Sleeping Beauty’s Awakening

Every story is a journey of transformation. 

One year ago our lives stopped. Remember the moment in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty when the princess pricks her finger with a spindle and the whole castle falls asleep? The cook was about to slap the scullion but was stopped midway by the curse. We, too, were also stopped mid-life — school cancelled, vacations cancelled, weddings cancelled… Remember, when our calendars showed a parallel universe of crossed out events? Something that sounded like, “If it wasn’t for Covid I would be getting on an airplane right now, on my way to a big presentation tomorrow. But instead I am sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table, wearing old but comfy sweatpants, trying to log into my kids classroom while calming down an angry customer.

Now, one year later (thank God we didn’t have to wait one hundred years like Sleeping Beauty), it’s almost time for the prince to arrive. Are the vaccines the lengthy version of a kiss from the prince, smooching us all awake? (Sorry, that does sound gross.) In contrast to the fairytale for us the prick comes at the end of our story, not the beginning.

The difference is that even though our lives have been halted abruptly we were not blessed with sleep or pandemic hibernation. When Sleeping Beauty’s royal court awakened from their sleep they would resume the same life they had before — with the exception of Sleeping Beauty, who found herself with a stranger as her fiancé. But for the rest of the royal household their sleep of one hundred years was similar to hitting the pause button on a movie and then pressing start after a bathroom break. Having lived through the pandemic we can’t just unpause and go “back to normal” — as much as that phrase has been used. We have entered a journey of transformation —  a story, in which the end will not be the same as the beginning.

Parallels between the hero’s journey and life in the pandemicthe heroes journey in pandemic -- painting of the cycle

Throughout the last year I noticed how our struggles are a hero’s journey — the model that Joseph Campbell discovered to describe the structure most stories share. The comparison with the hero’s journey illuminated for me the various stages of our pandemic journey, and helped me see our emotions and struggles through the lense of the bigger picture. We have arrived at a stage of the hero’s journey that is a crossroads, a turning point — the linchpin of transformation. What have been the stages of our hero’s journey through the pandemic up until now? What potential and opportunities lie in the current pivotal point?

Once upon a time…

The ordinary world.

At the beginning of every story the hero’s life is stable and ”normal.” His world is known and understood. This was our life before the end of 2019.

Call to adventure. 

Suddenly the hero is asked to go on an adventure. Maybe he is challenged to find the princess and rescue her from the dangerous dragon. The hero is often not thrilled with the idea of the adventure and first refuses to leave the known world.

Around the beginning of 2020, we received a “call to adventure” — the pandemic started to hit closer to home and became a growing threat to our lives. In February 2020 we saw the virus spread in Italy, and regions of the world were put under quarantine. First, we tried to hold on to our normal lives, denying the pandemic would take over our lives. We were still shaking each other’s hands, still flying to our next business meeting. But the uneasy feeling in our stomachs grew. Conferences and other mass gatherings were suddenly cancelled.

Crossing the threshold. 

The hero finally accepts the call and starts on his journey to save the princess. As he passes the threshold he leaves the ordinary world, his familiar life, behind and steps out into the unknown.

In my life the day that I crossed the threshold was March 13, 2020. That was the day after my last in-person workshop, the first day my husband worked from home, the first day schools were closed. We pivoted our lives not knowing what lay ahead of us.

Tests, struggles, and allies.

The unknown is a place of uncertainty, temptations, and challenges. The hero might not know where to find the princess, who might be able to help him with the challenge, and how to fight a dragon. More unexpected dangers and adventures are waiting while he tries to make his way to the princess.

In the spring of 2020 people worldwide started to adapt to a new life. Trying to figure out how to stay safe while having to work, or work from home, how to teach school online, how to make social distancing work, and what is essential for living in a pandemic. (We learned that Zoom is and hoarding toilet paper is not.) Grocery store workers, doctors, and nurses became our new champions, risking and losing their lives for our survival in this unknown world.

