Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Can Heroes Be… People?

By J. A. Schultz

On December 12, 2018, University students took down a statue they believed to be racist. It had been erected only two years prior but was almost immediately the subject of controversy and vandalism. However this wasn’t a Confederate statue in an American school.

This was at the University of Ghana.

And the statue was of Mohandas “Mahātmā” Gandhi.

In the West this would come off as rather shocking as Gandhi is often seen as a hero. A man of wisdom and nonviolence. However this view turns out not to be universal. Gandhi had lived in South Africa for two decades in his youth but his critics argue that while he had advocated for the rights of Indians, he had ignored the blight of native Africans even referring to them as “kaffirs”– a derogatory term used against the native people. A man who wasn’t necessarily opposed to Apartheid. This is a legacy not often heard of in the West, but it is one remembered in Africa. And due to this, Gandhi is not always regarded as a hero there.

And this is an important lesson when dealing with heroes or even people have grown to admire. Understandably we tend to like these people to be “pure” in thought as deed. Perhaps mistakes were made in the past, but our heroes have grown past them. Improved. Move on. Inversely however there are also critics of our heroes — or perhaps we’re the critics of some “media darling” — who point out their failings and question the legitimacy of their heroic status.

So which is it?

The thing that is often lost in the debate is the fact that heroes (whether we believe the title is warranted or not) are in fact people. Flesh and blood people who have good days, bad days, slips of the tongue, or simply don’t completely understand the world they live in.

Just like everybody else.

And while this may seem like common sense — an obvious truism that doesn’t need to be stated — it is still a question that haunts us: Do good deeds outweigh the bad? Does the bad outweigh the good? Can people actually change and if so, how much should the past be put aside? Do our own prejudices and preconceptions cloud our judgments? Most importantly: is heroism diminished by other, unrelated, deeds? Is Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work diminished by his extra-marital affairs? Are the founders of the United States diminished due to their position on slavery? What do we focus on?

In the end this is a subject we have to agree to disagree on. But it is just as important to understand that we’re not dealing with fictional characters here but real people. People who are often just as lost in life as you or I. People who not only make mistakes and don’t always repent for them to our liking.

Admire Gandhi the Mahātmā.

Criticize Gandhi the young lawyer living in South Africa.

But don’t forget that they are the same person.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, is a writer who is upset that he will be portrayed as a villain in the 2103 movie release of “You Call That A Book?”.

The Science Behind Why We Celebrate Mother’s Day

By Scott T. Allison

It’s a familiar story – a mother sacrifices her life to save her children. On February 7, 2019, Kristina Stratton ran into her burning home to rescue her four kids from their upstairs bedrooms. The children made it out safely, but Stratton succumbed to the flames.

Each year we celebrate Mother’s Day, and for good reason. Our mothers are our Number One Hero, according to our surveys. Fathers occupy second place in our hero surveys, but they are a distant second.

Mothers are indeed the mother of all heroes.

For the past several years, psychologists have been able to pinpoint the precise reasons why people need heroes. Our heroes appear to serve four important functions, which spell out the word DIME: (1) Defense and protection; (2) Intelligence and wisdom; (3) Moral modeling; and (4) Enhancement and inspiration.

Our mothers excel at fulfilling all four of these functions. Here’s how mothers do it:

1. Mothers Defend and Protect

Kristina Stratton is certainly not the only mother who has died while defending and protecting her children. Hundreds of mothers around the world perish each year while shielding their kids from danger. Legendary stories of mothers sacrificing their lives abound, and in fact there are so many tales throughout the ages that Snopes and other fact-checking sites question their veracity.

Legends are usually based on truth, and there is no doubting the truth about our mothers’ willingness to make the deepest of sacrifices for their children.

The protection function of heroes is seen in our respondents’ comments about why their mothers are their heroes. Typical responses include, “My mother protected me from neighborhood bullies” and “My mother kept me safe from predators.” Rebecca M. Fischer, a student researcher at the University of Richmond, found that mothers are “biologically driven to protect, care for, and motivate their children to succeed.”

Other colleagues of mine at Richmond, Craig H. Kinsley and Kelly G. Lambert, have discovered that motherhood changes the brain, producing maternal behaviors directed toward protecting their young from danger.

2. Mothers Provide Intelligence and Wisdom

Scientists are beginning to uncover evidence that intelligence is inherited more from mothers than from fathers.

