Beth Harmon’s Hero’s Journey: The Psychology of Heroism in “The Queen’s Gambit”

This short booklet explores the heroic life of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Why are people so drawn to her story? What is so powerful about her heroic journey?

Beth Harmon is a young woman living in a man’s world. She is dirt poor. She’s lost not one but two mothers. She’s addicted to drugs and alcohol, and because of the severity of her losses, she’s emotionally stunted. She may be a chess genius but she’s an American playing a game that has been dominated by the Russians for decades.

As we watch Beth’s life unfold, it becomes clear to us that Beth’s most formidable opponent in life is not her mother, her addictions, or even the male dominated world in which she lives. Her chief adversary is herself.

The ultimate underdog, Beth Harmon manages to climb to the top of the chess world. Harmon ranks among the finest and most inspiring hero characters in television history.

Beth Harmon’s Hero’s Journey: The Psychology of Heroism in “The Queen’s Gambit” is now on sale at Amazon.com.

10 Life Lessons We Can Learn From Donald Trump

By Scott T. Allison

Years ago, my mother taught me that we can learn something important from every person that we encounter. Donald Trump, the 45th US President recently defeated in the 2020 election, was someone from whom we can learn many enduring lessons about how to live a healthy and happy life.

Here are ten such life lessons that Donald Trump taught us:

1. The importance of humility

Known as the mother of all virtues, humility is the antidote to pride and narcissism. While many public figures are narcissists, Donald Trump was an extreme one. He had a grandiose sense of self-importance, sought praise and admiration, bullied and intimidated others, and believed that many basic rules of life didn’t apply to him. His ego would not allow him to accept his loss to Biden in the 2020 election. As a result of his toxic narcissism, Trump was in constant legal trouble, had a long track record of volatile and broken relationships, and almost destroyed America’s democracy. The lesson is clear: humility plays a pivotal role in living a happy, healthy life.

2. The importance of growing throughout the lifespan

Dozens of psychologists over the past century have proposed stages of human growth and development. These stages involve moral, emotional, spiritual, social, and other types of development. People are meant to evolve into caring, sociable, emotionally stable beings. Donald Trump’s volatility, egotism, friendlessness, and penchant for wrongdoing all suggest that he is stuck at very early, immature stages of development. The lesson is clear: we are designed to grow into our best selves, capable of cultivating healthy habits and healthy relationships.

3. The importance of unifying people

Heroic leaders succeed in unifying people. Consider Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They saw all people as valuable regardless of color, nationality, religion, and more. Heroes build unity, whereas villains foment discord and divide people. Donald Trump spent his four years in the White House disparaging people of Mexican, Arab, and Chinese descent. He also vilified Democrats and any media who disagreed with him, and he was even willing for the US to go to civil war rather than accept his loss in the 2020 election. The lesson is clear: Good people and good leaders brings us together rather than divide us.

4. The importance of role modeling appropriate behavior

Good leaders are role models who set a good example and give cues about appropriate behavior. Psychologists know this from the famous Milgram obedience study. When the experimenter told research participants that it was okay to apply painful electric shocks to another person, they did so. Donald Trump made daily hostile attacks toward others on Twitter and at his rallies. Those attacks encouraged his followers to show intolerance and direct violence toward others. The lesson is clear: it is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to role model kind, loving behavior.

5. The importance of planning for future generations

During his term as president, Donald Trump rolled back nearly 100 environmental protection rules and laws designed to provide future generations of people with clean water and air, and to protect animal life. He did this during a time of mass extinctions and unprecedented climate change. For Trump, it was all about short term gain at the expense of long term well-being. The lesson is clear: It is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to think of the well-being of the next several generations.

6. The importance of science

While he was president, Trump repeatedly disregarded the recommendations of scientists and the medical community. He boasted that his instincts were more reliable than factual data. His disregard of science damaged our planet and caused thousands to die from COVID-19. The lesson is clear: if humanity is to survive, leaders need to listen to science and act on the recommendations of scientists.

7. The importance of truth-telling

Although almost all politicians take liberties with the truth, Trump took outright deception to a new level. His mountain of lies could always be verified by objective fact-checking organizations. Trump’s prevarications got so bad that Twitter would censor him and news organizations would cut away from his news conferences to set the record straight. His Big Lie, the one all authoritarian leaders use to abuse power, was that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fraudulently. The lesson is clear: Good leaders, and good people, tell the truth.

8. The importance of cultivating loving relationships

Like most narcissists, Trump had a long history of mistreating people and sabotaging relationships. He was belligerent and bullying in real life, and especially on Twitter. He routinely abused and bullied women, and was estranged from many of his friends and associates. The lesson is clear: healthy people enjoy stable, loving relationships with others.

