Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

We’re Now Contributors to Psychology Today

Some good news – we’ve been invited to contribute our insights about heroism at Psychology Today’s online magazine.  Over 13 million people visit Psychology Today’s website each month, and we welcome you to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

We’ve already posted several articles about heroes at Psychology Today. The first is called, Do Heroes Make Us Smarter? In this essay, we describe how heroes are our greatest teachers. Heroes model virtue, clarify complex and paradoxical life truths, equip us with emotional intelligence, and reveal how their journey can be our journey, too.

Our second post is called, 5 Surprising Ways That Heroes Improve Our Lives. In this article, we discuss five non-obvious benefits of heroic action. Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.

Our third post at Psychology Today asks the question, Why Are There So Few Heroes? Here we explore various reasons why heroes seem to be in short supply, but we conclude with the promising note that there may be many more heroes out there than you think.

Although we’ll be contributing to Psychology Today, we’ll still be posting hero profiles and analyses regularly at this blog and at our Reel Heroes movie blog. Thanks to all of you for following our work, and please do continue to give us your valuable feedback.

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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.”


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, soon to be published in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Slide1Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership’, in early 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 Allison, S. T., Kocher, C. T., & Goethals, G. R. (Eds), The better angels of our nature: Frontiers in spiritual leadership. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


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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We Can All Be Heroes

Superman-is-a-HeroBy Chelsea Chico

The common persona of a hero is that of the savior of a vast city. With the new millennium, however, our image of heroes has been changing. An important question that we should all be asking ourselves is this: How do we distinguish real heroes from phony ones, especially in our confusing modern times?

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes but the precise definition, image, and character of a hero should be shown through all the colors of light. We should all agree on a few defining principles of heroism: Heroes exceed what is expected of them, they make a positive impact on people’s lives, and they rise above and beyond the ordinary.

We have our daily heroes who barely get any recognition, the most prominent of which are school teachers who mold the minds and lives of young people. Heroic teachers live on small annual paychecks compared to most people who pursue non-heroic careers. Higher paying jobs may require more schooling but why do we associate bigger paychecks with heroic merit? The people in our society with the highest paychecks seem to receive the greatest recognition of their so-called “heroism” at work.

When assessing heroism, it is important to consider motives. Lawyers, police officers, and firefighters are the “protectors” of society, you might say. They fight fires and criminals — but do they do it out of the kindness of their hearts or for the money? m29440204_514x260-Rochester-HeroesIf they are motivated by money, would you put your life in their hands? The genuine heroes seek to help others; they don’t serve others to acquire material gain. True heroes are caring, compassionate individuals who want to save and improve people’s lives independent of external rewards.

Heroism is contagious. One act of heroism inspires another individual to act heroically, as well as another, creating this wonderful domino effect. A single heroic action can have ripple effects that can transform an entire community; the community then affects the city, and the city can inspire a nation and the world. Never underestimate the cumulative social impact of heroism.

Heroism in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has several definitions:

1 : A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.

2 : An illustrious warrior.

3: A man admired for his achievements and noble qualities.

4 : One who shows great courage.

Notice that heroism is not limited by gender. Nor is it restricted by race, occupation, age, height, or weight. Anyone can be a hero, whether a mythological figure or an ordinary citizen. Adopting this broad perspective of heroism makes it clear that heroes need not have a title, a degree, or a large paycheck. Heroism only requires a willingness to selflessly serve others. And YOU can be that hero.

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Chelsea Chico is a first-generation Colombian-American studying Biology with aspirations to become a surgeon or dentist. She is 18 years old and completing her first year of post-secondary education. Some of the things she is passionate about are: electronic music, soccer, family, and standing up for what she feels is right.

Becoming A Hero: What’s Holding You Back?

By Scott T. Allison

The ingredients of heroism are well known to storytellers. A hero embarks on a journey of some kind that begins when he or she is cast into a dangerous, unfamiliar world. The hero is charged with accomplishing a daunting task and receives assistance from unlikely sources. There are frightening obstacles along the way and villainous characters to overcome. After many trials and much suffering, the hero prevails and then bestows a gift to society.

Often overlooked in this journey is the key to the hero’s success, namely, the hero’s acquisition of an important quality that he or she lacks. All heroes start out “incomplete” in some sense. They lack some essential inner quality that they must develop to succeed. This quality can be self-confidence, humility, courage, compassion, faith, resilience, or some fundamental truth about themselves and the world.

The question I have for you, the reader, is: What inner quality are you missing that is holding you back from becoming the hero of your own life story? Another way to put it: What attributes are you missing that you need for success?

If you’re like millions of people, you aren’t sure what you’re missing. Circumstances may not yet have revealed your missing quality. Or people have yet to enter your life who can guide you. If that’s the case, be patient. Buddhists have a saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Who are the teachers in your life? Let’s look at two examples of how heroes in the movies have received help from others to receive their missing qualities.

