Heroism for the 21st Century

Heroism for the 21st Century April 21, 2021
Rosa Parks

What society is and always has been,” wrote Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, is “a symbolic action system … designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

Each culture has different scripts for achieving heroism. It might be the heroism of a liberator like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. There is the scientific heroism of Charles Darwin, or the literary heroism of Virginia Wolf. Not least of all is the mythic heroism of figures like Christ, the Buddha, or Odysseus.

Besides these grand forms of heroism, there are also modest forms. Becker writes about the “heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, or the simple priest; the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.”

The cultural scripts for heroism are myriad. They can be secular or magical, political or artistic. But all hero-systems, says Becker, are symbolic systems that allow individuals to “earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”

Today, a quick-witted entrepreneur could find her heroism in Silicon Valley by founding a hot new tech company that forwards the promise of never-ending progress. Activist may find their heroism in a perpetual quest for an ever more equal society. Meanwhile, an Evangelical missionary finds his or her heroism in the impossible but imperative goal of saving each and every person from damnation.

It’s not an accident that the most powerful social movements of today are the ones with the most clearly defined hero-systems. The “crisis of meaning” of modern society might be re-framed as a “crisis of heroism.” Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that “God is dead” may have put too much emphasis on the “God” part. I believe the crisis of meaning doesn’t so much have to do with the collapse of metaphysical religious systems as it has to do with the collapse of earthly hero-systems.

As societies have grown larger and more globalized, there’s been a failure to meet a growing demand for individual heroism the world over. In small societies, a man might become the best hunter or story-teller in his clan. A woman might earn her fame as an oracle, singer, or healer. The leader, the shaman, the artist, the dancer, the musician all had a relatively high chance of achieving, or growing-into, one of the heroic roles of their community. These roles were in turn reinforced and upheld by a cosmic system that upheld their value even beyond death. But today there are more of us. By the law of large numbers, someone is going to be better than you; if not today then tomorrow. True greatness is difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, the societal hero-systems of religion that offer cosmic specialness to anyone who submits to their worldview are atrophying. It’s not clear where we’re supposed to get our sense of heroism.

I don’t think it’s an accident the anti-hero became a prominent feature of 19th century European literature around the same time Nietzsche was diagnosing the malady of nihilism.

In America, the dominant hero-system has become aligned with wealth-acquisition. Success—even in fields like art and many branches of American religion—is often measured in terms of financial gain. You might even say there’s developed a heroism of hedonism where individuals are celebrated for their excesses of luxury, sex, fame, or drug use. Needless to say, these forms of societal status or achievement, however, do not provide a stable sense of primary value and meaning that a genuine societal hero-system would.

We cannot afford to wait around for society to provide us a better hero-system. We must take this responsibility into our own hands. While we can rarely expect to change society on our own, any one of us can change which hero-system we identify with. But rather than switch from one societal hero-system to another, we can instead found our worth on a personal system of heroism.

Ask yourself: how are you currently gaining your heroism? In other words: where have you sought to gain your sense of worth? Who or what determines that worth? If the answer is another person, symbolic societal status, or a material thing, then that worth can always be taken away (even if it appears relatively stable). On the contrary, if your heroism resides in who you are—in your way of being—then no matter what you gain or lose, your sense of primacy is secure.

Nietzsche wrote that “one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself.” For this, he recommended an ennobled self-styling of one’s being: “One must give value to their existence by behaving as if ones very existence were a work of art.”

What is your vision of your heroic self? Odds are you know what that person looks like—how they speak, move, and act. Is your heroic self accompanied by trumpet calls and shows of courageous justice? Does it consist of a devoted motherhood and fierce love? A stewardship of knowledge or a long life of cloistered contemplation and humble service? There is no single answer, but for each of us there is a right answer.

Not all of us can start a revolution, write a great novel, or lead a country. But through dedicated self-work and service on behalf of others, all of us can live into a personal heroism that dignifies our lives in our own eyes. If we can achieve that, it will show in our walk, it will sound in our voice, it will glint in our eyes; the world will know what we know: that we have earned our heroism, and it cannot be taken from us.

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