9. The importance of good leadership and followership

This article has outlined several criteria for good leadership. But just as important is good followership. Followers should be wary of overly self-confident leaders. Even more importantly, followers need to question leaders who scapegoat others, who diminish others, and who stir up anger. The lesson is clear: good leaders bring out the best in us, and if they don’t, it’s up to followers to replace those leaders.

10. The importance of not being a cautionary tale

The most important reason for being a good human is that it’s the right thing to do. If that weren’t enough, consider the legacy issue: How do we want to be remembered? Trump’s legacy is one of dishonesty, corruption, abuse of power, treason, and disregard for our planetary ecosystem. He got all the fame that he craved for, but at great cost to his name and to all of humanity. The lesson is clear: do not be a cautionary tale.

Donald Trump isn’t the only politician who has these ten lessons to teach. Many disastrous leaders in history have similarly tarnished legacies. No single American politician, however, has ever illustrated these ten life lessons with such clarity and urgency. Let’s all work at becoming our best selves, not our worst. And let’s be sure to elect our best leaders, who are always those who help bring out the best in all people.

 

The Grinch: A Villain Makes a Hero’s Journey

tumblr_lwoa32M1pW1qcyr71By Suzanne Lucero

Around this time of year a person might find his or her thoughts turning to a well-known literary character whose ultimate redemption holds hope for even the most hard-hearted of individuals.

I am speaking, of course, of the Grinch.

In the first sentence of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (by Dr. Seuss), we are introduced to the villain of the piece.

Every Who

Down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT.

That’s terrible, we think. Who doesn’t like Christmas? A few sentences later, though, we are given the probable reason for the Grinch’s dislike. His heart, you see, is two sizes too small. Suddenly, the Grinch is a tiny bit sympathetic, and we sort-of understand when he declares,

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But, HOW?”’

This is the inciting incident. The Grinch thinks Christmas means noisy toys and feasting and singing, so how does he stop all this from happening? The Grinch comes up with a plan, a “great, grinchy trick,” and puts it into action. In other words, his journey begins.

He begins by making a Santa Clause hat and coat. (He foregoes the snowy-white beard, though. Maybe it itches.) Then he decides grinch+with+doghe needs a reindeer to complete his St. Nick impersonation. For this he enlists his tiny dog, Max. The Grinch ties a horn on top of Max’s head, thereby changing the dog from a mere pet to a minion: Max will be aiding the Grinch by pulling his sled.

The plan starts well. The Grinch has Max pull the sled into Who-ville and proceeds to steal everything from the first house he sees. The only obstacle that presents itself to the Grinch comes in the shape of a child who has woken up to get a glass of water. When she asks why he is taking the Christmas tree, he placates her with a lie and sends her back to bed. The Grinch continues to ransack the village until all the presents, all the decorations, and all the food for the feast is packed into bags, loaded precariously on the sled, and pulled:

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpet,

He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it.

(You’ve really got to be feeling sorry for Max at this point.)

The Grinch gloats. He’s won! Christmas can’t come, now. Everything is gone and the Whos will all be crying. He pauses to savor his victory and puts his hand to his ear to listen.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!

Why, this sound sounded merry!

It couldn’t be so!

But it WAS merry! VERY!

In the hero’s journey, there comes a point where he or she must “enter the cave.” This is the ultimate low point in the story. The hero is alone, either physically or emotionally. Everything he or she has been working for is crumbling and the antagonist has triumphed; the hero is, actually or metaphorically, dead.

This is the Grinch’s cave. This is where he realizes he’s failed.

 He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming.

IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same.

But How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a hero’s journey, not a morality tale. For all villains, unless they are true psychopaths (which is a medical condition), the cave offers a final chance to redeem themselves. When their defenses have been beaten and they are no longer fighting but only trying to understand why they failed, their hearts can be touched with a little thing called grace.

Then the Grinch though of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

That was the elixir the Grinch found in his cave, the piece of him that was missing. He realized that material things don’t bring happiness. Simply being together with those we love is reason enough to sing.

the_grinch_cut_the_first_roast_beast_by_rhetoric_of_sushi-d4jyzdfAnd what happened then …?

Well … in Who-ville they say

That the Grinch’s small heart

Grew three sizes that day.

With this new understanding and (we hope) love in his heart, the Grinch completes his hero’s journey by returning everything he has taken from the Whos and sharing in their celebratory feast.

Merry Christmas everyone.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Suzanne Lucero is a wife, mother, and pre-published author who knows a little about a lot of things and is constantly learning more. She is passionate about writing and is determined to publish her novel-in-progress within 5 years.

 

 

The Queen’s Gambit Tells the Ultimate Underdog Hero Story

By Scott T. Allison

The Queen’s Gambit is one of those miniseries that shouldn’t work but somehow does. What could be less exciting than watching two people sit at a table silently playing a board game that most of us don’t really understand?

But here’s the secret to The Queen’s Gambit’s success:  It tells one hell of a hero’s story.

