How we compensate for the smallness of our own lives by taking refuge in tales of those who walk alone.

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Image credit: Warner Brothers

From Gilgamesh to Hercules and from David to King Arthur, our tales are rarely short of heroes. Today we’ve largely abandoned John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger to revel in the stories of CGI-enhanced characters who wear lurid costumes and perform stunts that defy the laws of physics.

As befits our supposedly egalitarian age, women have been co-opted and no action movie is now complete without its stock Feisty Girl character who is nothing more than Arnold or Jean-Claude wrapped in an alluring female body.

Our tales are very often compensation mechanisms we use to escape from the claustrophobia and predictability of our own lives. Because we rely absolutely on groups for our survival, we idolize the lone individual. Because we’re generally fat, flabby, and helpless, we idolize the strong and seemingly invulnerable hero who can absorb any amount of punishment (on-screen, at least….) and come out on top after breaking arms, smashing jaws, and shooting everyone around.

This much is obvious. What’s less obvious however is the other appeal of heroes: they know who they are.

A great many of us wander through life fundamentally unsure of ourselves. We adapt to the situation we find ourselves in, we conform to group norms no matter how repugnant or harmful they may be, and we depend entirely on the group for our tenuous sense of identity. Anyone who’s attended a business conference in any major city knows that at least eighty percent of the participants are dead behind the eyes; walking and talking and staring at their screens but not really alive in the deepest sense of the word.

That’s not a comfortable way to live for anyone who’s even vaguely self-aware.

Not surprisingly therefore we look to stories to compensate for our own highly malleable sense of self. The hero has a moral code, an unshakable commitment to values they won’t abandon no matter how orthogonal those values may be to quotidian norms. The hero is prepared to accept losses we ourselves would do absolutely anything to avoid, in order to remain true to him/herself.

Heroes don’t make the thousand tiny compromises we ourselves make every single day, which over time result in the erosion of any inner capability for resilience and self-reliance we may once have tenuously possessed.

The hero, of course, has several advantages we lack.

Most don’t have families to worry about or mortgages to pay. Heroes can stand apart because they are responsible primarily to themselves. In addition most heroes have other advantages denied to the rest of us: they are wealthy or powerful or possessed of skills to which most mortals can’t aspire. The great author Destiny has marked them out as the protagonist; the rest of us are, at best, members of the Chorus.

For nearly all of our evolutionary history, violence was an ever-present fact of life. That’s why our earliest stories tend to concern fights, battles, and physical prowess. Despite the fact that today our world is very different, our hardwired concern with raw physical force is so strong that we still have far fewer heroes of the intellect than of the fist. The merest glance though any best-seller list of movies, books, or TV shows clearly reveals how deeply drawn we are to depictions of righteous violence even in today’s urban domesticated societies.

This notion of righteous violence brings us to the next aspect of the hero: the hero lives in a world of black-and-white morality. In the world of the hero the villains are obvious.

In real life, things are rarely so simple.

We desperately want things to be simple, however, which is why every terrorist is evil and every one of “our guys” is good. Every criminal is bad and every cop is out there protecting and serving us. The less intelligent and informed a person is, the more black-and-white is their worldview. This is why less intelligent and poorly educated people evince greater religiosity than more thoughtful and more adequately informed citizens. It’s why the populists of this world reliably attract those whose lives are marked by inadequacy, failure, and severe cognitive limitations.

The cult of the hero, especially in its modern form of all-powerful muscled action figure, is a childish thing. We gravitate towards the hero because they seem to offer us a compensation for our own limitations. But the hero is an empty vessel and depends entirely on grotesque over-simplification of the challenges we actually face in real life. We may sometimes wish we could punch our annoying co-worker, but what would our daily lives be like if it were really possible? We’d simply have workplaces dominated by those whose size and strength allowed them to tyrannize everyone else.

Civilization depends on us being part of a vast web of interconnected actions based on some mutually accepted norms of civility and adherence to rules.

Sometimes these rules are anachronistic or absurd, in which case the more enlightened among us attempt to change them while everyone else protests against the proposed change, because change confuses most people. We like to cling to what we know, even when it’s grotesquely dysfunctional.

Sometimes, if we’re threatened with violence, it’s necessary to respond as an action hero would: with speed, aggression, and total commitment. But today most people in the West will never get into a single major struggle never mind a life-or-death conflict. So we need to leave our caped crusaders behind and look for heroes who more adequately reflect the world we truly live in. We need to accept that there are rarely black-and-white answers to complex problems.

We should try to remember that today our desire for heroes is primarily a compensation mechanism. Those of us who indulge in hero fantasies are, ironically, perhaps the least likely to be heroic when called upon to act. Precisely because we take refuge in fantasies that rely on black-and-white morality, we fail to recognize real moral challenges when they confront us in all their complexity. We follow the herd and then go home to salve our conscience by gawping at the latest action-adventure movie or by fidgeting nervously over the console of some mindlessly violent first-person-shooter video game.

Far from emulating our heroes we become the SS guards at Auschwitz or the ICE personnel who throw terrified children into cages. Because we’re “just doing our jobs.”

Those who have the moral fortitude to oppose group norms when they have become toxic are few and far between, but they all have one thing in common: they feel little need for escapist fantasy. These people are their own real-life heroes because they know who they are and they aren’t crushed under a blind need to conform at any cost. These are the few who understand that just because everyone else around them is parroting the same slogan and doing the same thing doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

If we want to save ourselves and those we care about and those we will never meet but upon whom we depend for everything we value, we need to abandon our obsession with fictional heroes and become slightly more heroic ourselves.

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