In addition, mothers tend to be fiercely committed to passing on wisdom to their children. My own mother taught me that the most important things in life are intangible and cannot be bought – love, integrity, character, and honesty.

Many of our most cherished heroes credit their mothers for teaching them fundamental truths about life. George Washington observed that “all I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”

Famed musician Stevie Wonder has said that his mother “was my greatest teacher”. Former First Lady Michelle Obama observed that “Life is practice. I tell my girls this every day, ‘you are practicing who you are going to be.‘ Do you want to be dependable? Then you have to be dependable. If you want people to trust you then you have to be trustworthy. Practice who you want to be every single day.”

A mother’s wisdom is often wrapped in compassion for others. Poet Maya Angelou’s mother encouraged her to “always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”

3. Mothers are Moral Models

Our mothers are heroes to us because they role-model the highest standards of human conduct. Abraham Lincoln once noted that “all that I am, or can be, I owe to my angel mother.” Andrew Jackson claimed that “there never was a woman like my mother. She was as gentle as a dove.”

In his annual Presidential Proclamation of Mother’s Day, Barak Obama emphasized how mothers “shape America’s character”. Many mothers “struggle to raise children while pursuing their careers or as single parents working to provide for their families.” Mothers lead “by powerful example and overcoming obstacles so their sons and daughters can reach their fullest potential.”

As children, we watch our mothers’ selflessness and daily sacrifices, and we learn that we’re all called to perform these acts of kindness for others.

4. Mothers Enhance and Inspire Us

Our respondents to our hero surveys never fail to mention how much their mothers made them better people. Typical responses include, “My mother inspired me to become my best self” and “My mother motivated me to develop my fullest potential.”

Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph’s mother helped the track star overcome polio. “The doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” she said.

Inventor Thomas Edison shared a similar story. “My mother was the making of me,” he said. “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has said that her mother “raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her.”

Our mothers think the world of us and want what’s best for us. They help us all reach for the stars and maximize our fullest potential.

Mother’s Day far exceeds Father’s Day in terms of greeting card sales and gift expenditures, and for good reason. Mothers are our Number One Hero because of the free offering of love that they give us. They are there for us when we need emotional support. Mothers hug us. They comfort us when we cry and let us sit on their laps. They kiss us on our cheeks before school and at bedtime at night.

Yes, social norms are changing and we now see more fathers taking on the role of nurturers than in previous generations. But the emerging science of heroism helps explain why we reserve a special place in our hearts for our heroic mothers.

Powerful Hero Archetypes in Game of Thrones

By Scott T. Allison

Since the advent of language, human beings have been magnetically drawn to tales of inspiring heroes. The powerful allure of heroism is wired into us, and science appears to support that claim. Hero stories fascinate us because we are all potential heroes, and we’re called to follow the same heroic journey as the protagonists in the stories we love.

Game of Thrones, one of the most highly acclaimed series in television history, owes much of its success to its effective portrayal of heroes. There are at least five deep hero archetypes that Game of Thrones uses to create alluring heroes. These archetypes are: (1) the underdog hero, (2) the hero’s secret royal heritage, (3) the hero’s redemption, (4) the heroic transformation, and (5) the hero’s mentor.

1. The Underdog Hero. There are over a half-dozen characters in the series that win our hearts because of their ability to overcome their underdog status. Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf whom everyone seems to underestimate. He uses his wit, intelligence, and wisdom to survive and thrive in Game of Thrones’ harsh world. Jon Snow is the bastard child of Ned Stark, a status that relegates him to third-class citizenship, yet his overall goodness and courage allow him to climb the social ladder.

Two legitimate Stark children, Sansa and Arya, are diminished and underestimated due to the lowly status of women in Westeros, yet their resilience and cunning enable them to overcome evil. Samwell Tarly is at first a lovable coward whom everyone dismisses but he evolves into a brave and stalwart member of the night’s watch. Daenerys Targaryen is, at the outset of Game of Thrones, mere breeding stock for the Dothrakis yet she emerges as the most powerful ruler of the seven kingdoms.

2. The Hero’s Secret Royal Heritage. In many classic fairy tales, the hero is oblivious to their true special identity, which is often that of a king, queen, prince, or princess. Jon Snow suffers the status of an outcast, and unbeknownst to everyone he is actually the true heir to the iron throne.

