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Mel Hathorn

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Are You A Hero?
By Mel Hathorn
Last edited: Thursday, November 09, 2006
Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2005

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A couple of nights ago I was teaching my college course in introductory psychology. We were discussing Jungian Archetypes and got into an involved discussion about Joseph Campbell and the Hero's journey often known as a quest. I asked them to describe a hero. They gave the usual responses: firefighters, soldiers, etc.

Then, I asked who in the class thought of themselves as a hero. No one spoke up. We then watched scenes from the film, Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis and Andy Garcia. The theme of the movie was everyone is a hero.

The class realized that ordinary citizens are heroes, single moms who struggle against overwhelming odds to put food on the table and raise decent kids, the cancer patient who struggles against overwhelming odds, the homeless person who tries to eke out a living.

I pointed out to the class they were engaged in a long adventure of learning. This quest caused them great personal sacrifices and hardships. I pointed out heroes were those who struggled to achieve great goals.

It seemed to be a turning point for the class as dawning recognition showed on their faces that heroes didn't have be the brave firefighters, police, etc. It is each and every one of us.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a quest as a search for something of importance, often accomplished by traveling. The object of the quest could be anything of value. It could be the Holy Grail; it could be the ring sought in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. Tolkien. It could be the search for a new cure to a loathsome disease. It could be a personal journey or an exploration for personal truth.

Hollywood has popularized the theme of the quest with such movies as Mulan, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and many others. Donald Marrs in his autobiographical story, Executive In Passage, describes the events in his life during which he resolved the conflict between his values and his material success as a call to adventure. Although he doesn’t use the term quest, he does talk about his process of resolution as a call to adventure.

He quotes Joseph Campbell who says that there are three stages to any call to adventure or quest: Separation, Initiation and Return.

Campbell describes the adventure this way:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

From my own observation and experience, it seems that the stages of the Quest are: hearing a call to an adventure; crossing a threshold which once crossed there is no turning back; meeting a mentor who offers help and guidance; experiencing a series of successes and reverses; reaching a point of despair when all seems lost; finding the resources to overcome defeat and achieving victory; and, the return to society with a great lesson learned and/or a gift to offer others.


The call to adventure happens to most of us at one time or another. Usually it begins as a restlessness or frustration with the way our lives are going. In our culture, this call is often experienced in the work setting. It could be a clash in values between one and their place of employment; it could express itself as disgust with office politics; it could be a conflict in personal priorities such as wanting to spend more time with family and less time working. Regardless of the reason for the call, the one being called begins to realize there is a choice to be made.

Campbell tells us that “the call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of society to a zone unknown.”

Many have followed this call and begun their own journey. They have started new businesses, changed jobs or relocated. Some have just quit and taken their chances. Many more have refused the call, choosing to remain in the “safety” of a job. Many have let fears block them from following their new road.

Refusing the call often brings a price. The price of unfulfilled dreams, the sense of a wasted life, and the bitterness of one who refuses the call are some of the prices to be paid.

We are told in the Book of Proverbs:

Because I have called and you have refused…I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh.”


Once someone has made the decision to follow the call to adventure, there comes a point where one cross the threshold, the point of commitment, from which it is hard if not impossible to turn back. Columbus could not turn back; John Glenn could not turn back. It is only by advancing beyond the boundaries, by crossing borders into unknown territory that we challenge our limits and the meaning of our existence.


Sometimes before, sometimes after crossing the threshold, the hero usually encounters help. In mythology this help usually has been in the form of some kind of supernatural being such as a wizard, or fairy godmother. Today’s mentors usually are consultants, therapists, teachers or sometimes even friends.


The hero will undergo a series of initiations, tests or trials. Sometimes this comes with great learning, sometimes with the development of skills.


There comes a point in the quest where it seems as if the quest is lost. The hero has failed. “Why did I ever do this?” the quester asks. “Why didn’t I leave well enough alone.” Those who left the safety of who they were and where they lived pursued an adventure into dark and unknown lands. Yet many of them failed. To begin a quest does not guarantee success. Otherwise it would not be a quest. Yet in the final analysis did these people fail? Surely we can learn from their stories and experiences. Even in failure, they offer great wisdom and insight. There is much to learn from all who follow the call to adventure.

