Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Suffering and Sacrifice: The Necessary Ingredients of Heroism

Question-About-Suffering1By Scott T. Allison and Gwendolyn C. Setterberg

“Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary life.” – C.S. Lewis

Are pain and suffering destructive experiences to be avoided, or are they opportunities for people to develop an extraordinary life? The wisdom of spiritual philosophies throughout the ages has converged with modern psychological research to produce an answer: Suffering and sacrifice offer profound gains, advantages, and opportunities to those open to such boons.

Our review of the wisdom gleaned from theology and psychology reveals at least six beneficial effects of suffering. These include the idea that suffering (1) has redemptive qualities, (2) signifies important developmental milestones, (3) fosters humility, (4) elevates compassion, (5) encourages social union and action, and (6) provides meaning and purpose.

1. Suffering is Redemptive

Buddhism teaches us that suffering is inevitable but can also be a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. The Buddha cautioned that the desire for enlightenment and awakening asks much from those who seek it. One must turn toward the root-of-suffering-is-attachment-570x377suffering to conquer it. Buddhists redeem themselves by channeling the full energy of their attachments to the physical world – the cause of all suffering – into compassionate concern for others.

Christianity also embraces the redemptive value of suffering. Foremost in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the idea that all human suffering stems from the fall of man (Genesis 1:31). The centerpiece of suffering in the New Testament is, of course, the portrayal of the passion of Christ through the Synoptic Gospels. For Christians, Christ’s suffering served the purpose of redeeming no less than the entire human race, elevating Jesus into the role of the Western world’s consummate spiritual leader for the past two millennia.

Our previous work on the psychology of heroism has identified personal transformation through struggle as one of the defining characteristics of heroic leadership. Nelson Mandela, for example, endured 27 years of harsh imprisonment before assuming the presidency of South Africa. Mandela’s ability to prevail after such long-term suffering made him an inspirational hero worldwide. Desmond Tutu opined that Mandela’s suffering “helped to purify him and grow the magnanimity that would become his hallmark”.

In the field of positive psychology, scholars have acknowledged the role of suffering in the development of healthy character strengths. Positive psychology recognizes beneficial effects of suffering through the principles of posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth, positive adjustment, positive adaptation, and adversarial growth.

A study of character strengths measured before and after the September 11th terrorist attacks showed an increase in people’s “faith, hope, and love”. The redemptive development of hope, wisdom, and resilience as a result of suffering is said to have contributed to the leadership excellence of figures such as Helen Keller, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shiva Nazar Ahari, Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling, and Ludwig van Beethoven, among others.

2. Suffering Signifies a Necessary “Crossover” Point in Life

Psychologists who study lifespan development have long known that humans traverse through various stages of maturation from birth to death. Each necessary entanglement on the human journey represents painful progress toward becoming fully human, each struggle an opportunity for people to achieve the goal of wholeness. According to Erik Erikson, people must successfully negotiate a specific crisis associated with each growth stage. If mishandled, the crisis can produce suffering, and it is this suffering produces the necessary motivation for progression to the subsequent stage.

Erikson was the first psychologist to describe the causes and consequences of the “midlife crisis”. According to Erikson, middle-aged people often struggle to find their purpose or meaning in life, particularly after their children have left the home. The only way to move forward is to carve out a life of selfless generativity. A Life-stagesgenerative individual is charitable, communal, socially connected, and willing to selflessly better society. Generativity is the only antidote to the midlife crisis. Generative individuals are among society’s most valuable human assets; they are often called the elders or heroes of society.

A recurring theme in world literature is the idea that people must plummet to physical and emotional depths before they can ascend to new heights. In The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus descends to Hades where he meets the blind prophet Tireseas. Only at this lowest of points, in the depths of the underworld, is Odysseus given the gift of insight about how to become the wise ruler of Ithaca. The Apostles’ Creed tells of Jesus descending into hell before his ascent to heaven. Somehow, the author(s) of the creed deemed it absolutely necessary for Jesus to fall before he could “rise” from the dead.

In eastern religious traditions, such as Hinduism, one encounters the idea that suffering follows naturally from the commission of immoral acts in one’s current or past life. This type of karma involves the acceptance of suffering as a just consequence and as an opportunity for spiritual progress.

