What Makes A Hero?

Wonder Woman - A Hero for All Time

Today’s post is the first in a series entitled “The Hero in the Mirror.” Spoiler alert – I’m talking about you.

I had to ask myself at the beginning of this series why I wanted to talk about heroism, about each of us growing into heroes and why that matters. It’s an unusual subject for a series, I thought.

I chose it because at the end of the day, my goal is to remind you who you are. I’d like to rekindle for you the knowledge that, as Joseph Campbell put it, “you as you know yourself are not the final term of your being.”

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, teacher, and author. You may have read his most well-known work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Or you may have seen the documentary of his conversations with Bill Moyer, The Power of Myth, first broadcast in 1988, the year following Campbell’s death. Campbell’s life work was to tell us about the stories at our center — in our deep collective unconscious, as Jung called it. By understanding these stories, these patterns, these myths, we can understand the forces that move us and have a clearer sense of where we are moving to. These stories tell us about us.

So what did Campbell mean when he said that we are not the final term of our being? There’s more to us than we see, more than our ego tells us about ourselves. There is what he calls a plane of being, or an energy, that’s behind the visible plane and which supports and gives life and meaning to the physical reality in which we live. These stories inform and shape our life journey whether we know it or not.

There is a joke in my family about movies I like to watch. My relatives call them “exploding helicopter” movies. Whenever a film comes out that has violence, death, cities blowing up, continents shifting, and massive disasters, my relatives call me up and tell me there’s a movie out there I will just love.

The Hero’s Journey

I tell them no, that’s not it. I don’t go to a movie just because things are exploding. As a matter of fact, the older I get the less I am able to sit through Hollywood disasters. The kind of movie I like is what I’ve always called the hero’s journey, a notion obviously taken from Joseph Campbell. A story in which the hero is called to a greater purpose, leaves home for places unfamiliar and frightening, overcomes obstacles and trials, triumphs, and returns home with the fruits of victory, including wisdom and greater understanding. The hero returns to the status quo, but he or she is made different, elevated by the journey.

That pattern, in a nutshell, is what Campbell calls the myth of the hero’s journey, a story pattern that is repeated in every culture from time immemorial until now, and will continue. Think Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Hunger Games, The Fellowship of the Ring. Each story follows this pattern of departure, or the call to adventure, initiation and trials, victory and return.

Luke Skywalker has a continuing urge for something more, for adventure. His uncle and aunt are killed in a raid, he answers the call to adventure to leave his familiar home and venture out into literally the vast unknown. He does not go alone; he meets a helper in Obi Wan Kenobi, who gives him an implement that will help him, his light sabre. He faces trials, danger, and has to overcome obstacles within himself, his own doubt and fear. He ultimately triumphs, destroys evil, and returns to the status quo with new knowledge of himself – he is a Jedi, he has a sister.

This pattern is repeated, with culturally appropriate variables, from early myths like Prometheus stealing fire from Mt. Olympus and bringing it to mankind, to Katniss Everdeen saving the districts from the merciless and evil President Snow. Why? It’s in our DNA; these stories are in the vast collective unconscious of the waters in which we all swim.

What lessons does the hero’s journey have for us?

So, what lessons does the hero’s journey have for us? It’s a roadmap to the journey we are all on, a guide to our continued awakening and growth. We find that the hero is created by the journey.

We begin in our own ordinary world, not a hero, not doing anything extraordinary. Status quo, day to day. Then something happens, an event, a person, something that propels us off the path against our will, or that induces us to venture off voluntarily. This is the call to adventure – the call to something different, new, and unknown.

What have some calls been in your own life? For me, one was here at One World, when our former minister said, “hey, do you want to give a talk?” “Have you thought about going to seminary?” I wasn’t on that path; I was doing something else. This was a call to something entirely different.

Sometimes the call is refused. We can say, “No thanks, I’m happy where I am.” A sense of duty, inadequacy, fear, or inability to imagine such a new life keeps us in the ordinary, the known. The hero loses the ability to take life-affirming action, and instead remains small, unaware, unfulfilled.

The call to the hero’s adventure is always to an adventure for which we are ready.

We have to keep in mind one fact about the call. Campbell teaches that the call to adventure is always to an adventure for which we are ready. When I got the call to adventure to give that first talk, to go to seminary, it was a call that I was ready to answer, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Yet not every offer of something different is the call to adventure that will lead us further down our life’s path. But how do we recognize a true call to an adventure that will lead us to greater awakening, or an invitation to an adventure that perhaps looks shiny and interesting but will not lead us into, as Campbell called it, our soul’s high adventure?

