When Bethany Hamilton was 13-years old, she had already placed second in the 2003 NSSA Surfing Nationals and had set her sights on a first place finish. One morning after a grueling practice, she took a break. Rather than riding the waves in, she flopped on her belly, turned her head to one side and dangled her arms off the board, floating along and soaking up the sun. She had nodded off when she felt an intense pressure on her left arm, followed by a wrenching sound. There was no initial pain and she was confused to sit up and see a shark fin swimming away, the water around her board now blood red instead of crystalline blue.
A friend witnessed the shark biting off Bethany’s arm and called for help. Bethany was pulled to shore, a tourniquet fashioned, the ambulance called. By the time she reached the hospital, she had lost over 60% of her body’s blood. The shark had taken the arm all the way to the shoulder.
Less than four weeks later, Bethany was back in the water.
Take a beat and let that sink in. This 13-year old girl lost her entire arm and was back on her surfboard less than a month later. Her dad crafted a board with a special handle to allow her to duck dive (when a surfer dives into an oncoming wave to avoid being swept back towards shore). At age 15, Bethany won that coveted first place title in the NSSA National Championship. She wrote a bestselling book, had a blockbuster movie made about her life, has given hundreds of motivation speeches, and continues to surf competitively today, knocking the top-ranked female surfer in the world out of a 2016 surfing competition and placing third overall.
How did she comeback so quickly? How did she overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to turn pro while inspiring millions of people around the globe?
Surfing is her heart work and that shark was the necessary challenge in her Heroine’s Journey.
Our heart work is our purpose. It isn’t about passion, profession or platform, but about the reason each of us was placed here in this body, in this time, and with these skills. Human beings were created on purpose to fulfill a purpose. As mystic poet Rumi wrote, “Each of us has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” Heart work is anything that turns on our inner light and leaves the world a brighter place. It is us fulfilling our very nature. Bethany couldn’t stop surfing any more than she could have stopped breathing.
But, invariably, heart work is hard work. Challenges arise to force us to use and hone the talents we’ve been gifted. At first blush, heart work appears to be something we do for us, but is ultimately in service to others. Heart work doesn’t guarantee fame or wealth or status, but it makes us happier and more peaceful people.
Where heart work goes, meaning follows.
It’s truly beautiful how many distinct and diverse lights there are. My heart work is writing this column, making motivational videos, and creating inspiring yoga classes. Your heart work might be parenting, computer coding, cutting hair, leading at work, coaching a team, or baking cakes. But whatever your heart work looks like, it has to benefit others.
Because heart work is the ultimate reward of the Hero’s (or, in Bethany’s case, Heroine’s) Journey. The Hero’s Journey is a narrative motif shared across all cultures and times. In this mythical template, the hero is called on an adventure of sorts. Along the way, she encounters tests, trials, and temptations. Ultimately, she has a revelation and is transformed into her highest self. The story ends with her triumphant return home, now ready to share her treasure, magic elixir, or newfound knowledge with the world for the betterment of society.
Too many of us never find our heart work because we ignore the initial call to journey, never venture past the front door. The universe calls and we let it go to voicemail. Bethany is a hero because she didn’t shy away from the tests and trials but instead met them with grace and courage.
Wherever you are in your journey, know that you too are a hero. You’ll have some metaphorical shark bites along your journey too. Will you let it stop you or will you use it to propel yourself into greatness?