Redemption: Your Life as a Grail Quest

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Like all stories, life stories tend to coalesce around themes. There is one genre of life story that has a special cultural resonance around the world: the redemption narrative.

Redemption is a word that some people may understand within a religious context, but it’s a much broader concept. A dictionary survey of “redeem” yields a variety of meanings: 

  • To convert into something of value
  • To help to overcome something detrimental
  • To atone for; expiate
  • To rescue
  • To retrieve
  • To make worthwhile
  • To make good; fulfill
  • To get or win back
  • To free from what distresses or harms
  • To release from blame or debt
  • To change for the better; reform
  • To repair
  • To restore
  • To offset the bad effect of

In the context of life stories, most of these definitions imply a fall from a higher level of functioning, worth, integrity, or freedom to a lower level, and then a recovery from the fall. They involve rebuilding or restructuring a life.

Within the field of study of narrative identity, this is the accepted meaning of a redemptive storyline. Plotted on a graph, its overall shape would look like a "V."

However, there are a couple of definitions on the list that stand out from the others: “to make worthwhile” and “to make good; fulfill.” In the broadest sense, redemption is an aspiration we can all share. A fall is not a prerequisite for fulfilling the innate promise you have to thrive, though, to be sure, you may fall along the way. Redemption is the freeing of your potential to take flight from wherever you find yourself, into a sparkling world. 

The only prerequisite is the recognition that you have wings, which radiate the light of your human potential and the colors of their own unique design. And with that knowledge comes the imperative to use them. To leave them folded at your sides is to surrender your very essence as a human being.

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In order to fly, some people may first need to break free from what is keeping them submerged, willing themselves to the surface. Other people may start from the surface, and face an ostensibly easier task. Others may not have stirred enough yet to realize that they are shackled.

The details of your journey will be unique, of course. To bring your core, redemptive self into the world, your attention will probably need to be directed to more than one area of your life, and perhaps unexpected ones, because you may not know what you don't know, yet.

However, you can bet that realizing your full potential in life will take effort—perhaps a lot of it—and the willingness to accept risk and discomfort. As I discuss more here, our redemptive wings are often clipped by tenacious habits of thought and behavior with deep roots in the biological imperative to merely survive. In other words, the hardest things to do will take you to the highest places.

Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell found that the struggle to realize one’s potential is a theme found in the folklore of cultures around the world. He spoke and wrote about this “hero’s journey” extensively. It generally involves a quest in which one leaves the safety of home, or the status quo; ventures into the world to slay dragons of some kind and gain new knowledge; and then returns home, improved and transformed.

In his interviews with Michael Toms in An Open Life, Joseph Campbell relates one version of the origin of the Arthurian legend of the quest for the Holy Grail. King Arthur’s knights were seated around the table, waiting for their meal, but Arthur decreed that a meal would not be served until an adventure had occurred. As Campbell tells it:

“And indeed, an adventure did occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however, by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthur’s nephew Gawain stood up and said, ‘I propose a vow. I propose that we should all go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled.’ And it was determined that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me so wonderful: ‘They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest.’ . . . Now, if there's a way or path, it's someone else's way; . . . what is unknown is the fulfillment of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And you are the only one who can do it.”