Mythological stories from every culture are brimming with larger-than-life heroes: The hydra-slaying Hercules, the heroic Beowulf, the mighty Monkey King Sun Wukong, even the flawed Karna from ancient Hindu tales.
We look to fictional and real-world heroes as ideals to emulate in our own lives. They conquer their personal demons, stand tall in the face of adversity, and adhere to their personal ethics no matter what the world throws at them. We admire these traits, and as a society we think everyone should strive for them.
Today, few people see even a sliver of heroism in themselves. We look to heroes modern and ancient, fictional and real, and we wish we could have that life. When it becomes apparent that we aren’t as clever as Odysseus or as strong as Hercules, our first instinct might be to give up and stay in bed.
We want to feel heroic, but the only way to experience that might be to grab a video game and slay a virtual hydra.
The education system blocks people’s heroic impulses
It can be difficult to walk the path of heroism when there are institutions that actively discourage self-reflection. Sitting in a classroom every day for a dozen years before hiding in an office for a few dozen more is about the furthest thing from the heroic ideal I can imagine.
The modern educational system herds people into classrooms and systematically teaches them conformity and agreeableness. Follow the rules or be punished. Do not pursue your own interests and do not attempt to acquire self-knowledge. Just memorize names and dates so you can get an A on your homework.
Can you imagine Hercules in a classroom raising his hand for permission to use the restroom? Or Beowulf getting upset over a bad grade? The absurdity isn’t that Hercules would look ridiculous in a school uniform, it’s the idea that our educational system is even remotely capable of producing heroes at all.
How heroes can inspire us
Most ancient Greeks understood their stories of heroes and gods as symbolic tales. There were truths at the center of Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur, but those truths were about human nature, not about real events which literally happened.
The value of heroic tales is in the lessons they convey. We aren’t meant to look at heroes as figures whose greatness we can never approach. Rather, when we see their cleverness and perseverance, we should look within ourselves for similar qualities. This allows us to meet challenges in our lives with knowledge and purpose.
Internalization is key. This is where the real value of heroism lies: using them as inspiration for self-reflection, goal setting, and internal change.
My baby steps towards heroism
Heroism is built in pieces, not captured in dramatic moments. We tend to focus on the most impressive part of any hero’s journey, like when Hercules felled the hydra. But the more valuable part of that story was when Hercules rolled out of bed that morning and decided to start on his journey instead of watching the Olympics.
A few years ago I suffered a severe injury to my leg. It was enough to leave me bedridden for weeks, confined to crutches for months, and hobbling on unbalanced and atrophied muscles for years. I was an active hiker and weight lifter before the injury, yet now I could barely carry myself to the front door.
My injury presented both a long-term goal and a clear obstacle: I wanted to walk up those snowy mountains I could see outside of my window. I couldn’t just wait a year then scamper up the slopes, though. I had to get up and walk across the room first. Then walk to the grocery store. Then train my legs to carry me up stairs again.
Even as a bedridden invalid I was able to make an impact on my life. It was slow, filled with small setbacks, and not nearly as dramatic as a Greek myth, but the change was very real, very tangible, and it opened the way to far greater accomplishments later on.
The first step any hero must take is to battle the demons within. They may not be as obvious as a busted leg or as dramatic as defeating a dragon, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any less meaningful or real.
Starting the hero’s journey requires only the ability to self-reflect. That’s something you can do right this second. Examine your life to see what you want, to see what is holding you back. What negative patterns do you see in your life that prevent you from getting what you want? Maybe you tend towards destructive or self-defeating thoughts, the kind that keep you from taking chances on new ventures. Maybe it’s an issue with unhealthy eating, poor exercise habits, or inadequate sleep.
These demons may seem insignificant, but they have a tremendous impact on your life. You’ll see just how powerful they were as soon as you start slaying them.
Once you have conquered the inner demons you will then be able to bring your heroism to the outside world. It’s more difficult to affect positive change on your friends, family, and beyond, but now that you know how to deal with internal problems and have bettered yourself as a result, you can have a real impact on others. Just the inspiration of seeing someone strong in themselves is often enough to inspire change.
Heroism is built from within, not bestowed from without. Work on finding and conquering those inner demons and you’ll see just how powerful you can be.
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