Archive for June, 2010

The Most Interesting Man in the World

June 27, 2010

I love those beer commercials that feature the world’s most interesting man, maybe because I’m of an age to go for that weathered face, those wise and sexy eyes.  But what if there was an actual contest?  What would the criteria be for picking a winner?  And could I please be in on the judging?

Lets start the proceedings right here.  What does it take to be The Most Interesting Man in the World?

I’m going to fall back, for a moment, on a bigger authority than myself:  Joseph Campbell, who was a Pretty Interesting Man himself.  For those of you who never heard of this guy, he spent his life studying myths and their meanings for our everyday lives.  If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you could do worse than reading any of this guy’s many books.  For a taste of Campbell, this is a superficial but lovely sample, with YoYo Ma for musical accompaniment.


One of the major themes Campbell explored was the Hero’s Journey.  The whole concept of the hero has been pretty well dumbed-down these days, but even in the schlockiest blockbusters, there’s a faint reflection of the real journey Joseph Campbell wrote and talked about.

The Hero is found in cultures all around the world, and the tales throughout history are similar.  Here’s Campbell’s definition:  (I pulled this off Wikipedia)   A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. According to Campbell, this mythical journey captures the essence of the great religious figures across history and cultures and traditions:  like Buddha, Jesus, Moses.

But here’s the thing.  You can go slay all the dragons you want.  But Life isn’t here to just provide you with an endless supply of exciting dragons (and no, we’re not talking computer generated, either!).  The Hero actually learns from all this, becomes older and wiser,  battle-scarred and toughened, in the way that soldiers who have seen actual war are often the ones who are most wary of starting new ones.  Experience.  Wisdom.  Transformation.   This journey isn’t just a fun thrill-fest, either, no video game shoot-em-up.  It’s perilous and disorienting and scary.  It’s having everything you thought you knew about your life ripped away.

You find me a man (okay, girlfriends, I’m on a gender-specific topic today – bear with me) who goes out to face real dragons and finds his own heart and strength and soul in the process, and you’ve got one Interesting Man on your hands.

And so, I’m nominating for today’s Most Interesting Man in the World Award, an often bellicose, difficult, brilliant guy who is up to his eyeballs in dragons right now, and apparently finding his heart, too:

Sean Penn.

Yes, Sean Penn, actor, political liberal, often abrasive and self-appointed rescuer of the world.

Sean Penn is in Haiti.  Still.  He went there shortly after the earthquake, scrounging doctors and medical supplies to take with him.

And he stayed.  And he’s staying.  Indefinitely.

According to a story in TIME this week, Sean got the cosmic 2×4 to the head:  divorce, facing 50 this year, everything he knew, all the old meaning in life,  just falling away.  Whether you know it or not, times like those can sometimes herald the onset of your very own hero’s journey.  It’s just that it’s not a journey most of us would choose voluntarily.  Fate has to give us a little jump kick.  Or a big one.

Fate seems to have jump-started Sean Penn.  He and the team he’s put together are now running a refugee encampment, of up to 50,000 people.  It’s hard and heartbreaking and challenging and frustrating.  And whatever adjectives I can spit out here are insipid compared to the real experience, I’m sure.

It seems like an unlikely turn of events, but sometimes you come across someone who gets kicked out of the rut (or the comfort zone) they’ve been in, and they rise to meet the challenge.  There’s no glory or glamour in such work.  But sometimes Fate offers us a way to find our heart and ourselves, in serving others, in leaving behind the easy and familiar life we’ve lived.

Now I don’t know Sean Penn.  I can’t see into his heart, can’t know if he’s in the midst of a major epiphany, or just a good old fashioned mid-life crisis;  don’t know whether he’s moving toward higher consciousness or just falling off yet another cliff.

But right now, poised in this moment, he just may be the Most Interesting Man in the World.