The message is clear: we must die, or some part of us must die, before we can live, or at least move forward. If we resist that dying – and most every one of us does – we resist what is good for us and hence bring about our own suffering. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed that “the foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of true suffering.”

Paradoxically, if we avoid suffering, we avoid growth. People who resist any type of dying will experience necessary suffering. Those who resist suffering are ill equipped to serve as the leaders of society. Our most heroic leaders, like Nelson Mandela, have been “through the fire” and have thus gained the wisdom and maturity to lead wisely.

3. Suffering Encourages Humility

Spiritual traditions from around the world emphasize that although life can be painful, a higher power is at work using our circumstances to humble us and to shape us into what he, she, or it wants us to be. C.S. Lewis once noted, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Richard Rohr opines that suffering “doesn’t accomplish anything tangible but creates space for learning and love.” Suffering serves the purpose of humbling us and waking us from the dream of self-sufficiency.

Humility is a major step toward “recovery” in twelve-step programs such Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous, and Al-Anon. Step 1 asks participants in theseHumility programs to admit their total powerlessness over their addiction. The spiritual principle at work here is the idea that victory is only possible through admitting defeat. Richard Rohr argues that only when people reach the limits of their private resources do they become willing to tap into the “ultimate resource” – God, Allah, the universe, or some power greater than themselves.

In twelve-step programs, pain, misery, and desperation become the keys to recovery. Step 7 asks program members to “humbly ask God” to remove personal defects of character (italics added). This humility can only be accomplished by first admitting defeat and then accepting that one cannot recover from addiction without assistance from a higher power. In the end, selflessly serving others – Step 12 — is pivotal in maintaining one’s own sobriety and recovery.

4. Suffering Stimulates Compassion

Suffering also invokes compassion for those who are hurting. Every major spiritual tradition emphasizes the importance of consolation, relief, and self-sacrificial outreach for the suffering. Buddhist use two words in reference to compassion. The first is karuna, which is the willingness to bear the pain of another and to practice kindness, affection, and gentleness toward those who suffer. The second term is metta, which is an altruistic kindness and love that is free of any selfish attachment.

Biblical references to compassion abound. According to James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” In Mark 6:34: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, Compassionbecause they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” For Jesus, compassion for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the unclothed, the widowed, the imprisoned, and the orphaned was at the core of his heroic leadership.

Psychologists have found that just getting people to think about the suffering of others activates the vagus nerve, which is associated with compassion. Having people read uplifting stories about sacrifice increases empathy to the same degree as various kinds of spiritual practices such as contemplation, prayer, meditation, and yoga. Being outside in a beautiful natural setting also appears to encourage greater compassion. Feelings of awe and wonder about the universe and the miracle of life can increase both sympathy and compassion.

Being rich and powerful may also undermine empathic responses. In a series of fascinating studies, researchers observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection. They discovered that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other motorists rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Luxury car drivers were more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk rather than let the pedestrian cross the road. Compared to lower and middle-class participants, wealthy participants also showed little heart rate change when watching a video of children with cancer.

These data suggest that more powerful and wealthy people are less likely to show compassion for the less fortunate than are the weak and the poor. Heroic leaders are somehow able to guard against letting the power of their position compromise their values of compassion and empathy for the least fortunate.

5. Suffering Promotes Social Union and Collective Action

Sigmund Freud wrote, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love object or its love.” It is clear that Freud viewed social relations as the cause of suffering. In contrast, the spiritual view of suffering reflects the opposite position, namely, that suffering is actually the cause of our social relations. Suffering brings people together and is much better than joy at creating bonds among group members.

Psychologist Stanley Schachter told his research participants that they were about to receive painful electric shocks. Before participating in the study, they were asked to choose one of two waiting rooms in which to sit. Participants about to receive shocks were much more likely to choose the waiting room with people in it compared to the empty room. Schachter concluded that misery loves company.

Schachter then went a step further and asked a different group of participants, also about to receive the shocks, if they would prefer to wait in a room with other participants who were about to receive shocks, or a room with participants who would not be receiving shocks. Schachter found that participants about to receive shocks much preferred the room with others who were going to share the same fate. His conclusion: misery doesn’t love any kind of company; misery loves miserable company.