I recently saw the film, Mulan. My purpose in seeing the film was to explore the elements and structure of her quest. There is a point in the plot where she is totally defeated. She has had a significant success in destroying the enemy’s army, but her hidden secret is exposed and she appears to have failed. Upon learning that the enemy has survived, she discovers hidden resources and achieves ultimate victory.


Having accomplished the quest, the hero returns to society, wiser, richer or better than when he or she left. The hero has left the land, crossed into darkness, accomplished great adventures and by everyone’s opinion is lost. Then the hero returns and offers great benefits to society. The gifts could be freedom for the land, knowledge and wisdom, a cure for diseases or many other gifts. Without the return, the hero’s journey would be pointless. Although, the hero has learned much and gained much wisdom along the path, the ultimate purpose of the quest is to help heal society with this new knowledge.


If a hero is one who struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve something of great value, then it seems that there are heroes all around us. They can be found in the most unexpected places. A hero is the mentally retarded person trying to learn skills to live in the community. A hero is not only the teacher in Appalachia trying to teach a child to read, but it is found in the child who is struggling to throw off the shackles of ignorance and darkness. It is found in the terminally ill patient who is learning to live out his or her last days with meaning and the joy of life.

What would it mean if everyone recognized the heroism in those around us? What if we all saw not a homeless victim but a person of heroic statute who had learned to develop survival skills to eat for one more day? What changes would happen in the world if we all saw that everyone is a hero? How would our social structure change? How would we reorganize our financial priorities individually, nationally and globally?

Most important of all, what would it mean if you saw yourself as a hero? How would that change you and your priorities?

So are you a hero? The answer is up to you.



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Reviewed by Russ Breitmos (Reader)
I think your article trivializes heroes. I do think we all have the potential to be heroes depending on circumstances and how we react. I don't think of myself as a hero... yet. But I still have a few years left to me, so who knows? This doesn't mean people can't be admired or used as a role model for their handling of life's situations. But don't confuse them with heroes. It sounds more like a dumbing down of a hero. That hero may have only that one shining moment in his/her life, one time in the dull monotony of their life when they blazed supernova bright; and for that they should be remembered. Not necessarily emulated, but remembered and honored. Heroes are the stuff of legend as the saying goes. The struggling working mom turning out fine upstanding children despite the many setbacks life can toss out is to be admired, even emulated, revered for her accomplishments. You are not a hero for working through life's obstacles, that is expected of you. Not a burden to others is a noteworthy goal, but doesn't hit the hero rank. You do a disservice to your students, I think, to suggest otherwise. Homeless people having learned a set of survival skills? Let us all hope your students aspire to more than an accomplished dumpster diver or panhandler. Mother Theresa must surely
be a heroine, but the joe ringing the bell over the Salvation Army pot is not. Admired for his willingness to help others, yes. Admired for his sacrifice of time and physical comfort, surely. Ticker-tape parade hero, nope.
Reviewed by m j hollingshead
Reviewed by William Cottringer
Interesting article Mel. I find the evolution of psychological research almost amusing in relation to what the wisdom of the East has been trying to tell us form long ago. We start out studying negative pathology in trying to cure and avoid it; then we embrace the current popular positive psychology movment and start studying the elete to learn their success secrets; when all along we just want to be balanced and normal. So I suppose the next focus of study will be on average people.

Your comments about heros being ordinary and everywhere are similar to mine on miracles of God's love...they are all around in ordinary ways to see every day, if you take the time to look and see. I developed this idea in an article about "real wealth." I also liken your ordinary hero as my "quiet achiever" who performs little miracles every day without making much noise about it. I guess that was Motehr Teress'a little greatness.

By the way, watch the movie "Stay" and tell me your interpretation?

Regards, from a fellow psychologist/teacher/writer.

William Cottringer

In the game of life there are four main roles we can choose to play. These roles are Hero, Villain, Victim or Bystander. Which of these roles are you playing?


