The Real World Has No Ending

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In talking about the Heroic Life, there are two conflicting ideals that one can aspire to.

There's the ideal of being a hero—someone who stands up for justice and does the right thing against all odds. As I define it, this is someone who helps others at great personal risk, with no stake in doing so. You might have your own definition. Either way, kids grow up imagining themselves as heroes. And many of us, as adults, will be faced with the real-life choice of acting heroically (or doing nothing) at some point in our lives.

Then there's the ideal of living a lifestyle modeled after the great heroes. This lifestyle represents an inexhaustible urge to go out, test one's limits, and expand them. It is a lifestyle of reveling in the thrill of challenge. It means having a clear sense of purpose, a love of adventure, and the self-discipline to hone your art. Traveling is a necessary part of this lifestyle. Heroes journey, and test themselves: that is what they do.

These two ideals—the hero and the heroic lifestyle—do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Some people are heroes who never live that lifestyle; some live it and never become heroes. Pursuing a lifestyle and pursing an end goal can lead a person in very different directions. Faith designer C. Luke Mula even goes so far as to say that no spiritual path can effectively pursue both. So which is more important?

Being a hero is alluring. We see heroes in our most moving stories and images, both from sacred mythology and popular fiction. There is something exciting about stepping into that role.

But it's a crappy goal.

The title of "hero" is something you cannot award yourself. There is no academy of heroes handing it out, either. It's a title that's gained or lost based on the views of those around you. Even if you have the chance to do something heroic and you succeed, you may never be recognized for it. It's not something you can control.

I want to be clear: there's nothing wrong with wanting to be a hero. In fact, psychologist Zeno Franco suggests that being able to imagine yourself as a hero is a key determinant in whether you will stand up for others when no one else will. Cultivating a heroic imagination makes you mentally prepared to, well, behave heroically.

But there is a difference between imagination, whether it be epic myth or Harry Potter, and reality.

In our imagination, every story has an ending. Doing the right thing might be scary, but if you have the courage to try you'll either succeed or fail. At the end of the movie, you know whether the hero won. If they did, the story is over. If not, you expect a sequel so they can make a comeback. That's what makes an epic story.

The real world has no ending. It's a big black box. Even when you know the right thing -- and you do it—you may never get any resolution.

This lesson was driven home for me two weeks ago. I saw a man become violently aggressive toward his girlfriend. I chose to step in and intervene. I was able to talk him down and defuse the situation.

You might think that this was a dream come true for me. After all, I write every week about learning to live a heroic life. Surely I was on cloud nine after this, right?

Not even a little. Even though I stopped the immediate threat, at the end of the night, the couple was still together. I didn't feel heroic at all; I couldn't sleep that night, and I've spent every day since then asking if I could have done anything more.

It was a black-and-white situation, where someone had to take action quickly, and I did. But all it taught me was how little is really under my control, and how even doing the right thing can have very uncertain consequences. Even if the story has a happy ending (for instance, if she sought abuse counseling and broke up with him the next day), I'll never know about it.

This is how life is. You see only a tiny bit of the world. You can control even less. We all know life isn't like the movies, but that runs deeper than any of us would like to admit.

As I struggle to live the Heroic Life, more and more the focus is the lifestyle. By learning to make a living on the road I have freed myself to go where I want, as the ancient heroes did. By working relentlessly to challenge and improve myself, I become as ready as possible to stand up for others if it's needed. And if it isn't, that's fine—I love the life of freedom, adventure, and self-challenge. It is the most beautiful thing on earth.

How many of you are drawn to that same kind of lifestyle? What do you picture such a life looking like? I'm in the first stages of thinking how this can be a movement, rather than one man's lifestyle, so please leave a comment and share your thoughts. What do you think?