And as we’ve been saying for years, as long as a story captures the beauty and inspiration of the hero’s journey, and does so in a new and interesting way, it will find an audience.

Let’s start with our hero, Beth Harmon. We really shouldn’t like her. She’s cold, aloof, self-destructive.

Why are we drawn to this hero? Well, we all know that people love an underdog, and Beth is an underdog in five different ways. Maybe even six. It’s a bit sledgehammered, but it works.

First, Beth is a woman competing in a man’s world. Second, she’s not only an orphan, but a double-orphan. Third, she’s an addict. Fourth, because of the severity of her losses, she’s emotionally stunted. Fifth, she is poor.

We can also add that she is an American playing a game that is dominated by the Russians.

Like all good heroes, Beth has a superpower: She is a brilliant chess player, possessing more raw talent than anyone.

Beth also has a superpower within the superpower: She can mentally play out the winning moves of a chess game on the ceiling of any room she is in.

Like all good heroes, Beth has her kryptonite: She is hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her pain cuts deep — hence her need to self-medicate with sedatives.

Beth thinks she can only win at chess when she’s drugged up. All good heroes are missing something important and must find these missing qualities to succeed. Beth lacks self-insight, self-regulation, and courage.

So the set-up of the story is clear. If only Beth can get out of her own way, she can rule the chess world. That’s a big “if”. Especially for a person who doesn’t attract friends easily.

The good news is that every hero receives help, even Beth. Her mentor is a janitor at the orphanage named Mr. Shaibel. Later Beth receives help from former competitors whom she has defeated: Townes, Harry, Benny, and the twins Matt and Mike.

On the eve of Beth’s match with the great Soviet champion Borgov, her childhood friend Jolene shows up. Beth benefited from Jolene’s stable, sensible influence years earlier and needs it now more than ever. Jolene offers to pay for Beth’s travel to Russia.

Returning to the orphanage to attend Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, Beth learns that her old mentor had followed her career closely and supported her from afar. This discovery reduces her to tears — her first show of emotion.

The ice has cracked. Beth is now fully human and ready to become her best self.

All good hero stories end with the hero returning home. The Queen’s Gambit portrays this return home in a wonderful and unique way. After defeating Borgov in Moscow, she mingles among a throng of Mr. Shaibel-like old men playing chess in a Russian park.

She has returned “home”, so to speak, only as poet T.S. Eliot once said, home is now completely different. The hero now sees home with a new set of eyes.

By playing chess with one of the Russian Mr. Shaibels, Beth is now giving back what was once given to her. Once transformed, the hero helps transform others. And as Joseph Campbell said, the hero is now in union with all the world.

Beth Harmon was a pawn who became a Queen. You rarely see a hero’s journey better than that.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Obligation to Greatness

By Scott T. Allison

Recently, sports journalist Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, discussed Tiger Woods’ scoring a septuple bogey 10 on a par 3 in the final round of the 2020 Masters golf tournament.

Kornheiser didn’t talk at all about Tiger’s shotmaking gaffes. Instead he focused on what Tiger did after carding his disastrous score.

Tiger birdied 5 of the next 6 holes, a feat that Kornheiser called, “The Obligation to Greatness”.

I was struck by this line and immediately Googled it to see its origins and usage. To my surprise, “the obligation to greatness” appears most often in a religious context, referring to our call to transcend our earthly ambitions. From this perspective, the obligation to greatness is God’s wish for us to become our best selves.

My feelings about this phrase, “the obligation to greatness”, are a mix of inspiration and cautionary dread.

The inspiration is the more obvious emotion. All my work on heroism this past decade has focused on helping and encouraging people to reach their fullest, most heroic potential. Despite life’s challenges, and maybe even because of them, we can all be heroes. We can overcome our struggles, and our suffering, to offer hope to others, help others, and thus make a positive difference in the world.

The caution I feel about “the obligation to greatness” is that it may feel like a burden to those who are not yet ready to heed the call. For many of us right now, life is one slap in the face after another. There are economic challenges. There are the hurts of broken relationships. There are health challenges. Achieving “greatness” may be the last thing on our minds. Just getting through the day seems like challenge enough.

So where does that leave us? Wrapping our minds around “the obligation to greatness” may require a creative tension. We can trust that the obligation is there, but only when we are ready to fulfill it. Not before.

During our struggles, we can trust, even to a slight degree, that something bigger and better is waiting for us. Trusting the process is very hard when there are bills to pay, hurts to mend, and tears to shed. This is why so many good mentors encourage us to hold on.

So today, I am telling you:  Hold on.  I am here for you. I am telling you that even by holding onto life by a thread, you are fulfilling your obligation to greatness, whether you are aware of it or not.

– – – – – – – – –

 

 

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 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.

This conceptualization of the universe is consistent with some physicists’ argument that the physical universe operates like a neural network, a Matrix-like computer system that operates similar to a human brain.

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 beings 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.