The Authentic Hero's Quest


Here’s another favorite of mine from August, 2011.  I hope you enjoy it.
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?
Art:  Rogier Van der Weyden, St. George and the Dragon
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8 Responses

  1. You touch upon the issues that are so crucial for our times, and you do it in a beautiful way as usual. The masculine is in dire need of redefining by our culture. A book I really enjoyed in connection to this topic was “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine” by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. The male psyche is in crisis and needs to be decoded anew.

    1. Thank you. I agree that this is crucial, and key to our evolution as a species which is acquiring greater psychological knowledge and a deeper spiritual connection. I read Moore and Gillette’s book many years ago and it was formative in my understanding of the male psyche. Our masculine and feminine sides have been misunderstood and stereotyped for far too long. The result is the dangerous world we live in today. We are capable of creating a more balanced world, but this won’t happen until individuals acquire greater psychological awareness of our true inheritance!

  2. Thank you for an important post Jeanie!
    “The only thing apt to change it is the awareness that not everyone thinks this way and there are healthier alternatives.”
    While I definitely live “on the fringe,” I am happy to share some good news – I see signs of an emerging masculine alternative almost on a daily basis. I work at a dream school where the few men who attend are constantly trying to connect with their own feminine energies (towards wholeness, not simply a new model of feminine superiority), and I am involved with a community group in Asheville that holds men’s groups for healing through writing and sharing. I know this is the minority, and certainly no mirror for mainstream culture, but I am still enthused to see some men (of all ages) in my community trying to move towards a new paradigm.

    1. This is good news indeed, Amanda. I, too, know men like this and find them so very refreshing and inspiring. I agree this is an emerging trend and I couldn’t be happier about it! I appreciate the confirmation that my instincts are in accord with your experience! Many thanks.

  3. This is a wonderful post to share at this time as it seems like we are in the midst of a serious transformation of this archetypal dynamic and the associated archetypes. The key is to realize we all have this within us, men and women. In fairy tales we see the warrior as witch repeatedly and the role of this archetype is to protect the young feminine. As such, the young innocent feminine cannot emerge from hiding until the warrior/witch/victim is transformed. It appears in all of us as anger, defensiveness, judgment, walls of protection in whatever form they take. As we challenge old patterns and stories, we can transform this archetypal dynamic and free ourselves. Then we can be an amazing presence for change in the world like MLK, or Gandhi…

    1. As I mentioned to Amanda, I too see us in the midst of a major psychological transformation. Your description of its particular elements and requirements is clear and astute! Thank you for your most helpful comment.

  4. Like many, I have both archetypes within–fighting it out. The wise warrior and the obsessive winner-grabs-all warrior. A part of me bit the cultural achievement hook although I know better. My misguided obsessive warrior is married to the Negative Mother, in my case. I’m grateful I can and do question my motivations, but this morning my son told me I am just a little obsessive about my work. He delivered the unsurprising news with a smile. Caught red-handed and red-faced. So the inner dialogue continues. Thanks for your clarifying post. It gives me a sense of synchronicity.

    1. Elaine, I always enjoy your thoughtful and articulate comments so much! Like you, I’ve been doing this kind of inner work for years, and yet I discover new things about myself all the time! “Red-faced and red-handed” captures my embarrassment perfectly, but so do “tickled pink” and “in the pink!” As you know so well the rewards of self-knowledge are so incredibly fulfilling that you can’t stop craving more! So yes, we may be a bit obsessive about our work, but we are also living our lives with a passion for balance and meaning, and I believe that this us what will “save” us from negative extremes. At least this is what I’ve found to be true for me so far! 🙂 Blessings, my sister. Jeanie

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