Heroes dream big, translate their dreams into concrete goals, work hard to leave their legacy, remain flexible and never quit. Heroes devote their life to becoming the best they can be, whether it is President of the United States, a mother, or a volunteer in a nursing home. They have discovered a uniquely private mission and use their special talents to carry out that driving purpose.

Heroes are positive and optimistic because they have worked hard to gain a sure sense that they can control their future and make a positive difference. They acquire this confidence by learning from their failures, correcting mistakes, assuming responsibility for all the choices they make, and persevering past the point at which most people quit.

Heroes are often envied by those playing other roles, who only see the glory and miss all that a person has to put into being a hero. Most heroes spend a lifetime becoming an overnight success as the saying goes. Incidentally, many heroes are too busy "heroing" that they don't even see themselves that way. The best heroes are quiet achievers who are showing other people the folly of these other unnatural roles.


Probably the main mistake most villains make is taking themselves too seriously, in believing their wrong behavior is somehow justified by circumstances or by the end they are after. The worst sort of villain has convinced him or herself that wrong behavior is actually right behavior. Unfortunately, both these positions are highly resistive to positive change, short of a lightening bolt.

Typical behaviors of a villain are judging, accusing, rationalizing, hurting, destroying and dominating. Villains are characteristically mean, rude, insensitive, conceited and selfish. The object of a villain seems to be to infringe upon the basic needs and cherished values of others, such as freedom, equality, honesty, compassion, acceptance, love and understanding.

Do villains serve any positive purpose? I think that they do a few good things. First they serve as a warning for the rest of us as a way not to be. Secondly they confirm the rightness of being a hero. And thirdly, they challenge the rest of us to figure out how to deal with them effectively. This challenge helps make many heroes.
What is the best way to deal with villains? Be a hero yourself and tolerate them until they offend your soul and then let them know they are wrong, assertively and without critical judgment or moral superiority.


Becoming a victim is often the result of some back luck and faulty thinking. Many people playing the victim role start out with the right intention of being a hero, but get discouraged along the way. They give up on their dreams because of disappointment and failure. Or, they are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices or exchanges. Other times they simply run out of steam trying to get somewhere, but getting nowhere. The trouble is, there is no real action to change anything.

Being a victim leads people to have a viewpoint that life is working against them. They are convinced that there is absolutely nothing they can do to change things for the better, no matter what they do. So why even bother trying? And of course the less they try to control things and get somewhere, the more out of practice they get. The resulting mental inertia is psychically paralyzing.


Perhaps the weakest role a person can choose to play in life is that of a bystander. Bystanders are neutral on issues, apathetic, uninvolved, and trapped within there own minds. They stand around on the sidelines passively watching everyone else having fun playing the other roles. Bystanders are stuck in inaction and lack of involvement in anything. Life passes them by. Sometimes they don't know how to live, sometimes they are afraid to take any chances, and sometimes they are just waiting for someone else to ask them to join in all the fun.

Just like being a victim, a person can get super glued to the vicious circle nature of "bystanding." It is like standing on a high dive being afraid to jump off. The longer you wait, the more frightening even the idea of jumping becomes. By that time you have become an inseparable part of the diving board and can't even get down the latter. Sooner or later, though, we all wake up to the fact that we really cannot not participate in life. All the roles are choices that have outcomes, even thinking we are not playing one.

My deepest suspicion is that we were all born to become heroes. The hero role is the only one that seems to bring genuine happiness, contentment and success. This role is also the easiest one to play, because all you have to be is your natural self. Playing the other roles is actually more difficult and involves more work.

If you are playing any other role and don't like the consequences, the opportunity to choose to be a hero is always there. The roles of villain, victim and bystander are all the wrong choices, but they are only temporary mistakes waiting to be rectified.
Reviewed by Hiren Shah
Fantastic article. I have always believed that there is a lot to learn from the lives of ordinary people. Movies perhaps have a vested interest in perpetuating whatever they are showing. The real fact is that the man on the street who faces overwhelming odds is the real hero-it could be fighting a disease, clearing debts, responding to a calling, even standing upto a bullying boss or recovering from the recent bomb blasts in Delhi.

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