What is True Heroism?
As a baby boomer in the U.S., I grew up with the idea of heroism as embodied in the lead characters in movies like Rambo, the James Bond series, Die Hard, Under Siege and Terminator. Even though younger people have different heroic figures, there is often common theme. For heroic characters to achieve a noble goal, they must triumph over an external bad person or evil force, often using dominance and control at the expense of others for the greater good.
This view of heroism is not only pervasive in the movies we watch, but it is also continually reinforced in the workplace. Even the language we use in our work reflects our deeply held conquest mentality. We attack a problem, beat our competition, and make a killing in the market. It is prevalent in the tribalism and entrenchment of our current politics. It is also pervasive in a “one up-one down” social hierarchy that views certain groups of people at the top of the power structure as “good and virtuous,” while others are relegated to the bottom rung of the social ladder as “bad, worthless or even dangerous.”
Seeing heroism in this way can be limiting and misses the point of why humans have an urge to be heroic. I believe we ALL have an urge to be heroic in our own way. From this perspective, the goal of true heroism is not to gain superiority over anyone or anything. It is not a dualistic choice of “good person vs. evil villain” or “light force vs dark force.” It is a our own triumph over our sense of duality. It is combining the “both/and” of our outward traits of strength, power, and action with our inward traits of receptivity, peaceful clarity, and intuitive knowing to gain insight and wisdom from the situations we encounter in our physical reality. It is also to serve others and act from compassion in all that we do. It is also facing our own shadow forces within and bringing them into the light for examination, so we no longer project them onto others. From this perspective, the choice to follow the heroic path is the choice to undertake an adventure in personal growth and transformation.
“Heroism is ever available, and in fact it is through ordinary experiences that the ordinary person can become extraordinary.”
In their book, The Path of the Everyday Hero, Lorna Catford and Michael Ray defined the heroic journey as the “inner transformation, and the subsequent transformation in our outer lives, when we learn to activate our hidden creative resources and connect with transcendent sources of support. ” Realizing we are on a heroic journey helps us reframe the challenges we face. We no longer see them as insurmountable obstacles, but rather important components of our evolutionary development. While a portion of life’s journey involves external challenges, most of it is an inside job! To become authentically heroic requires that we stand naked in the face of our personal truth. We are challenged to step into the unknown and risk repeated mistakes, so we can obtain the next higher level of our personal development.
Many people live their lives continually searching for external excitement or achievements to give them a sense of power and aliveness. But for those who know they are on a heroic journey, the sense of power and aliveness arises from the journey itself. Our satisfaction comes from knowing we have mastered some aspect of ourselves. Every situation becomes exciting because it holds the potential for discovering how to better align our outer character with the core of who we are.
When most of us think of heroic figures, whether fictional or actual, the heroic part of us identifies with their courage. If they took the easy way out they would not be considered heroic. Their ability to act in spite of their fear is one of the key traits that gives them their heroic status.
The particular challenges we encounter are obviously different than they are for idealized heroic figures. But the underlying theme of choosing the heroic path is the same. How many times in life have we chosen to do what is ordinary, easy, and less fulfilling, instead of doing what may be more difficult, but ultimately gives us a sense of self-respect or personal fulfillment? When we deal with co-workers, bosses, and customers do we try to manipulate and control them? Or do we choose to act from authenticity and personal integrity? When challenged by a friend or partner, do we collapse into victimization or put a protective shield around us? Or do we demonstrate strength and internal fortitude to face a deeper truth we have not previously acknowledged? When an aspect of ourselves comes forth that we do not like, do we try to ignore it, deny it, or make excuses for it? Or do we squarely face it so it can no longer dictate our actions?
Embarking on a heroic journey means that we have boldly stepped into the heroic reality. Once there, we realize that it is not a rarefied place. It only seems that way to those who have not yet realized the difference it can make in their their personal lives.