Follow Your Bliss

Joseph Campbell gave us the way to identify our call. He articulated one of the most misunderstood and widely quoted phrases of the past 50 years. He said, “Follow your bliss.”

This phrase been mischaracterized, I believe, to mean that we should do whatever makes us happy and avoid whatever causes us pain. It’s been seen as the ultimate call to hedonism.

Our failure has been to take this great guidance out of context, and that context is the hero’s journey.

Campbell writes that he came upon the notion of bliss, or rapture, through his study of the Upanishads. He wrote:

Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit . . . there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: “Sat-Chit-Ananda.” The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, ‘I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.’ I think it worked.

Three paths to awakening, and one of them is following our rapture, our bliss. Campbell continues, writing:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time . . . doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.

Bliss is like a secret underground fountain that’s bubbling up within you naturally, and also like an ocean that’s trying to pour into you from the outside.

We cannot use being constantly happy as a guide. The call that matters is the one from our deepest selves trying to catch our attention. Writer Craig Chalquist believes we will recognize that call because:

. . . it’s the intrinsic, innermost you trying to get your attention. Don’t keep doing this, it insists, raising its voice until your body aches with it. You weren’t meant for this. Do something else. Not necessarily something grander or more heroic, let alone cosmic, but something aligned with your real potential and ability to contribute. Something fulfilling beyond the daily bread.

The story goes that in later life Campbell grumbled that he should have said, “follow your blisters” – closer to what he meant.

What stops us from following our bliss, and continuing on the journey we were meant to take?

Our ego. Our rational mind that tells us no, stop, don’t go there. Our hero’s journey involves taking a greater look past our ego, slaying the dragon that represents our ego standing in the way of our greater dream and achievement. Following our bliss puts us on a continual journey of self-discovery and fulfillment – what Campbell called the hero’s journey. Becoming a hero in our own life means following the path through which we become fully human and conscious of our potential, our reach, what some may call our life’s purpose at that moment in time.

This takes a brave soul, one willing to take that step toward what calls to us on an inner level, despite setbacks, hard work, despair, and uncertainty. Look at Luke Skywalker – victory doesn’t come easy. Look at real life heroes, not as well-known certainly, but battling real adversity on a path that doesn’t have an ending written by Hollywood.

I spoke last year about Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary working in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Since 2011, a civil war has been ongoing between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army North, seeking more self-determination and economic improvement for the people of the area. The Sudanese government has killed countless men, women, and children in the area, and has banned all journalists and humanitarian aid. Many children die after stepping on landmines or playing with devices that turn out to be explosives.

Dr. Tom, as he’s called, has defied the ban and remains as one of two doctors based in the Nuba Mountains for a population of over half a million. When I spoke last year he was the only doctor but has since gained a pediatrician. He’s been there since 2008 after spending 7 years in Kenya in different mission hospitals. His equipment is limited. He says he’s practicing Civil War-era medicine, but it’s better than nothing. He survives carpet bombing and shrapnel, and is on call 24 hours a day. He earns $350 a month. His hospital typically has over 300 patients.

One of the rebel leaders, a Muslim, says simply about Dr. Tom that, “he’s Jesus Christ.” He said it because Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see, and helped the lame walk, something this doctor does every day. Dr. Tom says his greatest reward is the peace he receives from serving people in need, and that he is exactly where he wants to be.

What was Dr. Tom’s call to adventure? He said in a recent interview that:

“My inspiration to serve is based on the directives given by Jesus in the Gospels. He directed us to ‘serve the least of his brothers and sisters’ and ‘sell all you own, give the money to the poor and follow me.’ I take these literally and do my best to follow them.”

This call took him to danger and deprivation among the poorest of the poor. But his courageous journey has led to the easing of suffering and to hope, for thousands in the region and, as he says, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. Dangerous and difficult as it is, he is following his soul’s high adventure.

Dr. Tom’s story illustrates the next truth of the hero’s journey, of the mandate that we follow the path laid out for us. The journey is not for ourselves, rather, in a mythic sense by saving ourselves we save our world. By bringing our treasures and wisdom back, we heal our communities and raise us all up.

In his discussions with Bill Moyer, Campbell defined a hero as someone who gives his or her life to something bigger, something other than himself or herself. By following his bliss, by taking that journey, he brings a healing and a wholeness to the world that otherwise would not be available if he had not fully expressed his own humanity to the fullest.

So what makes a hero? I suggest that the hero is the one who hears his or her call to adventure, and says yes. We may not feel up to it, we don’t know what is to come, but we know this path is ours and only ours to take. The journey will lead to rewards that could not be found any other way.

Rev. Melanie Eyre
Written by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Director, One World Spiritual Center
Founder, North Fulton Interfaith Alliance



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