WE PUT them on pedestals then pull them down when we realise they weren’t what they were cracked up to be. We are in such awe that whole ecosystems were wiped out in Australia, in part because a handful of ‘nobodies’ wanted to be Somebodies, and valour theft is rife in the UK because of our obsession with the War. Add now to that the army of nurses and doctors, of whose ability to turn up for work each day knowing what horrors lie ahead, the rest of us rightly stand in reverence. As for the Marvel fetish, this will in all likelihood become more indulgent as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll. I am, of course, talking about the cult of the hero, a phenomenon as emotive as it is pervasive.
The meaning of the word is as mercurial as history itself, which lends an exquisite irony to the way current events are playing out. Race aside, for years health and care workers were undervalued and are still underpaid while smug rich white men who made their money on the suffering of others enjoyed centre stage in our public spaces. Until now, the prevailing political narrative of the day has usually determined our understanding of what constitutes a hero. It is fitting that at this turning point in human consciousness we should decide for ourselves.
In movies, the hero is generally synonymous with the central character or protagonist. Flawed or conflicted from the outset, any virtues tend to be revealed as they interact with the other characters and the story unfolds. By the time the plot is resolved through some decisive course of action, the world in which they live, if not the protagonist/hero themself, has transformed.
The hero is one of an array of archetypes, which can include a villain, an underdog, a mentor, a love interest … the list goes on. The plot too is archetypal, consisting of a comfort zone (‘normal’ everyday life), a choice made in response to a call to adventure or inciting incident, obstacles and/or internal conflicts, a point of no return, a high point, a low point, a climax and a resolution.
Myths, regardless of whether or not they depict historical events, all share the same characteristics. It is no secret that George Lucas, when he made Star Wars, stuck religiously to the mythic principles Joseph Campbell talked about in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Even the Easter and Christmas storylines follow the classic formula.
While the oldest myths spoke of elemental forces, animal deities then gods (and goddesses), later versions spoke of half-gods motivated by the achievement of the greater good through their selfless actions (and often subsequent death). With the onset of the Bronze Age, militarised city states and a shift from goddess-worshipping priesthoods to secular forms of power came stories of kings, conquest and the search for honour, glory or fame. The pay-off for the collective was the benefit of the triumphant hero’s protection. And since it is a key requirement of storytelling – and conditioning – that whoever is experiencing the story identifies with the protagonist, the more human heroes became, the more flawed they became and the more mere mortals identified with them.
The oldest versions of the labyrinth myth are ‘softer’ than the Minotaur story with which we are most acquainted. The more recent narrative of the male hero slaying the Beast to save the people secured the progression towards the more psychotic approach to the unknown that survives in western culture to this day. In contrast, the more feminine versions of the hero myths somehow survived in romantic tales of princes and princesses (compare Beauty and the Beast with the story of the Minotaur). Scholars now estimate the point of origin of European fairy tales to be around four to six thousand years ago.
Now it appears we have returned full circle to a pantheon of half-human superheroes (not all white blokes with long beards, thankfully) serving the greater good. It will be interesting to see how the ongoing demonisation of ‘kings’ and the veneration of key workers will play out in future narratives.
As for mere mortals, we’re all hard-wired for meaning and purpose. Some say the search for meaning arises as a reaction to the absolute certainty that one day we will all die. We are instinctively drawn to opportunities to depart from the status quo, to leave ‘home’. That is why we get bored. And when the adventure is over, we return ‘home’.
However, society counter-programs us to fear the unknown; the Bogeyman is planted in the childhood psyche to prevent us from straying too far from the herd. And so we are conditioned to satisfy our heroic impulses by vicariously following the deeds of others while keeping our own heads down and maintaining the status quo. Only those who ‘sell their souls’ seem able to clamber to the top. Nine times out of ten, hero status on the basis of virtue is granted only to those who die in the pursuit of their great deeds or put themselves in harm’s way. Indeed, putting dead people on pedestals is an essential requirement of maintaining ‘social order’ (the Church turned this into an art form). Meanwhile, from birth, our educational system conditions us to confuse meaning with validation by our peers, our whole sense of identity tied up in how many friends we have, how ‘successful’ we are, how much money we have, the badges we wear, acceptance by the Tribe.
