night I certainly passed into a different mental state. Normal life was far away. The challenge mattered. The journey was real. You could not have paid me to take that Uber, because if I did, I would have lost something valuable and important.

In other societies and in other times, rites of passage would be marked by a separation of an initiate from normal life for a period of time and a trial, or trials, to be undertaken. We don’t really do that now, and we therefore don’t step into that mental space. On this night, I sure as hell got there. We didn’t travel to a magic land full of monsters, but I know that in the dead of night I faced down some personal demons – panic attacks, fear, shame, inadequacy all seem so much more powerful when it’s just you and your group in the dark. I came back from the night a little different. A little stronger.

We vicariously relive the Hero’s Journey almost as soon as we’re ready to hear and understand stories. In books and on TV we see groups of people coming together with unusual skills – on one end of the scale the nerdy kids in Stranger Things with their Dungeons and Dragons knowledge giving them insight into the dangers around them that the normal grownups can’t understand, on the other groups of godlike superheroes with the ability to fight whole armies and save the universe itself from being destroyed. Every talent or skill or piece of knowledge has its place. The builder of superweapons, the Wakandan king with the connection to ancient totem spirits and crazy technology, the crazy little wisecracking raccoon from another planet all have a role. This trope saturates our entertainment, and it’s unrealistic and contrived as hell. Nothing in life fits together that neatly, does it?

And yet on that Night Mission we found among us a quiet man who happened to be an expert in a particular kind of puzzle solving, a bright kid who had a talent for riddles just when we needed that the most, a little bit of arcane terminology knowledge that ensured a challenge was done correctly, an expert climber able to reach places the rest of us could not. It wasn’t put together that way. It just happened.

None of us were literal gods like Thor and Loki in the Avengers. None of these skills were supernatural. None of us learned to solve puzzles and riddles and climb difficult routes because destiny was leading us to this one Night Mission. And yet under pressure, we were forged into that multiskilled group with different individual skills coming to the front as required. On a smaller, more realistic, much more human scale, we became that archetype – and yet, without the pressure of facing challenges under difficult conditions, it could not have happened.

In most retellings of the Hero’s Journey, it’s one protagonist who is the hero all of the time. In TV, you may get side episodes or storylines expanding on the journeys of his or her allies. Maybe they become heroes themselves in spinoffs – think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. In real life, things are more complex. You may be the protagonist of your own personal story, but everyone around you is the centre of their own as well. Our experience brought that home.

The thing about everyone having their own skill is that everyone else must step back in order for it to shine. You may be the one who can balance under pressure, and everyone else has to keep quiet for you while you do it. You may be the best climber or jump the furthest, and everyone needs to get out of the way while you face a challenge for the group.

Every one of us had to step forward that night and complete a solo challenge in order for the group to progress. EVERY ONE. And some of us, being recognised as the strongest, were needed to do more. But in order for that to happen, the rest of us had to acknowledge that we needed them and pay a price – for every additional challenge our greatest champions had to complete for us, we had to complete a certain number of reps of a given exercise. Sounds easy? You see how you feel at 4am when you need to do 50 squats so that your best jumper can have another shot at a difficult precision in the dark.

In the Hero’s Journey, you are not always the centre. You are called on to fight your demons, face your fears and then to step back and act a supporting role while someone else completes their quest. Your ego is tempered constantly. One smaller member of the group recognised that she was the lightest and easiest to carry and took her place as an unconscious body for her team to complete a carrying challenge efficiently – she let go of the glory of carrying and being strong, even though she could have done it, so that everyone could benefit.

It’s not dramatic, to be able to balance on a rail. It’s not saving the universe when you say “I’m smallest. You will go faster if you carry me.” It’s just what was needed, and what was done without fuss.

The irony of the Hero’s Journey is that we see glorious renditions of it on big screens, in comics and every night when we sit on the couch watching Netflix, and yet we have never been further from experiencing it. It’s become a pure fiction, something we indulge in watching while we avoid as much discomfort as possible, making sure we never go through it. Those of us who choose the difficulty of parkour go to a reasonable number of classes in a safe environment, or train with our friends when the weather is good. After all, why do a Night Mission when you could just drill your jumps during the day? Why take the risk of overdoing it while exhausted and sleep deprived when you could gain strength in an air conditioned gym? Why risk your ego risking failure in front of a group when you could just do retakes of your best jumps until you have something that looks amazing on Instagram, right? It’s not necessary. You can live comfortably without the effort and the risk. Why push it? Why go to your limits when you could stay within them?

And we’re the minority. Most of us in the developed western world in 2018 avoid even that – physical exertion is alien to so many. The discomfort of controlling your diet rather than just indulging under the pretense of “self care” is avoided to the point that people will deny even the most obvious of medical repercussions. The discomfort of exercise is waved away with fears of “over training” and “doing too much” by those who will not even face sweating for an hour in a carefully controlled, incredibly sanitised, purpose-built gym with showers and a sauna. We are too tired to be strong after sitting down all day and then being moved from work to home by mass transport. We are drip fed comfort and reassurance as we sit on soft furniture and enjoy the adrenaline rush of fictional risk and adventure. We pay millions to enjoy spectacles of increasingly fantastic heroism in cinemas while we carefully avoid undertaking any realistic trials of our own.

There’s a price for this. A lack of physical and mental growth. Growing aches and pains as you become too physically unfit to move well over the years. And most of all, the loss to the world of the hero you could be, and the hero we need. Not a super-powered fantasy character who can fly or defeat aliens, not a godlike figure who faces down titans. Just someone brave enough and willing to go through physical, mental and emotional discomfort to see themselves and become able to do what they can in the world.

Opportunities are around you to step up, let go of your ego, undergo trials you may well fail and grow. It will be uncomfortable, though, and risky.

It’s up to you.