As mentioned, Daenerys at first is nothing more than a sex slave while her true identity is Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Protector of the Realm, Queen of Meereen, Yunkai and Astapor, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, The Unburnt Breaker of Chains, Lady of Dragonstone, and more.

Bran Stark has been reduced to a crippled boy but soon discovers his true identity as the three-eyed raven who can see the past, present, and future. It should be noted that the “third eye” is considered a sign of deep enlightenment in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures. Bran grows from nothingness into omniscience.

3. The Redeemed Hero. Stories of redemption abound in Game of Thrones. One notable redeemed hero is Theon Greyjoy, an arrogant jerk who develops severe PTSD after enduring lengthy mental and physical torture at the hands of Ramsey Bolton. Humbled almost beyond repair, Greyjoy slowly regains his confidence and appears to be climbing to the status of a leader as the series enters its final season.

Jaime Lannister’s redemption looked next to impossible after he shoved young Bran Stark to his seeming doom in the series’ first episode. Seemingly irredeemable, Jaime has proven himself to be one of the more loyal and honorable Lannisters. In fact, he could be the only person willing and able to stop his evil sister Cersei. The Hound, who was once a vicious killer, is another character who appears to be slowly carving out a redemptive heroic path for himself.

4. Heroic Transformation. During their journeys, heroes undergo significant mental, moral, emotional, spiritual, and physical transformations. The two Stark sisters, Arya and Sansa, each undergo transformative arcs. Sansa grows in confidence and wisdom, whereas Arya grows into a fierce and daring swordsperson. Jon Snow, too, evolves from a mere guardian of the wall into a wise king of the north. Bran, of course, undergoes a striking spiritual transformation.

Theon Greyjoy transforms twice, first from an arrogant lord into an emotionally destroyed cipher, and then from that cipher into a newly empowered lord. Daenerys owes her remarkable transformation to an unnamed servant to Drogo, a woman who teaches the future Queen how to empower herself in her marriage. This act of mentorship sends Daenerys on her heroic journey.

5. The Hero’s Mentor. In classic hero mythology, heroes receive assistance for someone older, wiser, or unusual in some respect. Daenerys has had several mentors giving her advice over the years, the two most prominent being Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister. Jon Snow was mentored by Ned Stark, Davos Seaworth, and Maester Aemon. Snow himself has served as a mentor to Samwell and to Theon.

There have been plenty of dark mentors, too — people who appear to mean well but are intent on steering the hero down a dark path. Sansa Stark’s dark mentor is Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, who manipulates her into making several bad decisions. King Tommen’s dark mentor is the High Sparrow who steers Tommen toward betraying his wife and his mother. Some mentors are a mix of good and bad, as when Arya Stark is trained by the assassin Jaquen H’ghar, the mysterious man of many faces who teaches Arya important skills yet almost destroys her in the process.

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Game of Thrones has won 39 Emmy Awards for a reason – the series has crafted highly memorable characters who have undergone dramatic heroic arcs. We’ve reviewed five ways that Game of Thrones has used powerful hero archetypes in portraying extraordinary heroism. We look forward to the series’ eighth and final season when all these hero journeys reach their natural completion.

We Needed Tiger Woods to Win The Masters

By Scott T. Allison

For years I’ve been telling my students that the reason why we watch movies and read novels is not to be entertained, but to be inspired and educated about life.

The main characters in our favorite stories are telling our story. It’s a story of being swept into painful circumstances, feeling helpless and lost, getting help from others, transforming into something new, and emerging on the other side better than before.

It’s the story of life, and the heroes of our favorite stories are showing us the way. No wonder we pay such rapt attention.

Tiger Woods’ victory in the recent Masters golf tournament illustrates just how the world of sports entertainment parallels the drama and theater of movies, television, novels, and plays.

Tiger, as you may know, burst onto the sport scene as a golf prodigy in the 1990s. He dominated the sport as almost no one ever had. He even won the 2008 US Open while playing with a broken leg. Tiger seemed invincible.

You probably know what happened next. Tiger’s marital infidelities were revealed, suggesting a sex addiction. He took a long sabbatical from golf to get well. When he came back, he was no longer a dominant golfer. Even worse, he began to suffer significant injuries to his ankle, knees, and back.

