Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Importance of Heroes

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Uses of Heroes | Introduction 

This text is an exploration of the importance of heroes; why they initially become important to us, and why they continue to be useful throughout our lives.It may be tempting to think of the idea of having heroes as an immature one, as something that we all grow out of eventually. This is perhaps due to the importance that we attach to them in our youth, a time when they seem especially significant. Popular opinion can also have us believe that we should be able to rely on ourselves, and our own egos may add to this impression.The dictionary tells us that a hero is a person admired for their courage or achievements. I’d like to use the term here in a slightly broader sense, as someone that we look up to and admire, for whatever reason. Hero is a masculine term, but for simplicities sake I shall use it here to speak of both men and women.

Uses of Heroes | Early Importance 

From an early age we become familiar with the idea of heroes. The first heroes that we come to know are perhaps those who look after us at a young age, our parents or guardians. These are the first people that we look up to, and, once we come to understand the idea of a hero, they may be the first that we choose to class as such. The fact that heroes matter to us so much when we are younger is indicative of their fundamental importance. When we are younger we are unsure of who we are; we may be building an identity or searching for one, and heroes help us in this process by embodying qualities that we wish to assimilate. A good example of this is comic book heroes. In many superhero comics we have characters who portray universal qualities - those that we value as a society: justice, honour, bravery, empathy, kindness, and so on. These traits are brought to the fore; painted in bright colours and presented within moralistic story lines. The heroes of these comics may be simple, and wear their morals on their sleeves, but their importance to us as children is a microcosm of how heroes will matter to us for the remainder of our lives.

Uses of Heroes | Experience 

The demands of our lives can often limit the ways in which we experience the world, as can the conditioning of the society that we live within. It is easy to become carried along; to lose ourselves in the sea of pre-described experience that is made available to us, and to accept that this is all there is, or all that we should expect.Part of the joy of youth is in the sense of adventure and creativity that we show towards life. There is no urgency about youth, and no real demands are made on our time. We can enjoy languor without guilt; passion without embarrassment. We don’t yet know the conventions of society (or don’t yet care about them) so are free to make up our own rules.The process of adolescence can serve to detach us from this state, as we begin to become aware of, and to conform to, the various pressures of societal conventions. The process of becoming who we are as adults can be seen as a struggle against this conditioning; a struggle that, in a sense, attempts to reunite us with the uniqueness of our childhood selves:

‘’The fact that the conventions always flourish in one form or another only proves that the vast majority of mankind do not choose their own way, but convention, and consequently develop not themselves but a method and a collective mode of life at the cost of their own wholeness … conventions are soulless mechanisms that can never understand more than the mere routine of life. Creative life always stands outside convention … The mechanism of convention keeps people unconscious, for in that state they can follow their accustomed tracks like blind brutes, without the need for conscious decision. This unintended result of even the best conventions is unavoidable, but is no less a terrible danger for that.’’

In going against convention, we may be treading an unknown path, or an ill-advised one. In doing so, it is often helpful to have another to look to for inspiration or consolation. In lieu of (or in addition to) such persons in our immediate environment, we can look to heroes for this function.In glimpsing the world of someone that we admire, we are reminded of something fundamental, something that is all too easy to forget: that other worlds - other ways of experiencing the world, other modes of life - exist outside our own. To many this realisation can be both bewildering and frightening. To some, it can be an inspiration.

Uses of Heroes | Self-development

It is probably true that as we get older we become surer of who we are, but the potential to grow remains throughout our lives. Carl Jung, a pioneering and influential psychologist, advocated a path of self-development that he referred to as individuation.

‘’Jung’s concept of integration is not in fact that of a static mental condition, although it is sometimes misinterpreted as being so. In Jung’s view, the development of the personality toward integration and mental health is an ideal which is never entirely reached or, if temporarily attained, is bound to be superseded. Jung thought that the achievement of optimum development of the personality was a lifetime’s task which was never completed … 2’’

Jung believed that we should always seek to grow; that, despite never being able to reach an ‘ideal’ state, we should always be striving to be the best, and the most, we can be. As our identity solidifies, the process of change that we go through may become slower and less dramatic, but our ability to develop remains.By the time we reach adulthood we will possess a number of self-schema - these are generalizations about the self, derived from past experience. For example, a person may believe themselves to be shy: this belief – ‘I am a shy person’ – will impact upon future interactions and experiences, and can lead to the building of new schema, based around the idea of shyness (‘I’m no good at public speaking’, ‘I’m no good at talking to the opposite sex’, and so on).To change and to grow can be a trying process, and may involve letting go of ideas that we had formerly held close. It is perhaps no surprise then that we eventually reach an age where we believe that ‘we are who we are’. In thinking this we close a door within ourselves, which may come as a relief for some; however, as Jung pointed out, we are never beyond growth.