Effective leaders intuitively know how to use suffering to rally people behind a cause. This leadership skill can be used to achieve evil ends, as Franklin_D_Roosevelt_Quotationswhen Adolf Hitler roused the German people to action after their nation suffered from the aftermath of the first world war. Leadership that uses suffering to achieve a moral or higher purpose can be said to be heroic leadership. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were masters at capitalizing on the suffering of British and American citizens to bolster resilience and in-group morale. Suffering can be the glue that binds and heals after everything has seemingly shattered.

Suffering can also mobilize people. The suffering of impoverished Americans during the Great Depression enabled Franklin Roosevelt to implement his New Deal policies and programs. Later, during World War II, both he and Churchill cited the suffering of both citizens and soldiers to promote the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, tea, biscuits, coffee, canned milk, firewood, and gasoline.

In North America, African-Americans were subjugated by European-Americans for centuries, and from this suffering emerged the heroic leadership of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, among others. The suffering of women inspired Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a host of other heroic activists to promote the women’s suffrage movement.

6. Suffering Instills Meaning and Purpose

The sixth and final benefit of suffering resides in the meaning and purpose that suffering imparts to the sufferer. Many spiritual traditions underscore the role of suffering in bestowing a sense of significance and worth to life. In Islam, the faithful are asked to accept suffering as Allah’s will and to submit to it as a test of faith. Followers are cautioned to avoid questioning or resisting the suffering; one simply endures it with the assurance that Allah never asks for more than one can handle.

For Christians, countless scriptural passages emphasize discernment of God’s will to gain an understanding of suffering or despair. Suffering is endowed with meaning when it is attached to a perception of a divine calling in one’s life or a belief that all events can be used to fulfill God’s greater and mysterious purpose.

Friedrich Nietzche once observed that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl suggested that a search for meaning MeaningSufferingBitransforms suffering into a positive, life-altering experience: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice…. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (145). It appears that the search for meaning not only alleviates suffering; the absence of meaning can cause suffering.

The ability to derive meaning from suffering is a hallmark characteristic of heroism in myths and legends. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949) discovered that all great hero tales from around the globe share a common structure, which Campbell called the hero monomyth. A key component of the monomyth is the hero’s ability to endure suffering and to triumph over it. Heroes discover, or recover, an important inner quality that plays a pivotal role in producing a personal transformation that enables the hero to rise about the suffering and prevail.

Suffering is one of many recurring phenomena found in classic hero tales. Other phenomena endemic to hero tales include love, mystery, eternity, infinity, God, paradox, meaning, and sacrifice. Richard Rohr calls these phenomena transrational experiences. An experience is considered transrational when it defies logical analysis and can only be understood (or best understood) in the context of a good narrative. We can better understand the underlying meaning of suffering within an effective story.

The legendary poet William Wordsworth must have been intuitively aware of the transrational nature of suffering, sacrifice, and the infinite when he penned the following line: “Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, and shares the nature of infinity.” Joseph Campbell connected the dots between suffering and people’s search for meaning. According to Campbell, the hero’s journey is “the pivotal myth that unites the spiritual adventure of ancient heroes with the modern search for meaning.”

Conclusion

For an individual or a group to move forward or progress, something unpleasant must be endured (suffering) or something pleasant must be given up (sacrifice). Humanity’s most effective and inspiring leaders have sustained immense suffering, made harrowing sacrifices, or both. These leaders’ suffering and sacrifice set them apart from the masses of people who deny, decry, or defy these seemingly unsavory experiences.

Great heroic leaders understand that suffering redeems, augments, defines, humbles, elevates, mobilizes, and enriches us. These enlightened leaders not only refuse to allow suffering and sacrifice to defeat them; they use suffering and sacrifice as assets to be mined for psychological advantages and inspiration. Individuals who successfully plumb the spiritual treasures of suffering and sacrifice have the wisdom and maturity to evolve into society’s most transcendent leaders.

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This article is based on a chapter authored by Scott Allison and Gwendolyn Setterberg, published in ‘Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership’, in 2016. The exact reference for the article is:

Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals, (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bibliography

Allison, S. T., & Cecilione, J. L. (2015). Paradoxical truths in heroic leadership: Implications for leadership development and effectiveness. In R. Bolden, M. Witzel, & N. Linacre (Eds.), Leadership paradoxes. London: Routledge.

Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J.K., & Bachelder, J. (2009). The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 115-129.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2008). Deifying the dead and downtrodden: Sympathetic figures as inspirational leaders. In C.L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Psychology and leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New World Library.

Cambpell, J. (1971). Man & Myth: A Conversation with Joseph Campbell. Psychology Today, July 1971.

Diehl, U. (2009). Human suffering as a challenge for the meaning of life. International Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts, 4(2).

Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Beacon Press.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-394281-4.00004-0

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2016). Transforming motives and mentors: The heroic leadership of James MacGregor Burns. Unpublished manuscript, University of Richmond.

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.) (2014). Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gunderman (2002). Is suffering the enemy? The Hastings Center Report, 32, 40-44.

Hall, Langer, & Martin (2010). The role of suffering in human flourishing: Contributions from positive psychology, theology, and philosophy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38, 111-121.

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Constructing Heroic Associations: Making a Good Line Better

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

There are many iconic quotes or lines from books, movies and television that crystallize an image of a hero, or a heroic moment. Earlier we discussed Nathan Hale, and his unforgettable last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, the image of Clint saying “Go ahead, make my day,” is unforgettable. Such quotes create a clear, sharp and unforgettable image. But some memorable moments are made more so by readers and audiences making a good phrase even better, thus making the words even more heroic and more memorable.

Several examples are notable. We have written before about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and the related importance of sidekicks for many such heroes. For Holmes, that person is his friend and colleague Dr. John Watson. If people know only one specific Holmes quote, it is likely to be this comment to his partner, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s all well and good, but in the four Conan Doyle novels, and his dozens of stories, Holmes never utters that phrase. He says “elementary” often enough, and he frequently says “my dear Watson,” but he never links the two. But the two go so naturally together, that they create a better image of Holmes and his relation to Watson than the many phrases that only come close to the memorable combination.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, people easily recall one of the last scenes in Dirty Harry where the villain is deciding whether to reach for his pistol. He’s uncertain whether Harry has any more bullets in his .44 magnum handgun. Harry snarls, “Do you feel lucky?” It’s a popular culture phrase. But there’s one problem. Eastwood never says it. Rather, he says, “You’ve got to ask yourself a question. €˜Do I feel lucky?'” But the phrase as remembered is more natural and quotable, and can be used conversationally more easily. And in fact, Dirty Harry follows up his statement above with “Well, do you punk?”

Another example from film: In the well-loved movie Field of Dreams the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice in his cornfield, “If you build it, they will come.” That memorable phrase is often used in conversation. It makes a point about how activity of various kinds can attract others, and it is nicely associated with the characters in the film. Except again, that’s not what Costner says. The voice he hears refers to a single individual, perhaps Shoeless Joe Jackson, or perhaps Costner’s father. It says: “If you build it, he will come.”

One of television’s most iconic series, subsequently made into a number of films and several sequel series, was Star Trek. And fans love Captain Kirk’s line, “Beam me up, Scotty.” This classic phrase underscores the role of one of Kirk’s sidekicks, Scotty, who frequently is called upon to transport Kirk safely from danger. But once again, this exact phrase is never uttered.

One final example:  Watch the movie Casablanca again, and listen carefully. Do Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart, playing Ilsa Lund and Rick Blaine, ever smile at Dooley Wilson, the piano player, and demand, “Play it again, Sam”? The answer is no. They say variations of the line, but never that exact line.

Why does this happen? Human beings have a need to organize experience in coherent ways. We create meaning, and construct memories that make the flow of events we encounter even more meaningful. Vivid images, such as the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, and pithy quotes, such as “Make my day,” stay with us. If we can make them even easier to remember than they are already, our constructive memories will do that for us.

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References

Goethals, G. R., Messick, D. M., & Allison, S. T.  (1991).  The uniqueness bias:  Studies of constructive social comparison.  In J. Suls & B. Wills (Eds.), Social Comparison: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 149-176).  New York:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

ReelHeroes.net — Our Analysis of Heroes in the Movies

By Scott T. Allison

My good friend Greg Smith and I have two things in common:  We love heroes and we love movies.  Greg is an expert in fictional writing and character development in storytelling.  I’ve been studying heroes for more than a decade and have published many books on the subject.  And so by establishing ReelHeroes.net back in 2013, Greg and I found a way to combine our interests and our expertise.

