|The end of the movie The Avengers from my theatre seat.|
So what exactly is a hero? The working definition I came up with is this: someone who is relevant to our context (we can identify with them in some way) who exemplifies our best intentions or capabilities (we admire their courage and bravery). In other words, heroes are examples of humanity at its finest.
Now take a look at Hebrews 11, a chapter of the New Testament filled with names of historical characters who are praised for their faith, "heroes of faith" if you will. And in this list we find examples like the generous Abel and the mystic Enoch, but we also find tricksters like Jacob, prostitutes like Rahab, doubters like Sarah, and insecure, angry leaders like Moses. What's up with that? If heroes are supposed to be the "best of the best" this is a pretty sorry list. But remember the two components of a hero mentioned above: someone who demonstrates the best of who we could be and someone we can identify with. I don't know about you, but I can certainly identify with the doubters, the mistake-makers, the selfish, and the insecure. In my opinion, mythology has not done us any favours by often portraying heroes as characters with divine origins who display superhuman strength and ability. It is interesting to note that the creators of today's superheroes always inject a certain amount of self-doubt, a character flaw, or a fatal weakness into their characters in order to help us empathize with them.
Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of mythology, A Hero With a Thousand Faces, concludes that there is a common journey that all heroes undertake. It goes something like this: the ordinary world, a call to adventure, the reluctant hero, the wise old man (guide), crossing the threshold into the special world, encountering enemies, allies, tests, finding oneself in the inmost cave facing one's greatest fears, engaging in the supreme ordeal, obtaining a boon (benefit), the road back, resurrection (where the two worlds become one), and bringing the prize (elixir) of their journey to others. While not every element listed above must be present in all hero stories, most of them can be found in heroic tales. The Matrix is a good example. The stories of Moses and Jesus are two more. Campbell's observations were influential on George Lucas in creating the Star Wars saga, but Campbell never meant his findings to serve as a shortcut for script writers. The point, I believe, is that heroes are not made by a single act or event. They have a journey which leads them to a decisive moment.
In my research, I came up with 4 elements that I believe are vital to the making of a hero:
1) The triad of leaving, transformation, and returning. Basically, this means that a hero makes a decision to leave their ordinary world, responds to a call, finds themselves in an extraordinary place where they face obstacles, enemies, tests and trials, and where they are ultimately transformed by facing their fears. Finally, they return to the ordinary world to share the knowledge they have gained or to pass on the benefits of their transformation. In some cases, they give their lives to do this.
2) Being universal and unique. This refers to the fact that the hero is human, often with flaws we can identify with, but she also exhibits great courage in overcoming obstacles and evil forces.
3) Vindication. This sounds like a weird attribute for a hero, but it refers to the hero coming to terms with herself and quieting all those voices which tell her that she is not good enough. Her value and worth are finally realised by herself and others.
4) Reconciliation. This, to me, is the most important aspect of any hero's journey. Here is a quote from my essay: "If I were to distill the hero journey into one word, it would be reconciliation. In the end, the hero’s quest is complete not because he/she is endowed with a new sense of importance or goodness, but because they are reconciled with themselves and their world(s). This is not a passive acceptance akin to some version of fatalism, but an ability to courageously face and embrace life and all that it entails." In a sense, everything becomes one. The hero is equally comfortable in the extraordinary and the ordinary worlds (think of Jesus after the resurrection, passing through walls). Tests and trials are one with developing courage and faith. Enemies and allies all serve to further the quest for a full and generous life. The hero is reconciled with themselves, with their circumstances, and with their destiny. Reconciliation means that the hero moves beyond being primarily concerned about their own well-being and recognises they are an integral part of a greater whole. The hero journey is one of fostering loving relationships and building a strong community.
In my essay, I studied the story of Sarah (wife of Abraham) as an example of a primordial heroine, and in my research I found a very human, yet courageous woman who left a legacy of reconciliation. Her laughter of disbelief turned into a son named laughter (Isaac) who in turn was an ancestor of Jesus, the hope of the world. Here is my concluding paragraph:
"I posit that a heroine is one who is universal in her humanity yet exemplary in courage, and that the journey she embarks on is a transformative one. She moves from a weak status to a position of strength. She is vindicated by her detractors and mockers and faces her greatest fears and insecurities. She is not perfect, but she challenges us to walk her journey with her, to learn from her mistakes and to exult in her moments of transformation and joy. She reminds us that we are part of a much greater story, a story that requires our active participation in order for the legacy of promise and fulfillment to continue. And she inspires us to never lose hope, even when circumstances seem impossible. She shows us that there is always hope, there is always the possibility for laughter."
Anyone can be a hero, but the time to start the hero journey is now.