‘’… for the average person, the undermining and destruction of a cherished vision of reality can be a shattering experience. Such an upheaval is comparable to the disturbance a man suffers when a person in whom he has had ‘basic trust’ turns out to be unfaithful or untrustworthy … Schemata, philosophies, religions, scientific theories, and even aesthetic prejudices, can all act as bulwarks against the basic, cosmic anxiety which we all suffer when we realize how large and how indifferent the world is, and how small and helpless is each individual in it. No wonder we resent having our cherished illusions shattered, our traditional way of looking at things challenged.’’

If we are always growing, then it follows that there will always be people that we look up to; we may not call them heroes, but these people play as important a role as those that we admired in our youth.

Uses of Heroes | Permission 

We have seen that when we are younger we look to heroes for qualities that we wish to realize within ourselves. It is worth noting that our perception of these qualities can be both conscious and unconscious - we may be drawn to a person without a thorough understanding of the subtleties of our attraction, whilst in other cases the basis of our admiration may be quite obvious.

In admiring these qualities in others, we are also recognizing them within ourselves; they may exist only in embryonic or partially realized form, but our detection of them within another is often a signpost towards our own potential.

‘’The youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.’’

In looking to a hero, we are marking out a path for ourselves; from the point at which we currently exist towards that of the person that we admire. In this way, heroes can show us what is possible.For example, we may wish to enjoy life more, to inject more joie de vivre into our day-to-day existence. This realization is itself a start, but it can be tricky to know where to go from here, or how to do it. To have someone who we can look to that embodies this attitude provides us with direction; their actions and words light a route that may otherwise have been dark, and inspire us to venture along that path ourselves. In identifying with a hero, we give ourselves permission to be like them, and to assimilate those characteristics that we admire.

‘’The most important permissions are to love and to change and to do things well. A person with permission is just as easy to spot as one who is all tied up.’’

Attaining permission to do something is often a unconscious process. For example, a fundamental benefit of Art School is that it gives its students permission to be creative. Being surrounded by others who are creating, within an environment in which creativity is a day-to-day normality, facilitates an inner shift. The process of Art School allows the student to think of themselves as a creative person, which then enables them to go on being creative for the rest of their lives.Heroes can provide us with permissions in much the same way. In looking up to someone you bring them into your life, and this proximity is crucial.In becoming close to certain people, we may find ourselves able to think and act in ways that previously seemed unavailable. For example, if a person who is used to the company of largely introverted people were to suddenly become friends and spend time with an extravert, it may free them up in unexpected ways; things that were formerly unacceptable become normal and opportunities arise where before there were none.The closeness of this person allows us a glimpse into another way of being, and their company affords the opportunity to assimilate elements of their persona. In truth, what we are really doing is opening up areas of ourselves that had previously lain dormant or undiscovered. This is a process that many of us may have experienced whilst growing up.A similar thing can also happen with heroes; in bringing them into our lives (with the affirmative, ‘this is a person I admire’) we are privileged with their company, and through this proximity we may be afforded a variety of permissions.

Uses of Heroes | Fictional Heroes 

In our day-to-day existence we generally get to see very little of other peoples lives. We witness a certain amount of those closest to us – our friends and family – but our experience of them is limited. We don’t have access to them in every situation, at every moment, and so our idea of who they are is generally based on what they allow us to see. By giving us a glimpse into the lives of their characters, films allow us to experience other people in a unique way. In spending the duration of a film with a character we may bear witness to a number of thoughts and interactions that we wouldn’t be able to observe in real life. Whilst most of these characters are fictional, and their interactions artificial, we can still draw value from observing the way in which a character interacts with their world. In spending time with a film character, we are allowed to enter into their persona. We can temporarily adopt their outlook and mannerisms, and see the world in the way that they see it. We are removed from ourselves, and are allowed to reflect upon who we are from an altered perspective – a dichotomy is created, between the character and us, and from this all sorts of useful self-analysis can arise.As an example, lets take the character of Wayne Campbell, from the film Wayne’s World. The reality of this film exists at a distance from our own; whilst the world he inhabits is recognizable, much of the film is fantastical. However, the way in which Wayne interacts with his world, and with others, holds truth. Wayne is an upbeat character, and his positive persona is reflected in his interactions; through being in his company, the idea of positivity is fore-grounded, and we may be led to question it in relation to ourselves. Do we admire his positivity? Is positivity something that we value? Are we as positive as he is? Would we like to be? A lot of this analysis may be near-unconscious, and may be represented as a simple like or dislike of the character; however, it is analysis that can affect us, and is relevant to our experience of our world.To use another example; the character of Otto in Repo Man affects an air of disenfranchisement. His world-view is largely negative, and through him we witness the interactions of a young disaffected person. We are asked to identify with Otto, and through this we may make a series of judgements; am I disaffected like him? How do I feel about this? Do I agree with his outlook? Whether we end up liking Wayne or Otto, in spending time in their company we have been compelled to make judgements about their character. In making judgements about others we are inevitably drawing comparisons to ourselves, and reflecting upon our own personality.In this sense, fictional characters like these can operate as heroes. They create opportunity for self-analysis, and through insight into their interactions they facilitate self-development.