Every one of his comebacks stalled, with Tiger’s injuries mounting in number and severity. In 2017 he could hardly walk and was worried he might never lead a normal life, let alone play golf again. He underwent spinal fusion surgery as a last resort, a procedure that would impair his ability to swing a golf club but would allow him to live a relatively pain-free life.

Stories were swirling about Tiger’s broken, decrepit body. He was written-off as a player who was once great but who would never again reach the pinnacle of golf.

After recovering from this major back surgery, Tiger discovered he could still swing a golf club, although not in the same way or with the same flexibility and speed. He made adjustments to his swing and practiced as hard as he could, although his aging body would not permit him very much practice time.

In 2018, against all odds, Tiger not only returned to professional golf, he won the PGA Tour Championship. Still, there were doubters. Surely Tiger would never win a major championship, not at the age of 43 and not while competing against today’s younger, stronger players.

Tiger’s victory in the 2019 Masters tournament was a stunning accomplishment. It is being hailed as perhaps the greatest comeback in sports history.

Human beings need good comeback stories. All of us experience loss and failure of some type. It can be a divorce, a disease, a tragedy, an injury, or a transgression. Whatever it is, we all suffer through times in our lives when we’re trying to come back from pain and adversity.

In coming back, Tiger role-modeled many heroic virtues – hope, hard work, determination, resilience, and inspiration.

The sports world is a stage and we are drawn to heroic protagonists on that stage whose stories parallel our own struggles in life. Tiger went on the hero’s journey, suffered, and transcended that suffering.

We needed it to happen.

Growth, Wholeness, and Intelligence are at the Core of the Universal Journey

By Scott T. Allison

A central part of Joseph Campbell’s (1949) genius resided in his ability to see a universal journey among all the great heroes of mythology across the globe and throughout all time periods in human history. Swimme and Tucker (2011) take this universality to its furthest extreme in suggesting that the hero’s journey and the human journey – which are arguably one and the same – represent a microcosm of the journey of the entire known physical universe.

They propose that “the universe is best understood not as discrete incidents of evolution, but as a whole unfolding dynamic and developmental process, which is a like a story” (Mowe 2017, p. 48-50). Swimme and Tucker boldly set out to “create a new genre of a fusion of science and humanities”:

“We’re not looking at science as just facts or numbers or equations or graphs, but science in relation to the humanities – literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and religion and so on. These are the disciplines that have tried to understand how humans have lived in the past and how might we live more integrally in the future. So Journey of the Universe is a conscious fusion of fact, metaphor, and meaning.”

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 15) first examine the origins of the physical universe, including the Big Bang and the creation of galaxies and solar systems. Patterns among physical entities, both immensely small and infinitesimally small, show emergent qualities that are reminiscent of the hero’s journey — birth, expansion, calamity, contraction, and then repetition of the cycle. The authors argue that the universe’s “overall journey depends, in critical moments, upon the transformations taking place in the microcosm.” These transformations, moreover, show the same tendencies toward integrated wholeness that every hero shows on the classic journey: “To commune may be one of the deepest tendencies in the universe.” (p. 51).

The Universe is drawn toward learning, growing, and truth-seeking, with the ultimate truth pointing toward wholeness: “The ancient process of evolution can be understood as a higher-level form of ‘learning’” (p. 60). For example, the entire process of adaptation and memory in animal life is responsible for the ability to turn breath into energy and to transform food into flesh. “Life adapts. Life remembers. Life learns” (p. 61).

This inherent drive to learn is the key toward achieving wholeness and communion. According to Swimme and Tucker, “Humans have at their disposal vast storehouses of learning accumulated and refined over millennia in written and oral traditions. There is little validity to the idea that humans are isolated individuals, for each of us arises out of an ocean of experience and understanding acquired by our species as a whole.” (italics added, p. 90).

The pervasive rhythmic cycle of nature, especially that of expansion and contraction, ensures that death and life form an intelligent whole. Swimme and Tucker (2011) review many recurring patterns of growth and development in the physical universe that map onto patterns found in humanity. The authors pose a number of questions: Does deep geological and cosmological time offer us useful insights into human meaning and purpose? How can the rhythms of the physical world inform us of our own human destiny? “Can it be that our small self dies into the large self of the universe? Are our passions and dreams, as well as our anguish and loss, woven into the fabric of the universe itself?” (Swimme & Tucker 2011, p. 69).

