Altruistic risk is just the tip of the iceberg of human heroic potential.
The year 2020 could charitably be described as a tough one for the planet. More specifically, it was a tough year for humanity. But inevitably, as always happens, we rose up to meet the challenges. As I wrote previously, 2020 saw its fair share of everyday heroes.
Yet, despite the countless examples of how we find a way to conquer our obstacles when circumstances are dire, even the heroic spirit can take a hit. It’s part of the natural cycle of the hero’s journey: in epic stories, both ancient and modern, the hero meets dark moments that drain their resolve. This is why so many heroic tales find the hero entering a shadowy place like a cave, a castle, or the vacuum of space. These are the metaphorical representations of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “going down into the abyss.”
Heroism is fundamentally about seeing hope in the midst of despair and finding a path forward despite the darkness. When it comes to the abyss, Campbell noted there’s always a return from the depths of our despair, hopelessness, and fear.
Very often, we can make some meaning from the raw material of our roughest moments. Sometimes, it’s just the motivation to get out of the shadows. This is the reason Campbell said, “the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” We can find direction and inspiration during tough times. While we experience our trials, we may even learn we’re stronger than we realized.
To give you some tools, inspiration, and perhaps some hope for the days ahead, here are some major aspects of everyday heroism to carry with you into the future.
Heroism is a mindset.
Heroism is a mindset, not a moment. You don’t have to wait for a once-in-a-lifetime, life-or-death situation to think and act heroically. Although confronting crisis moments definitely engages our heroic instincts, there are many other ways to be a force for justice in this world. When we work on improving and motivating ourselves, then move beyond ourselves to uplift others, that is heroism.
Like any philosophy of life, Live The Hero requires some mindfulness and some work. Many of us don’t take time to periodically evaluate whether or not our current thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are building us up or beating us down. Ultimately, it’s about making the choice to believe in yourself as someone who can be resilient and capable, with the ability to shape your life as you see fit.
There’s nothing wrong with craving certainty. It’s natural to want things to be predictable and comfortable. But deep down, we know we can never have total certainty in life. Trying to avoid or deny this fact only creates more suffering.
The heroic mindset teaches us that instead of the futility of trying to make the world certain, we can instead be certain about ourselves. If we create our own purpose and meaning for our lives, we create a strong foundation for ourselves.
The hero mindset also sees uncertainty as a provider of possibility. It means your “fate” is not set. Therefore, your life is yours to create. Even if there are people or circumstances trying to keep you down, they can never suppress the determination and willpower within you.
Heroism is motion and a movement.
There is heroic potential in all of us. The dynamic tension between the survival instinct of our mammalian brains and the spark of “divine” consciousness keeps us necessarily restless. It is the bittersweet condition that makes human beings unique among the animal kingdom: self-awareness is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.
Rather than chain ourselves by resisting this truth, cultivating a heroic mindset allows us to embrace this foundational aspect of our nature. We can all learn to use this fountain of energy to get moving and achieve things. Life is meant to be a journey of mystery and wonder. When we suppress our need to see life as a journey of experience and change, we create suffering for ourselves and others.
It’s not enough to just sit and dream about the life you want to achieve. You must take action. Listen to your instincts, and create your purpose based on what makes you excited. Then, do things (even if they’re just “baby steps”) to move toward your goals. This is the true way to reach happiness: an indirect path that winds through the things about which you’re passionate.
Not only is heroism about getting into motion, but it is also a growing global movement. There’s even an entire growing field of scientific study dedicated to it: heroism science. Organizations such as the Hero Round Table are spreading the word about the importance of the heroic mindset and its continued relevance in today’s world. In other words: you’re not alone. There are many others on the same journey of self-mastery and altruistic risk.
Heroism is humanism.
I’ve written about the threat of toxic populism, which teaches an unwholesome ideology of intolerance and division. The heroic mindset stands in opposition to divisive rhetoric that is destructive to unity. At its core, heroism is humanism.
You’ve heard it before, no matter what your background: “treat others as you want to be treated.” For heroes, this is a vital belief. Take this foundational heroic trait to heart, and believe that all human beings are worthy of life, justice, and the pursuit of purpose (and therefore, happiness). The real reason for the heroic mindset isn’t glory or fame, it’s the satisfaction of supporting the human need for cooperation and reinforcing the bonds that bring us together.
Embrace humanity as we are, warts and all. Our existence is a simultaneous swirl of the best and the worst of us. Every day, our species commits wonderful and terrible things. It’s only our evolved negativity bias that makes us fixate on the worst things.
Yes, we are capable of great ugliness and great beauty. Sometimes we forget the “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln asked us to remember. But evidence suggesting we can—and do—cooperate more often than we destroy each other is the simple fact of our continued existence. If we were merely despicable creatures, we would have made ourselves extinct long ago.
Treating other human beings with the respect and dignity we all deserve is a never-ending, life-long effort. It’s not always easy. But we are all better off because of that effort. The world needs more of us to embrace the paradoxical nature of human life as a feature, not a bug.
In other words, the world needs more heroes. We can all answer the call.
A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.
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