Uses of Heroes | Possibilities

‘’The whole value of history, of biography, is to increase my self-trust, by demonstrating what man can be and do.’’

There can often seem to be a great distance between our heroes and us; whilst we may recognize aspects of ourselves within them, their accomplishments can make them seem unattainable; almost other-worldly. This may be particularly true if the person we admire lived in another age.Whilst we can appreciate the achievements of our heroes – perceive talent, or genius – we must realize that our admiration of them also contains the invitation for us to achieve. Heroes can show us what is possible, and it is this that is their primary use.

‘’To feel the full value of these lives, as occasions of hope and provocation, you must come to know, that each admirable genius is but a successful diver in that sea whose floor of pearls is all your own.’’

Circumstances may have led us to believe that we are destined to tread certain paths, or forbidden from following others. This is an easy trap to fall into, and once in it we can find it very hard to climb back out; our own negative self-schema can conspire against us, and things may be worsened by the constricting influence of other people.It is easy to get lost in the sea of other people’s ideas and achievements, and to believe that our own accomplishments are of less worth. A negative outlook can flip the role of a hero, from an enabling, positive presence, to a stifling one. Most of us need people around us who realize our worth, especially if we fail to see it ourselves. These people lift us up; they are localized, with their sights set on us, and in this sense they can provide the perspective that we may sometimes lack. They see our achievements for what they are, and through their eyes we see what we are capable of.This positive network can be furthered by the presence of heroes. For example, in finding out about the life of someone we admire we may realize that they are more normal than we’d at first thought; the details of their lives brings them closer to us, and makes them more attainable. Heroes are there to enable us; to know their lives and achievements is to know what is possible. They should not act as full stops on our ambition, rather as provocateurs or pacemakers.

Uses of Heroes | A Reminder of Who We Are

In the flow of daily existence it is very easy to get pulled out of shape, and to forget who you really are. We probably all experience moments in which we lose sight of ourselves and become, if only momentarily, people that we no longer recognize.Friends and family tend to be our main antidote to this - the safety and familiarity of their company normalizes us. Their expectations of our character, based on knowledge and experience, can be a positive force, re-uniting us with our true selves.It is often hard to maintain the integrity of our personality – as psychologist Anthony Storr points out, ‘people often express the idea that they are most themselves when they are alone.’ In going out into the world and interacting with others - those who don’t know our history, who we really are – we are bound to be pulled out of shape. Conflicts can cause us to act irrationally; certain situations may provoke lapses of character; peer-pressure and other forms of social conformity can limit us. There are many situations that remove us from ourselves, and its natural that we need ways in which we can counteract this.We’ve seen how our heroes can be a reflection of the positive aspects of our own personalities, so it follows that in connecting with them we are also able to re-connect with who we are. This could be through something as simple as watching a particular film or TV programme, listening to a record or reading a book. In doing so we connect with the ideology of our heroes; we’re brought into their world, which is also a reflection of our own.Cultural paraphernalia (such as books, DVDs, records and posters) can act as an assertion of our identity; it can be a relief to arrive home, to a place where you are surrounded by your own objects, because these objects remind you of who you are. In much the same way, to know who your heroes are, and to have them in mind, is to know yourself.

Uses of Heroes | Hope 

We’ve seen that heroes can have a variety of uses. When we are young they aid us in defining who we are, and they can remind us of this when we lose sight of ourselves. They can also guide us in the process of self-development, and can show us how to experience the world in ways in which may have previously seemed unavailable. In this age of easy-celebrity it can seem that heroes are offered up to us all too often, and for too little. It is perhaps easy to forget that one of the most important things we can hope to gain from these people is an understanding of ourselves.The pressures of daily existence can all too easily push us into living a life we neither desire nor recognize. At their simplest, Heroes provide us with hope – they show us that there is another way, and that we are allowed to choose it, if we wish.

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