These ideas are reminiscent of the ancient Greek notion of sympatheia, which refers to the phenomenon of all beings on earth and in the heavens as inextricably linked together to form parts of a whole. Sages over several millennia have sensed the centrality of sympatheia in the cosmos, and Swimme and Tucker (2011) invoke Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription from the 11th century as one telling example:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companion.

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 109) suggest that the human journey is a product of deep time, originating with the Big Bang and marked for eternity. “We can begin to reflect on the way in which time, in a cosmological sense, is the creativity of the universe itself… We live not in any mechanical time but in this enveloping cosmological time. We live in that time when Earth itself begins its adventure of conscious self-awareness.”

Swimmer and Tucker (2011, p. 112) further suggest that our purpose may be “to drink so deeply of the powers of the universe that we become the human form of the universe.” Human being may be answering a call to “become not just nation-state people, but universe people…. knowing how we belong and where we belong so that we enhance the flourishing of the Earth community” (p. 113). Swimme and Tucker then make the leap from the universality of the journey to human well-being. First, the authors emphasize the centrality of storytelling in mapping out the realities of the physical universe as well as the human world. “We have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us” (p. 114).

According to the Swimme and Tucker, the Earth has given rise “to the possibility of an empathetic being who could flow into and become one with the intimate feelings of any being. Our human destiny is to become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the Earth community… That is the direction of our becoming more fully human” (p. 115). From this perspective, the connection to well-being is a logical one: “Our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the dynamics of the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves…. Our role is to provide the hands and hearts that will enable the universe’s energies to come forth in a new order of well-being” (p. 117).

All heroes begin their journey missing an important inner quality that they must either recover or discover during their heroic quest (Allison & Smith 2015). Swimme and Tucker (2011) propose that creativity may be humanity’s missing inner quality. Their analysis implies that life on our planet has always been on a hero’s journey and that it has relied on extraordinary creativity for survival and well-being:

“We find ourselves inside an amazing drama filled with danger and risk but also stunning creativity. Two billion years ago, when the [Earth’s] atmosphere became so filled with oxygen, all of life was deteriorating. The only way for the life of that time to survive was to burrow deep into the mud at the bottom of the oceans. The future of Earth seemed bleak. And yet, in the midst of that crisis a new kind of cell emerged, one that was not destroyed by oxygen, but was in fact energized by it. Because of this miracle of creativity, life exploded with an exuberance never seen before…. It is the nature of the universe to more forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces.”

The idea that creativity is essential for heroic transformation is consistent with the metaphor of heroic imagination put forth by Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo (2011). At the human level, heroic imagination “can be seen as mind-set, a collection of attitudes about helping others in need, beginning with caring for others in compassionate ways, but also moving toward a willingness to sacrifice or take risks on behalf of others or in defense of a moral cause” (p. 111). From this metaphorical perspective, unleashing the heroic imagination involves igniting people’s drive to create the best life for themselves and others.

Such heroic imagination implies creativity borne of non-dual thinking (Rohr 2009) and transdisciplinary thinking (Efthimiou 2017a, 2017b; Efthimiou & Allison 2017). Swimme and Tucker (2011) have extended this metaphor of imagination to include the idea that it is embedded in the universe. As products of the universe, the human race has a built-in predisposition toward fulfilling its heroic personal imperative to imagine and create heroic growth for each individual, for all of humanity, and for the planet and cosmos in which we live.

Leading scientists are coming to embrace this direction of the universe. Celebrated physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson once observed: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, moreover, has said: “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”  The journey we’re all on is the universal journey.

References

Allison, Scott T., and Greg Smith. 2015. Reel Heroes and Villains. Richmond: Agile Writer.

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017a. “Heroic ecologies: embodied heroic leadership and sustainable futures”. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, 4, 489-511.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017b. “The Hero Organism: Advancing the Embodiment of Heroism Thesis in the 21st Century”. In Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership, edited by Scott T. Allison et al. New York: Routledge.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. 2017. Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (Eds.) 2018. Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Franco, Zeno E., Kathy Blau, and Philip G. Zimbardo, 2011. “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation between Heroic Action and Altruism”. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Rohr, Richard, 2009. The Naked Now: Learning to See What the Mystics See. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Swimme, Brian T., & Tucker, Mary E. 2011. Journey of the Universe. New Haven: Yale.

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