The Hero’s Journey Home

Where the Wild Things Are and St. Augustine On Identity

This article is by Rob Wooten:

Our most beloved stories are often both universal and deeply personal. These stories belong to us all because they contain fundamental truths about the human condition. I first came across one such story in a book my parents read with me as a child. This is a story about our identity, and our shared tendency to go out searching for what we already have — and have had all along. You probably know it, and chances are, you’ve lived it as well.

A young boy, Max, puts on a wolf suit and makes “mischief of one kind and another.” When his mother sends him to bed without supper, Max’s room is transformed into a forest, complete with an ocean and a boat. After sailing “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year,” Max comes to a land of grotesque creatures with frightening teeth, eyes, and claws. He has landed, of course, Where the Wild Things Are.

Like all timeless literature, this magnificent book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak — published sixty years ago, in April 1963 — is more than a story for children. It contains elements of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” in which the main character enters a supernatural world on a dangerous quest, overcoming challenges before returning home a changed person. Because such stories follow a universal pattern, Sendak’s classic work also reflects real life, both modern and ancient.

Max’s journey parallels that of St. Augustine of Hippo — not simply in mode of transportation, but also in the core motivations behind it. Augustine sailed from his provincial homeland in northern Africa, in part to escape his doting mother’s religion; Max sailed from the confines of his room, in part to escape his mother’s rules. Augustine sought freedom and fame through a career as an orator in Rome and Milan; Max sought autonomy and adventure through his imagination in the land of the Wild Things.

After taming the Wild Things and becoming their king, Max kicks off the “wild rumpus,” a night of dancing and merriment, howling at the moon and hanging from the trees. This kid-friendly bacchanalia doesn’t last, however. Though — or, perhaps, because — Max gains the autonomy he sought in conquering the Wild Things, he ends up finding himself consumed by loneliness.

In his fantastic book On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith calls this the “problem of getting exactly what you want.” Smith goes on to write about Augustine: “What he envisioned as freedom — the removal of constraints — started to feel like punishment.” Smith adds, “On the far side of such freedom, sometimes a long way down the road, is regret.” Whether sparked by loneliness, regret, or something else, the pain of this disillusionment both initiates the eventual turn homeward and provides the fuel necessary for the journey back.

Revisiting this story as a parent of young children, one of whom is the age at which I first encountered it, has helped me see its connections with the spiritual life in general, and my own life in particular. Max’s wolf suit represents both the “wild” parts inside of him as well as his attempt to become someone other than himself. At the beginning of the story, Max tries on a mask, or in his case, an entire costume. Seeking attention and autonomy, he makes mischief and lands in trouble. Reflecting on the experience of parenting and on the pitfalls and wrong turns in my own life, I can relate. Can you?

When we aren’t comfortable in our own skin, when we don’t recognize or accept our God-given beloved-ness, we search for identity elsewhere. We hide behind masks (or wolf suits). We seek attention, autonomy, and approval. We try to prove our worth, our intelligence, our uniqueness, our strength — to others, but mostly to ourselves. Like Max and St. Augustine, we eventually learn this is a futile quest. Even if we gain all we thought we wanted, we can end up lonely, regretful, and empty.

Looking back on his journey in Confessions, Augustine captured this futility well:

And where was I when I was seeking you? And you were there before me, but I had gone away even from myself. I could not find myself, how much less you!

But this emptiness, this brokenness, this failure to gain what we were seeking through our own effort is a gift. It’s grace. Because here at the end of ourselves, the only thing left to do, for Max, for Augustine, and for us, is to sail home — home to familiar shores, home to ourselves, home to God. Smelling good food “from far away across the world,” Max leaves the Wild Things (to their chagrin and away from their gnashing teeth), setting sail for home. The story concludes with Max back in his room, with supper waiting for him. “And it was still hot.”

Augustine famously wrote that, “You [God] awake us to delight in your praise; for you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Like Augustine, Max conquers the Wild Things only to find that this was not enough, this was not what he was truly after. He was seeking love, but he had forgotten how, or where, to find it.

Sendak writes, “Max the king of the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” Though the Wild Things loved him in the only way they knew how, Max now knows there’s a greater Love waiting for him back home, where his journey began. I’ve been there. I hope you have too.

Sometimes it’s only by falling, failing, or taking a journey to the land of the Wild Things, that we realize everything we have ever desired, everything we’ve been searching for, has been waiting for us all along — like a hot meal set in our room by Someone who loves us “best of all.”

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2 responses to “The Hero’s Journey Home”

  1. Catherine Oller says:

    Beautiful, Rob. Thank you❤️

  2. Stephanie Huffstetler says:

    Oh my gosh, Rob. Such deep intelligence behind your explanation of truth (in connection to Sendak); or is it Truth behind your deep intelligence. I am so proud to have been a partner in life, as your first grade teacher and 🏖 friend!

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