As much as we were adapting month after month, the unknown world remained and remains unpredictable. While we figured out how to master the technical and interpersonal challenges of online meetings, the challenges kept shifting. The second and the third surge brought more uncertainties. Businesses that managed to survive the first wave, were drowned in the second. For many those struggles have been existential —  losing their jobs, battling for their right to receive unemployment payments, securing a spot at the ever growing lines at food banks. As much as we try, the unknown world, like the dark woods in fairy tales, remains unknown. We do our best to manage uncertainty without ever being able to eliminate it. The journey is messy and chaotic, and the lack of orientation painful.

Abyss or ordeal. 

The abyss is the time or place where the hero encounters the biggest struggles. He finally finds the princess and battles the dragon. This is often a moment of fear, deep despair, and deaths.

In regards to the pandemic there has been no global moment of abyss. The darkest moments have come regionally and individually at different times and forms. Facing massive deaths and an overwhelmed healthcare system came early in Italy and  New York, while other parts of the world had yet to be very affected. Last week I talked to a friend who had hit her wall after the sixth funeral on Zoom to mourn a family member. The moment or moments when it all becomes too much, when the struggle takes the breath away — that’s when we are in the abyss.

This is not to say that the abyss is similar for everyone —  on the contrary. While everyone has hit a low at some point during the pandemic, the suffering could not have been spread out more unevenly. Some people have been hit disproportionally hard. It is that injustice and inequality that adds a whole other layer of darkness to this pandemic experience.


The reward comes when the dragon is defeated and the princess is freed. Maybe she is gorgeous and falls deeply in love with her liberator. Maybe the reward looks very different, but there is light on the horizon.

That light began to shine in the pandemic when studies about vaccines were released and approved at the end of last year. The results exceeded expectations in the time they were developed and in how effective they were. Suddenly there was a sudden rush of hope that the end was in sight.

The road back.

Even though the primary goal of the adventure might be reached, the hero is still in the world of the unknown and has to find his way back home. Before the hero can return to a place of certainty and stability he has to prove that the struggle has altered and changed him. Since stories are about transformations, the new “normal” at the end of the story is not the same as in the beginning.

As vaccinations increase and the number of new infections and deaths drops —  at least here in the United States —  we are on the road back. It is not over, people are still dying. Restrictions are loosening, but we still have to wear masks and use social distancing. While we are on the road back we have to figure out how our return will look like, how we will be altered by the experience. We are at the turning point that ultimately determines our transformation. The transformation happens for us as individuals, as well as for communities, and societies.

Turning point of transformation

We have proved we were able to change and adapt when we had to. We were flexible and creative in some areas — we failed in others. The pandemic has stirred up questions that we didn’t previously ask ourselves, and we have gained a new perspective on old questions. What do we want our life to look like when the pandemic is over? We might have found a deeper understanding of the value of human connection. We might have learned to appreciate a life that runs a bit slower, or we might jump into the next roaring twenties.

How will we value essential workers? How can we make sure that those who provide our food and take care of our health are getting adequate payment and respect?

Do we want to return to the offices, sit in our cars during rush hours, fly to meetings across the globe? Will we have more flexible work hours?

How will we help the children whose education fell behind? How do we prevent them from becoming a lost generation? Will our new found appreciation of the work of teachers change how we value education?

What will the relationship be between science and politics?

What are our values as a society?

Will we be better prepared for the next pandemic that will eventually come?

How will we use this experience to take on the even bigger crisis of climate change?

Now is the time that we determine the trajectory of our transformation. Sleeping Beauty is awake.

The End

We didn’t consciously choose to start the journey of this story. It happened to us. We were thrown into the story, most of us unprepared. But we can consciously decide how the story ends. The end of the story is based on the transformation we choose. Is this story a tragedy or does it have a happy ending? Do we build a post-Covid world  out of hope or despair?

One thing is certain: Our story will not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” But HOW we live ever after —that is up to us.


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