I am convinced that everyone at some point in their life hears the ‘call’ but that most choose to ignore it. Until the next time. And the next. What else is a mid-life crisis if not an exhortation to one who chose to play it safe first time round? Most people it would seem are scared of their own company, let alone peering into their own soul.
No surprise then that the hero archetype goes deeper still. According to Carl Jung and other psychologists, the human psyche itself is rooted in mythic structure. Archetypes form the ‘language’ of the unconscious mind and are expressed as symbols in dreams, fantasy and meditative states. These are hard-wired both on a personal and collective level. In the protagonistic sense of the word, it seems we are pre-programmed to be heroes. In the psychological journey, we may face such adversaries as the Ego, the Persona, the Shadow, the Animus or Anima and the Self.
Based on his own clinical and personal observations combined with ancient wisdom teachings, Jung proposed the theory of individuation. This is a lifelong process that consolidates the conscious, the unconscious and the ego into a purified whole, all opposites reconciled. The basis of the spiritual Hero’s Journey, it s not dissimilar to the Christian idea of redemption, only wholeness is achieved without the intervention of an external force or figure. Jung’s contemporary, Roberto Assagioli, used the term psychosynthesis, which better describes the journey towards the ultimate goal of individuation. Whether it is achievable start to finish in a single lifetime is open to debate.
Often represented by a labyrinth, psychosynthesis requires introspection, often taking the very forces that create fragmentation in the first place to thrust one inward. The conversations you have with yourself (or rather your archetypes) are an integral part of the process. The end result is a well-rounded personality that is mature relationally, emotionally, practically and intuitively. As the core Self becomes more stable under all conditions, no longer relying on external sources for validation, rather than becoming more self-absorbed, it becomes more empathic and compassionate towards others. One’s past, present and future become one meaningful whole.
Imagine standing in an art gallery, nose right up to a huge painting by one of the masters. Up close it’s just rough almost random globs of paint, not much to look at at all. However, with every step you take back, the globs get smaller and smaller and the juxtaposition of colour and form starts to emerge. By the time you’re standing ten feet away, you are transfixed. It has form, it has just the right balance of shade and colour, it has life. It has meaning. If you’re lucky, you might even remember the last time you saw something so utterly satisfying to behold. Now, the artist when they painted it might have thought “Hmm, something doesn’t look right here” or “It needs something else juuuust there”. So they maybe made the blue in one of the uppermost corners just that little bit bluer or exaggerated the twinkle of an eye with an almost imperceptible flick of the brush. Not to mention that time they tore their hair out because the legs were so out of proportion with the rest of the body that they had to start all over again. Imagine now that you are both the painting and the artist.
I have to emphasise that individuation is not about becoming a ‘good’ human being as opposed to a ‘bad’ one, rather one becomes a higher-functioning human being in harmony with itself and others. Indeed, the perception of good and evil gives way to a more subtle notion of what is appropriate in any given situation. More significantly, the effects of psychosynthesis across multiple individuals are reflected in the world at large.
So the inner journey is not a waste of precious time and energy. Upping our inner game matters. Faced with the daily diet of war, famine, abuse, unrest and catastrophe, it is easy to feel that doing nothing is doing nothing. However, if we are to address this plethora of issues (all man-made), giving ‘fixing’ ourselves equal attention is the only real way to deal with all of them. When a critical mass of people working through their own internal conflicts, helping others in their own back yard and fulfilling their innermost calling, is reached, the world will start to heal. Has the response to coronavirus not demonstrated that we have the collective power to swing the odds?
In fact, COVID-19 can on one level be regarded as the ultimate call to adventure and social distancing a fertile breeding ground for the level of introspection required to get the ball rolling. Not only are we doing our bit in saving lives, we’re already thinking about what kind of world we want to go back to.
Deep down we all want to be be part of something bigger than ourselves. As individuals, communities or a society, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to put our petty inclinations to one side and become the superheroes we always wanted to be when we were kids. And what greater calling is there than collectively pulling our entire species and our planet from the brink? If imminent self-annihilation isn’t the mother of all wake-up calls, then we might as well just go back to bed and stay there. And what a yawn that would be.
Useful information on psychosynthesis/individuation here.