“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Justin Alexander Shetler lived the dream.
For many years he crisscrossed the globe, documenting harrowing and awe-inspiring adventures online. As an early social media travel influencer, he painted the picture of a live well-lived and defined by personal challenge, freedom and growth. A real-life Hero’s Journey.
His story is captivating and an illusion of what a life well-lived could be, while also serving as a cautionary tale of what happens when you seek Truth and personal growth in faraway lands, out of touch with where one’s ultimate source of potential, clarity and wisdom resides.
Behind the insta-worthy pictures was a deep well of personal struggle and striving. It’s not clear what happened to Justin. His trail went cold in the high Himalayas. Was he murdered? Did he fall into the raging Parvati river as it flowed down from high mountains? Did he wander off with purpose and no intention to ever be found?
Harley Rustad’s gripping book, Lost in the Valley of Death, is a phenomenal portrayal of Shetler’s dynamic life and the mystery of his disappearance.
He was truly on a Hero’s Journey
Far too many people embark on quests, expecting to find answers in other people, places, and things (and substances in some cases). Shetler was in search of a mythic transformation, but I wonder where he thought he’d find it?
Joseph Campbell paints the pathway of a Hero’s Journey in 17 stages. Along the way, the Hero is faced with danger and challenges. If they make it to the end, and survival is not certain, they are transformed and may either remain in the world as a beacon of light for others or disappear into the shadows.
Shetler was on such a journey. His social media posts make that clear. The mythical form of a Quests makes up the story architecture for virtually all popular books and movies, in which the external world is seen as a catalyzing and necessary force for transformative change to happen. There are significant challenges and encounters with wise teachers along the way. Suffering is to be expected in large doses.
The problem with the Hero’s Journey – as told through Hollywood epics and social media stories – is that life doesn’t need to work that way, and we can be thankful for this fact.
What is the leverage point in any transformative change?
The leverage and pivotal change agent is never an externality – a guru, coach, teacher, mentor or even a serene valley tucked away in a remote locale – it’s always oneself. It’s also true that the amount of suffering required is debatable, and that anguish can even be unnecessary (or worse, present an impediment to growth, as Buddha is warned in espousing the merits of a “middle-way”).
Powerful realizations, the kind that can shift a personality (for the better), change a habit and yield wisdom beyond one’s years can (and do!) emerge from within you. These powerful insights are never smuggled across the human barrier from one person to another. They emerge from the inside of the human mind if we are only quiet and conscious enough to pay attention.
Yes, people can offer helpful tips and directions. For example, if you are lost in the wilderness, a fellow traveler can point you back to safety. Ultimately, however, even such life-saving help depends on the one who is lost. A wayward hiker must be able to spot the traveler giving advice and have the wisdom and presence of mind to listen to them!
The point of clarity ultimately comes from you.
When you are deeply rooted in self-trust and a knowing that you’ve got what it takes within you; you can roam the planet, have adventures, learn from masters, hire coaches and have a whole of fun in the process – all while never losing grip on the fact that you are the single most important person in your Hero’s Journey.
With this knowledge, there is no desperate need to seek out extreme challenge and external validation (or a guru to grant mythical powers!) to create a shift.
Perhaps Justin had this realization at some point in his Hero’s Journey. Knowing that he was whole and complete as he was. That the sadhus, mystical valleys, insta-worthy vistas, and magical meditative experiences he was seeking were a sideshow to the main event. That the real insight he was looking for was only to be found somewhere inside himself.
Or at least, that’s my hope.