What is the mission of ReelHeroes.net?  Our goal is to critique the heroic characters in recent and classic movies.  Typically, movie reviewers focus on the quality of the movie.  We do that, too.  But we’ve found in our research that people need heroes.  Hero stories are psychologically important to us.  These tales educate, they inspire, and they entertain.  And the typical hero journey follows a classic pattern and a series of stages that are characteristic of all hero stories throughout the ages.

When movie-makers acknowledge these patterns, we usually get a satisfying movie-going experience. But when they ignore these ancient, time-honored paradigms, the story usually falls flat.  So at ReelHeroes.net, we’re not only be able to tell you if a movie was good or bad, but we can also pinpoint where the hero-storytelling was good or not so good.

We base much of our hero analysis on the work of Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who detected the following pattern in all hero stories:

(1) The hero starts out in a safe, familiar world.

(2) The hero is summoned, either willingly or unwillingly, into a new, dangerous, unfamiliar world.

(3) The hero is charged with some goal or mission.

(4) The hero encounters other people who fill important social roles — mentors, lovers, villains, sidekicks, & father figures are common.

(5) The hero then overcomes some missing internal quality to attain the goal.

(6) The hero is transformed significantly and returns to the familiar world.

(7) The hero then delivers the meaning of the journey.

Greg has used this pattern extensively in Agile Writers to help his students compose effective and entertaining novels.  In the past few years, he’s helped people compose over a dozen first drafts and several self-published books.  They’ve all relied on these tried-and-true stages of the hero journey.  Two members of the Agile Workshop have been nominated for the coveted James River Writer Best Unpublished Novel Contest.

At ReelHeroes.net, we  sometimes refer to other models of heroism in our reviews.  Paul Moxnes has a model based on family structure, arguing that heroes emerge within a family hierarchy (e.g., Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters, Servants, etc).  In our own research on heroes, we’ve found that heroes tend to possess The Great Eight characteristics.  Heroes are smart, strong, selfless, caring, resilient, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.

It’s our goal to review mainstream movies that people who appreciate a hero analysis will want to see. We even occasionally review old classic movies with an especially strong hero story. We’ll avoid genres such as horror or slapstick comedy (although we confess to being avid Three Stooges fans). We love to review bad films as much as good films because it gives us a chance to see where the artist deviated from the acknowledged structures — and wonder how in the world did this film get made!

So join us as we explore the hero journey in action on the big screen.  We use the word “action” deliberately, as the work of any good hero involves acts of good deeds.  As Robert Downey, Jr., once observed, “Hero is not a noun, it’s a verb.”

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The Deal We Strike With Our Heroes

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill

A few weeks ago we posted a blog entry that posed the question of whether we expect too much from our heroes.  With so many heroes falling from grace in the past few years, we suggested the possibility that we hold them to too high a standard.  We also offered some reasons why we might expect more virtuous behavior from heroes than we do from the average non-hero.

Our good friend Greg Smith, who is the founder of Agile Writers, read our blog post and contributed a thoughtful comment that really got our attention.  Greg raised the possibility that we enter into an implicit exchange relationship with our heroes.  The exchange relationship carries with it an unspoken agreement that we make with heroes, and it goes something like this:  We agree to give heroes our adulation and support, but in return they must maintain an idealized image of human greatness.

Greg describes the bargain in the following way:  “You [the hero] reflect what we want to see in ourselves.  But if you reflect the reality of us as people and a society, then you’re just one of us after all.  And therefore, you’re no more special than we are and you have to come down from your pedestal and stand in the muck with the rest of us.”

If a hero misbehaves, we consider it a breech of contract and we withdraw our admiration and support.  We may also show considerable anger about the contract violation — witness the outrage directed toward Tiger Woods that still lingers to this day.  A broken agreement can turn a hero into a villain rather quickly and easily. Prominent examples, besides Tiger, include David Petraeus, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, and Joe Paterno.

The idea that we enter into implicit agreements with the successful and powerful is not a new one.  In 2005, psychologist David Messick published an article in which he proposed that an implicit contract exists between leaders and followers.  The contract states that we’ll let leaders lead us if they provide us with a vision, a sense of pride in the group, and group security and protection.  In return, we’ll give leaders our loyalty, effort, and support.

