On the Highs and Lows of the Modern Hero

With Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner, there has, along side the expected conversation on transgendered lives, been an interesting conversation on the notion of heroism. Some have said that Caitlyn is a Hero, while others have responded by posting pictures of soldiers to dismiss this claim of heroism. And though there is a good conversation to be had here on this topic itself, one that has already lead to some interesting shifts in understanding, I would like to take a look at this concept of heroism itself, and how our society uses, and misuses the concept of the Hero.

Joseph Campbell, in his analysis of the concept of the mythological landscape, identifies the Hero as one who challenges and inspires, from example, others to grow and transform into their more mature and more powerful selves.

The Hero is the one who accepts the sacrifices needed to be made to move from their immature child-self understanding of the world, and through the challenge transform into the empowered adult-self. In all our lives, there are those fears, hesitations, and concerns that hold us back from striking out into the world, doing what we know is right, and learning to truly be great. The Hero archetype exists to lead us on the path to challenge these fears, and enables use to mature in mind and spirit and into the adult-self understanding of the world. By following the Hero’s example, we grow past our limitations, and truly mature in the world.

This theme of transformation through challenge runs through the stories of the Heroes throughout the world. Gilgamesh, the first epic hero, was a brutal king before he met the equally brutal beast man that was Enkidu. In the challenges they presented to each other, the two transformed into a pair of heroes so powerful, they threatened the gods themselves. Moses was actually afraid of the public role he was challenged to take, partially due to his fears of speaking because of his speech impediment. But when he faced this challenge, he lead his people to the Promised Land. Hercules, through his labors, transformed his rage and channeled it into a force that helped instead of destroyed. Jesus sought to challenge the status quo of his culture, challenging people to abandon judgement and hypocrisy and take up compassion and charity. Sir Gawain of the round table, accepted a challenge of death from the Green Knight, one that lead to his learning to become perfect in his imperfection.

In the Modern mythic landscape, the Hero still emerges though the concept of challenge. The uniformed heroic archetype, those heroes embodied by soldier, police officers, and firefighters, challenge us by serving to model the courage it needs to face the physical threats and protect our country, homes, and lives. The social hero, embodied by activist leaders like Gandhi, Sojourner Truth, and MLK. likewise challenge us to have the courage needed to face the moral and spiritual threats so as to protect our society from the fear, hatred, and willful ignorance that would destroy us from within.

In the modern discussion, the conflict appears between these two Heroic fronts, pitting the social Hero vs the uniformed Hero. But the truth is that no such conflict exists, and many can and do take up the role of both the uniformed and the social Hero. In my experience with activist groups, I have talked with on duty police who were supportive of the protests, and have regularly found myself in the company of veterans who saw their activist work as the natural extension of their military service.

In reality, this conflict comes from the corruption of the Hero concept. For many, the challenge to grow from the child self is not to be met, but to be destroyed. Rather than face that their current comfortable life could be built on inequality and the oppression of others, they call upon a tainted hero to indulge this comfort. Rather than face the truths that would spur them to their adult-selves and greater maturity, they seek the tainted hero that enables them to attack rather than engage, seeking to destroy the challenge rather than face it. Protesters need to be silenced, and the tainted heroes are the ones willing to take away free speech. Caitlyn needs to be made a target of ridicule, and her  heroic label needs to be attacked by contrasting it with a tainted hero concept that insulates. Anything that threatens that comfortable child-self understanding needs to be driven out, and when real heroes fail to help them do that, they corrupt the concept of heroism itself. Where a real hero would encourage them to grow and care for their fellow man, they cling to the tainted heroes who encourages them to feel good about not giving a f@#k. This is what is at the real core of the conflict.

Because Caitlyn risked social ridicule to not only transform herself, but also to fuel the conversation that could challenge the world and make it more just for those who share her plight, she does deserve the title of “Hero.” The soldiers who go out into danger to protect their fellow soldiers in the field and their community at home, while challenging all of us to be courageous as well, likewise deserve the title of “Hero.” Heroism, after all, is not a zero sum concept. But it needs to be understood that when one uses the heroism of the latter to silence the heroism of the former, they have acted to corrupt and taint that hero they have elevated. They have rejected the hero’s transformative courage, and replaced it with a definition that paints the hero as one who indulges their immature desire not to grow or change.

****As an interesting post-script to this, I was going to post a picture I had found on facebook that just simply said that Caitlyn is a Hero, Soldiers are Heroes, and that this was not a competition. that picture has since disappeared off of facebook, leading me to believe that the picture was reported by someone to be offensive, or that the original poster had been harassed into taking it down,

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