Phoenix rising from the ashes. Myth or possibility?

Is it human nature to believe that we can rebuild, even from devastation?

Phoenix rising from the ashes - is it human nature to cling to hope through mythology? I thought of this last evening, of the myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. I was watching the season finale of Mad Men, as the main character’s life seems to slip through his fingers – his marriage, his illusions about his spouse, his children whom he loves, his career, his alliances (many, taken for granted).

Ruefully, the fictitious hero grapples with the world crumbling around him. But he uses his wits, character, and new found humility to spark the start of something new.

The myth of the Phoenix

The myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes is applicable to many. In this ancient story of rebirth and renewal, a great and colorful bird, one of its kind, is destroyed in a blazing nest. From the flames, a new egg forms and the magnificent creature rises again from the ashes.

The Phoenix myth is about hope; for those of us who have been slammed by tragedy or hardship – death, illness, job loss, divorce, financial ruin – can we rebuild?

Inherent in American culture is another myth – stubborn insistence on dreams, on fighting “the good fight,” on picking ourselves up, licking our wounds, and trying again. Our American myth rests on a foundation of youthful beliefs in fairness, in “the system,” and in the power of the individual. Of character. 

Reality, not television

If I told you how many times I’d been knocked down and gotten back up, you’d shake your head, wondering if my stories were fabricated. They aren’t, but that’s not the point; every life will know some measure of catastrophe and we will be called upon to show what we’re made of. And then what?  Reality sometimes requires us to fight alone if we are to survive, with whatever weapons we may have.

When the landscape of your personal and professional reality goes up in flames, when devastation accumulates, when events topple you over and over as you try to recover, how do you keep rising from the ashes?

In last evening’s Season 3 Mad Men Finale, the wise elder partner says to the much younger Don Draper (paraphrased): “You still have your whole life in front of you to take risks.”

He’s right. At 30 or at 40 the resources to reinvent one’s world are more easily assembled; you’ve experienced fewer defeats. Innocence may be tarnished, but not obliterated. Belief in support systems hasn’t deserted, and stamina remains intact as you call upon strength to rally new troops.

Guts, luck, leadership, alliances

When you rebuild from nothing,  guts, luck, and leadership skills are critical. If you don’t have them, you must create them, in yourself. You must forge new alliances, and if it’s your own charge you’re leading, that means motivating, inspiring, negotiating, and ceding elements of control in a difficult dance of interdependence. The rules of the game have changed. Territories are unfamiliar.

Mad Men Season 3 Finale Reconstructing the world forging new alliances and tackling new territory

Gods and myths

In this same episode, a nonchalant Conrad Hilton describes his distaste for those who “whine” about their situation. “I didn’t take you for one of those… I built everything on my own,” he says.

Mad Men's Jon Hamm as Don Draper takes a lonely leadership role in the Season 3 FinaleFor our flawed hero, Hilton acts as mentor and father; to some extent Don serves him, as though paying tribute to a god. To be cut loose with “it’s just business” is an unexpected and eye-opening lesson. The rules of the game were more complex than he realized. Myths have been shattered, along with everything else.

Hilton’s statement is a simplification. No one builds everything on their own.

Maintaining relationships, determination, competence, judgment – charisma – these all play a vital role in accomplishments of significance. And they are the building blocks of leadership which is, as we all come to realize, a lonely place. Leadership in constructing something new. Leadership, heading into war.

So I ask you:

  • Are you looking to rise from your own ashes?
  • Do you still believe it is possible?
  • Are you doing it alone, or with help?
  • In pursuit of your survival, or your success?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    1 – yes
    2 – (on a good day) YES!
    3 – I fully believe in teamwork – I can’t do this without my friends
    4 – (on a bad day) survival, (on a good day) SUCCESS!

    I am still true to my goal statements and if an opportunity does not fit them (personally or professionally) I pass. This predicament I am in can and will be a huge opportunity to mold my life into what I envision it should be. Why settle for anything less when I am just inches away from the finish line?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  2. says

    I don’t watch Mad Men (I know you love it!), but I do believe in rising from the ashes. I think we sort of have no choice. The universe kicks us on our ass so often.

  3. says

    Yes I believe it is possible! Of course! If it wasn’t life would be too depressing and we should all just kill ourselves now! (Okay, a little dramatic but you do get the idea). I practice Qi Gong and one of my favorite movements is described as the Phoenix the rises from the ashes… ahh. It is very uplifting.

  4. Nicki says

    Always believe it is possible.
    I’ve tried doing it alone. Support is necessary.
    In pursuit of my success!

    Great blog entry even if I have never seen the show.

  5. says

    You know, I’ve seen a few people reference Mad Men recently. I feel so out of it because I can’t relate as I’ve not seen the show. Some day I will get with the program and see it. But, your post I can relate to. In regards to rising from the ashes and trying again.

    Yes, I have done it many times. But I don’t think it’s that I really want to as much as it is that I don’t have a choice. Sometimes I think it would be better to just give up. But then, my mind and body just keep going out of responsibility. It’s sad but certain things in life prevent us from giving up.

    Sometimes I have help and sometimes it’s by myself. Sometimes, even, I try to get help but none is there and I have to carry on solo. Sometimes people help when they aren’t wanted. All in all I’m glad people are around even if they mess up the details sometimes :-)

    For me it’s a matter of self preservation and success. Sometimes together and sometimes not. In terms of my blog for instance. I do it because I can’t believe I’m not going to succeed. Anything for my kids is because I have an obligation.

    Great post! Very thoughtful :-)

  6. Foolish Woman says

    * Are you looking to rise from your own ashes?
    Oh yes indeedy. I’m determined not to remain in the grate for too much longer. It’s cold and dirty and I’m rather fed up of being here. I want to rise in a blaze of light and to shine again.

    * Do you still believe it is possible?
    I believe that, in most cases, with a bit of determination one can reincarnate oneself within the present lifetime.

    * Are you doing it alone, or with help?
    Ultimately it’s my own responsibility – but we’re often sent assistance from the most unlikely sources. By a strange and wonderful coincidence, not only have you mentioned the pheonix phenomenon, but the one and only RL friend with whom I’ve discussed my current state of affairs said much the same in a recent email.

    * In pursuit of your survival, or your success?
    For me, this is about survival.

  7. says

    Are you looking to rise from your own ashes?

    I’m looking to rise from the ashes of something dead… not sure they are all mine, but since I’m here and surrounded by it and feeling pretty blackened and charred, guess I have to say they’re mine… at least mostly.

    Do you still believe it is possible?

    Beginning to seriously have my doubts, but posts like this along with your next one about the Family of Strangers (which made me cry by the way, thanks a lot!) gives me the incentive, however, weak and wimpy, to just make the attempt a bit longer.

    Are you doing it alone, or with help?

    Right now, it “feels” like I’m completely alone, though in reality I know this is not true.

    In pursuit of your survival, or your success?

    Both. For me, survival would be success. Everything else, right now, is gravy. I’m so going to have to blog about this… eventually.

    Great bunch of posts here. You are amazing!

  8. STR says

    Excellent questions. I am an eternal optimist at times and other times I sink into despair. Somehow though the survivor deep within me pushes me up and moving, although as I get older the depth changes in relation to what I really care about also changes. I try to remember the epiphanies of my younger life and let them ground me and not all the materialistic deadweights like an albatross around my neck. And I prefer to have someone with me who understands me even in the silence and with whom I am attached by an invisible cord.

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