We may have a similar implied agreement with celebrities and the rich.  The terms of the unspoken agreement may be that we’ll let famous celebrities have their fame and wealth, and we may even become their fans, but only as long as they earn their affluence honestly, pay a higher percentage of taxes, behave well, and don’t abuse their privileged status.

What’s most interesting about these implicit agreements is that highly successful people are either not aware of them, or they find it extremely difficult to honor them.  Those of us among the lowly masses seem to be much more sensitized to these informal contracts with heroes.  Maybe this is because we’d much rather be a hero than a hero would want to be us.  If we’re going to put them up on an enviable pedestal, the least they can do is follow basic rules of common decency.

Sometimes, after they’ve fallen, former heroes know they violated the contract.  Tiger Woods admitted as much.  “I knew my actions were wrong but I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply,” he said.  “I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by – I thought I could get away with everything I wanted to.  I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.”

Tiger’s confession is consistent with the results of several psychological studies showing that the more power and success that people enjoy, the more they believe they don’t need to play by the same rules as the rest of us.  And yet it is when someone becomes a hero that we most expect them to play by those rules.  For this reason, maintaining one’s heroic status may be just as challenging as becoming a hero in the first place.  Ironically, one of the most common ways to become a villain is to become a hero first.

All because of the deal we strike with our heroes.

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Hero Stories Give Us Wisdom

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

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This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

Did The Advent Of Fire Inspire Hero Stories?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

“We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

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We begin with a day in the life of early humans.

Life is hard. Lifespans are short. An early death is the norm, either from disease or from danger. At night, tribes huddle around fires for warmth, food, safety, and security. But they also gather around community fires for something else that is nearly as important.

They come to hear stories.

The elders of the tribe know that because life is nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), the members of the tribe are afraid. Those members – many of them sick, hungry, injured, or tired — seek some understanding of their misery, some sense of meaning to buoy their spirits.

As the elders begin reciting their stories, the huddled masses seated around the fires, in desperate need of comforting, lean forward in eager anticipation. They may not be consciously aware of what they need from these stories, but their need is strong nevertheless.

The stories told by the elders are hero stories. They tell of ordinary men who are called to go on great journeys or who face formidable life challenges. The protagonists in these stories are described as small, weak underdogs who must transform themselves in important ways to overcome long odds to succeed. These heroes receive assistance from enchanted and unlikely sources. Remarkable cunning and courage are required for these men to triumph. Once successful, these heroes return to their original tribe to bestow a boon to the entire community.

As tribe members soak in these inspiring hero stories, they themselves are affected in profoundly positive ways. Thanks to these stories, fears are allayed. Hopes are nourished. Important values of strength and resilience have been underscored. Life now has greater purpose and meaning.

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Today’s humans are no different from early humans in their thirst for heroes and heroic leadership. The attraction to greatness in other human beings is as strong as ever. Our goal here is to outline a set of psychological events responsible for the powerful and inescapable allure of strong heroic figures.

We propose that a complex web of phenomena exist that capture the human drive to create heroes in our minds and hearts, in storytelling, in our behavior, and in virtually every crevice of every human culture. We call this web of phenomena the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

We use the term dynamic, and its multiple meanings, intentionally. In its noun form, dynamic refers to an interactive system or process. Used as an adjective, dynamic describes this system or process as energizing and always in motion, a system that drives people toward heroes and toward hero storytelling.

We argue that the human desire to generate heroes implicates a complex system of psychological forces all geared toward developing heroes, retaining them as long as they prove psychologically useful and, yes, even discarding heroes when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic can almost be described as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

At the beginning sits our craving for heroes, borne out of a longing for an understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Our early ancestors gathered around fires at night for reasons that went far beyond the physical benefits produced by fire. We propose that for these early humans, the drive to create heroism in their minds, in their stories, and in their culture was as necessary for their mental and emotional well-being as the fire was for their physical well-being.

And we suggest that humans today are no different at all.

Our human craving for heroes, our need for the psychological benefits that heroes offer, and our desires over time either to retain our heroes or to repudiate them, all comprise the constellation of phenomena that are implicated in the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

And yes, an important part of the dynamic — maybe the most important  — is that it offers a framework for understanding the drive that all of us have to become heroes ourselves, given the right circumstances.

This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

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