The other day I read an article on the internet about a mostly male mindset called the “culture of honor” which places such a high value on defending one’s reputation that it results in more risk-taking and accidental deaths. Reportedly, this way of thinking is most prevalent in small towns and rural areas of the South and West in such states as South Carolina, Wyoming, and Texas. I wondered: What myth inspires these unfortunate men to take such dangerous risks that they are killing themselves? Why do they follow it? I found my answer in the wisdom of two of my favorite authors: Joseph Campbell and Carol S. Pearson.
Campbell tells us that classic hero myths feature powerful male warriors who slay dragons to prove themselves and become masters of the world. Instead of recognizing this as a metaphor for the ego’s heroic struggle for consciousness, patriarchal cultures have tended to take it as a literal model for external achievement, encouraging people to climb to the tops of hierarchies where they can define what the heroic ideal is and decide who is entitled to it: usually the few. We see the dark side of this interpretation in ruthless political leaders and business moguls who deliberately spread lies and foster conflict and hatred to keep their money and power rather than trust the masses enough to share with them.
Pearson describes another unhealthy consequence: “focusing only on this [interpretation of the] heroic archetype limits everyone’s options. Many…men, for example, feel ennui because they need to grow beyond the Warrior modality, yet they find themselves stuck there because it not only is defined as the heroic ideal but is also equated with masculinity. Men consciously or unconsciously believe they cannot give up that definition of themselves without also giving up their sense of superiority to others — especially to women.” Pearson gives the example of the main character of Owen Wister’s book, The Virginian, who leaves his bride on their wedding day to fight a duel for honor’s sake. Why? Because the only other role available to him is the victim, or antihero.
An obsession with the hero-kills-the-villain-and-rescues-the-victim plot distorts healthy heroic behavior (having the courage to fight for ourselves and change our worlds for the better) into the dangerous “culture of honor” ideal we see among the young working-class and minority men who still embrace it in many parts of the world. Isolation, impoverishment, religious fanaticism, social disenfranchisement and inadequate education all feed this mentality. The only thing apt to change it is the awareness that not everyone thinks this way and there are healthier alternatives.
Pearson’s research in the 1980’s revealed that women were rediscovering the true meaning of the dragon-slaying myth. Their story in which there are no real villains or victims — just heroes who bring new life to us all — is being adopted by males and females alike. While the timing and order may be slightly different for men and women, we all go through the same basic stages of growth in claiming our heroism. “And ultimately for both [genders], heroism is a matter of integrity, of becoming more and more themselves at each stage in their development.” This is the Jungian path of individuation.
The heroic, self-disciplined quest to avoid the inauthentic and the superficial conquers the slumbering dragon of unconsciousness and births the courage to be true to one’s inner wisdom. An individuating person knows, in Pearson’s words, that “assertion and receptivity are yang and yin — a life rhythm, not a duality.” Freed from the tyranny of conflict between opposites, such a person names our divisiveness and promotes care, cooperation, compassion, community and unity. Do you know someone who fits this description of an authentic hero?