The Dark Side of Heroics

Every time there’s a school shooting in the news (seems like every six weeks or so?), I find myself speculating that this person, almost always a young white male, probably believed as deeply and sincerely in his own righteousness as any of us, as dictated by the pretty-much mandatory western heroic worldview.

If life is a competition, and you are the main character (the greek roots of “protagonist” being proto=main and agonist=competitor), then your role, your destiny is to struggle against those who oppose you.

If you are having a rough time in this world, for any reason – your financial situation, your romantic prospects, your grades – then no doubt the struggle starts to feel more and more dire, more life-and-death. The stakes go up, the actions demanded of you (as hero) more extreme.

At the point in the hero’s journey movie where things seem the darkest, the most hopeless and messed up, what almost always happens in the story is that the hero comes up with a daring new plan for setting things right. It’s risky, sure, but it seems to be the only hope for him/her to persevere, to triumph. But it will take a new degree of courage, resolve and grit.

So: your grades keep going downhill, and you’re about to get expelled? Your girlfriend breaks up with you, starts dating someone else, and now she won’t even respond to your text messages? The utility companies are about to turn off your power?

What the Hero’s Journey, interpreted by modern cinema, does not teach, is: “Keep working! Try harder! Ask for help!” It tells us, invariably, “come up with a bold, risky and courageous new plan!”

If you already happen to be deeply angry and feel the world is against you, if you already happen to have a collection of guns and violent fantasies (if not instilled by movies and video games, at least made more vivid and easily imaginable by their first-rate graphics and effects)… what could be more risky, courageous and daring than action-movie revenge?

The script is literally right there. And the question always asked in the media, which is also part of the script, is, “what could have driven this troubled young man to such acts?” …because for some reason it’s impossible, from within the hero framework, to imagine someone else with opposing values and goals acting out their own hero story.

We are all limited by our own world view, experience, values, perspective. It is impossible to fully escape from your own head. But we can work to actively imagine what the world looks like to other people, why they make the choices they make. This creative work, this exercise in empathy, is utterly essential to our survival as a social species. Historically, back to the early ages of nomadic tribes, it was sometimes necessary to fight against outsiders for resources, but it was equally or more necessary to feel connected to members of one’s own community, to be able to transcend differences within the tribe and work together for the common good.

Faux-enlightened mindfulness rhetoric about how “we are all connected” comes on some level from an obscene degree of privilege, from the heights of which it is utterly unnecessary to compete, at least overtly, for resources to survive.

And, it willfully ignores the fact that within the same framework there are plenty of people who feel themselves increasingly embattled, threatened, and alone – losing the ability and resources to relate empathically to any other real-live humans in the world, to imagine an experience other than their own.

It’s actually not easy to imagine the complexity, nuance and depth of the lives of our classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, exes, in which these people have valid reasons for seeing the world differently, and justifiable motivations for acting at cross-purposes to ourselves. Empathy requires willingness, effort and practice. It can be a pain in the ass, it can seem not worth the trouble.

We have plenty of language for pathologizing these lone gunmen, and no doubt they are living in a pretty drastically different world than most of us. But within that world they are the hero, heroically struggling against oppression, against people who are different and don’t understand them, against evil.

From within a protagonist/antagonist dichotomy, it’s basically impossible to reach across that divide. Someone has to be right and wrong, someone has to win and lose. When all you have left is guns and the willingness to use them, that’s how you win. Those are the tools available to assert your worldview and win, even provisionally, for a few minutes. Heroism even allows for martyrdom – for the fantasy that you can take your pyrrhic victory with you to the afterlife, and be both right and triumphant always.

Once the situation grows this extreme, the only resolution within a heroic framework is bloodshed or harshly punitive institutional discipline – lock him up, medicate him into oblivion, execute him. And perhaps the only alternative outcome, however theoretical or distant, is to move beyond the heroic, towards some kind of new way of approaching conflict itself.

Perhaps this is merely another form of new-age enlightenment-speak, perhaps essential competition for resources, money, love, respect, will always be with us as a species – perhaps heroics reflect the reality of a world of non-negotiable struggle for survival.

But at the very least, I think we may be ready as a culture to consider the Post-Heroic, to acknowledge the mere fact that it’s possible for someone sitting next to us to have a radically different perspective, set of values and feelings than we do. If I’m utterly convinced that I’m the protagonist in my story, is it so hard to imagine that you simultaneously believe that you’re the protagonist in yours? And that somehow, neither one of us is wrong?

Could that radical idea lead, even by degrees, toward an increased ability to relate and communicate, toward the first tender threads of something like relationship and a renewed sense of community? I certainly hope so.

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