I worry that all the heroes are gone.
Our first heroes were not our own. They were fathered by gods and guided by goddesses. They built entire cities and committed atrocities. They could do anything. They were subject to no mortal law. They could not be defeated.
Perseus. Heracles. Theseus.
When we no longer believed the gods granted our heroes their super-human power, we fell back on impossibilities. We puffed our heroes out of campfire smoke, gave them tokens and talismans, allowed them to defy the laws of reality. A boy who became a king by pulling a sword from a stone. An outlaw who could thread a needle with an arrow. A giant who scooped up part of Ireland and flung it into the sea.
King Arthur. Robin Hood. Finn mac Cumhaill.
When we forgot magic, we turned our men into heroes ourselves. We made folk heroes, heroes that belonged not to the gods but to us alone. We gave them powers no mortal man could possibly possess. We turned them into legends and wrote them into songs. We gave them a hammer too heavy for a mortal man to lift, the secret languages of all the animals, a blue ox as big as the sky.
John Henry. Johnny Appleseed. Paul Bunyan.
Heroes showed us how we could be better than human.
Heroes and Fear
Every person has fears that keep them from becoming everything they might be. The fear of failure, of falling, of being mocked, humiliated, rejected from society, of death itself.
Not a hero in the pantheon lacks fear. Heroes showed us fear could be overcome out of a sense of duty. No hero ever rode out to slay a monster simply because that monster was blocking his path. They fought because someone was in trouble – a woman, a city, humanity itself, the fate of the world.
We are only human. Heroes show us that we don’t always have to be.
What Happened to Our Heroes
I don’t know when we stopped doing this, or why. I’m inclined to blame television. It’s hard to believe – even if you only ever half-believe – the stories about your heroes when you’ve literally seen it all.
What we have now instead of heroes are role models. Men and women who have achieved a great deal in their lives, whose list of achievements is long and proud and all too real. We haven’t turned them into legends, we’ve endowed them with no powers they don’t actually possess. We’re quick to leap on the foibles: a bad haircut, a strange gait, a weak handshake.
Role models aren’t heroes. They’re people like you and me, people we could aspire to become.
And that’s the trouble.
Heroes Should Exceed Our Grasp
Having role models we can become is dangerous. It means we could achieve this goal one day.
It means we could be done.
In our minds, being “done” is equivalent to death. You’re finished. You’re over. You’ve got nothing left to give. We don’t want to be finished, so when we dream we aspire to be things we know we cannot possibly achieve: rock stars, superheroes, fictional characters whose every move is perfection.
If we aspire to be something we can achieve, that’s it. That’s the end.
If we aspire to be heroes – people who are beyond human capability – then the story is never done. And we will live forever.
It’s not true, of course. It’s a myth we tell ourselves so that we can banish the fears that hold us back. But what’s the alternative? The American dream?
No matter where you start from, you can become anything you want to be.
But then what?
Creating New Heroes
All the heroes we have ever had came from the heroes before them. One of the reasons I tell stories here is that stories always contain heroes – and we need our heroes back.
We need to aspire to become something greater than human. We need to be set free of the fear that we will achieve the quests of a lifetime before that lifetime is up. We need to remember that though we are only human, we can be more.
The poet Robert Browning said that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.
Heroes are what we reach for.