The Wizard of Oz. In the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is sent by a tornado to the strange Land of Oz. Her quest is to find her way home, and she receives help from three unlikely sources—a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion. She is mentored by a friendly witch named Glinda and, later, by a mysterious wizard. Along the way she overcomes an evil witch, flying monkeys, and apple-throwing trees.

Dorothy’s missing quality is an understanding of “home”. Her new friends teach her that she has always possessed the power to get home. She discovers that home means more than just your house or apartment. It’s wherever the people you love—and who love you—are found.

Gravity. Nominated for Best Picture in 2013, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist stranded in space after her space capsule is damaged. Dr. Stone is terrified and appears to lack the confidence and inner resources to survive her dire situation.

Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, is there to mentor her and instill her with confidence. Dr. Stone summons the courage and resourcefulness to cheat death and return to earth safely.

Movie heroes are not the only ones who benefit from good mentor figures. Rocker Gene Simmons credits his mother for teaching him prudence and self-control. Actor Jennifer Lawrence has thanked her father for helping her learn how to deal with adversity. Barack Obama has said that his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, taught him the importance of sacrifice: “She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life.”

In every good hero story, the hero discovers that he or she is missing something and receives help from others to acquire what’s missing. Every human life is a hero-like journey, making it imperative that each one of us identifies our missing quality.

Here are four steps you can take—not necessarily in this order:

1. Make an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses as a person.

2. Develop a list of your life goals.

3. Assess what’s missing to achieve your goals. List the strengths you lack and the weaknesses that need removal.

4. Find mentor figures to help you.

Some people do Step 4 first. A good mentor can help you identify your strengths and pinpoint what qualities are needed to fulfill your goals. Good mentors should be brutally honest about what you’re missing and how to acquire the qualities you lack.

Many of us fail, and fail badly, before we are willing to seek the help of a mentor figure. Learning from our failures and getting help from mentors is a sign of healthy human development.

Identifying missing qualities and acquiring them is essential for heroes to succeed with their missions. The discovery (or recovery) of these attributes is the basis for the personal transformation that the hero undergoes during the journey. The most satisfying heroes we encounter in storytelling and in real life are heroes who experience this transformative discovery of their missing quality.

One final caveat: Beware the dark mentor. As movies such as Whiplash and Fifty Shades of Grey show us, there are false mentors out there who will send you in the wrong direction. Choose your teachers carefully.


Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

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

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence, and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. San Diego: Elsevier.

Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes, Volume 1. Agile Writer Press.

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How Hero Stories Energize Us

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain the human tendency to generate heroes, benefit from them, and even become them. For as long as humans have been able to communicate through spoken language, they have told stories to each other.  These stories, we suspect, were almost always about heroes.

In Part 2, we proposed that people are nourished by hero stories in at least two essential ways. These tales 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.  In Part 2 we described the epistemic or wisdom benefits of hero tales. Now we turn to the energizing benefits.

As early humans sat around fire at the end of the day, they were in need of more than just physical comfort. Yes, there was disease and injury, but undoubtedly there was also fear and despair. We suspect that people longed for some understanding of their miseries, some meaning behind the suffering they saw all around them. Storytelling provided a salve for their psychological wounds.

Hero stories served at least three important energizing functions for early man — and for contemporary humans, too. Hero stories heal psychic wounds, inspire us to action, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at each of these functions.

1.   Hero Stories Heal Psychic Wounds

Hero stories serve a healing function in several ways. First and foremost, storytelling is community-building. For early humans, just the act of gathering around fires to hear the stories established social connections with others. This sense of family or community was, and is, central to human emotional well-being.

The content of hero stories also promotes a strong sense of social identity. If the hero is an effective one, he or she performs actions that exemplify the community’s most cherished values. The affirmation of a shared worldview, told vividly in storytelling, serves an important healing function.

Group storytelling is, in a sense, a form of group therapy. Many practicing psychologists believe that group therapy owes its effectiveness to group members’ willingness to share their own personal stories of hardship and triumph. When members share their success stories, hope is engendered. Many 12-step recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also promote healing through the open sharing of members’ stories.

2. Hero Stories Inspire Us

The classic mythic hero is often an underdog or ordinary person who is summoned on a journey full of extraordinary challenges. Our research on underdogs shows that we identify with them, root for them, and judge them to be highly inspiring when they triumph. Success on the hero journey requires courage and resilience, which are two of the most inspiring traits among the Great Eight characteristics of heroes.

According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories teach us that challenges and setbacks in life are to be embraced, not avoided. According to Campbell, obstacles help us learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

What Campbell means, of course, is that every human life mirrors the classic hero journey, and that this great adventure, even with its painful parts, can be a source of inspiration. The ups and downs of life are inter-connected, with the downs actually being necessary to produce the ups. This fact should encourage us all to trust that the main purpose of adversity is to transform our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine.

3. Hero Stories Promote Personal Growth

Psychiatrist Karl Stern once wrote that “the evolution of human growth is an evolution from an absolute need to be loved towards a full readiness to give love.” This developmental trend nicely summarizes the transformation that a mythic hero undergoes during the hero journey. At the outset of the journey, the hero is initially missing some important quality. It is often self-confidence, humility, or an accurate sense of one’s true purpose in life.  The hero journey is always a journey toward vast personal discovery.

The discovery, moreover, is the basis of a character transformation that enables the hero to bestow a gift or boon to his or her community.  This boon is the consummate heroic act that culminates the journey. Every good hero does more than just enjoy a voyage of self-discovery. Good heroes use the gift of transformation to change the world for the better. This type of gift-giving is apparent in 12-Step recovery groups, which require members to undergo 11 steps of self-discovery followed by a 12th and final step requiring them to “carry the message” to others in need.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

Author Ken Wilbur believes that heroic transformation often begins with the hero first harboring an elitist view of the world and then eventually moving toward an egalitarian view.  Famed psychologist Erik Erickson also saw the classic human trajectory as beginning with ego-constructing activities early in life and then moving toward a stage of generative activities late in life. When we are generative, we are giving to others what was given to us.

In short, the remarkable personal growth we witness in hero stories serves as a blueprint for our own growth journeys. We need only trust that the path of the hero is our own path toward redemption and growth. When we embrace that path, with all its inherent hurts and fears, we are charting our own course toward beautiful transformation. In this way, hero stories energize us toward self-improvement and selfless action.

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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

The Role of God in the Heroic Journey

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In November of 2012, Paramount Pictures released a film called Rise of the Guardians, based loosely on William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series.   The opening scene of the movie is jarring.  The dead body of an adolescent boy, Jack, floats upward toward the ice-covered surface of the lake in which he has just drowned.  We see what Jack would see were he alive – a jagged hole in the ice above him, growing closer as he rises in the water, and beyond that hole we see an impossibly big, beautiful full moon shining down on his lifeless body.

You probably know the rest of the story.  Not because you’ve necessarily seen the movie or because the story is particularly predictable.  You know it because the tale of the hero’s journey has been told countless times in different forms across all human cultures.  Our hero, Jack, is dead physically but not dead in spirit.  That beautiful moon, which pulled him toward its light, decides to endow Jack with immortality along with the power to create instant snow and ice.  He is now Jack Frost.

Rise of the Guardians is a secularized version of an ancient tale of God’s role in creating and assisting heroes on their journeys.  The moon, of course, symbolizes a divine or higher power, a source of immense light, wisdom, and authority.  The moon is also a mystery to Jack; he does not know why the moon has transformed him into Jack Frost, nor does he understand why the other guardians of the world – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy — wish to recruit him into their heroic fold to fight the story’s villain.  Jack’s efforts to infer the moon’s intentions and motives are a recurring theme in the film.

The spiritual significance of the hero’s journey has been aptly described by Richard Rohr in his 2011 book Falling Upward.  Rohr argues that all heroes are summoned by a higher power to a great journey, and that the catalytic agent of this journey is some type of death, deficit, or wounding suffered by the hero.  The story is as old as the fall of Adam and Eve in the first chapter of Genesis, and it emerges in countless stories of ugly ducklings, Cinderellas, and other underdogs who through magic or divine intervention turn their wounds into triumph.

In Rise of the Guardians, the large, luminous moon pulls Jack toward its light in a manner consistent with many accounts of near-death experiences.  His physical failing is necessary for his spiritual rising and for his true identity to emerge.  In his new life as Jack Frost, the boy is tormented by the fact that no one can see him or his icy cold handiwork.  For centuries he remains unrecognized and unloved, and he is haunted by his lack of memory over the circumstances of his death in the icy waters.

With the help of another character, Baby Tooth, Jack’s memory is restored.  He comes to understand that he died on the icy lake while saving his sister’s life, thus illuminating his destiny as a deserving guardian.  This knowledge empowers Jack to complete the heroic journey that the moon set in motion centuries earlier.  He uses his wounds to transform himself and to redeem the world, much like the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.  Richard Rohr argues that nearly all hero stories follow this pattern.  Unlocking the divine secret of our wounds is the surest path to heroism.

Rise of the Guardians is not the best film of 2012, nor is it the best hero story of the year.  But it skillfully uses the classic elements of the hero’s journey to craft a compelling tale of loss, pain, transformation, and redemption.  The moon’s portrayal of a higher power that instigates the entire journey is unmistakable.  Richard Rohr believes that a higher power summons all humans on this heroic path.  Our falling is necessary for our rising, with setbacks serving as the essential redemptive seeds of our own heroism.  Rohr quotes Julian of Norwich: “First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.  Both are the mercy of God.