Saturday, February 7, 2015
Why I No Longer Root for Heroes (and Don't Want My Son to Be One)
The screen flashes with explosions, the music builds to a crescendo and out of the rubble leaps the hero who has managed to save the innocent and conquer evil against all odds. The crowd is applauding with approval and delight.
How many times have we seen this scenario play out in movies, television, video games and books? Why is it we seem to never get enough of this predictable story line?
As a mother of a teenage boy, my fight to protect the innocent is very different. My battle has been against the constant intrusion of the hero story into his and our lives. I know, I know, many of you will be shocked by this statement. But I think I have something important to say. How do you tell your son that such a hero scenario rarely or never exists in real life - that the reality actually looks much more like this: the gun wielding hero returns from battle with PTSD, the ex-sports star ends up divorced and addicted to alcohol or sex, the young man without job prospects and education joins a gang or a Jihadist group because it promises him the opportunity to feel like a hero. A real life hero may never receive parades, medals or public adulation and is not likely to perceive himself as a hero at all. Do I dare tell my son the more insidious and more common truth - that the urge to be a hero is so strong for most men that at some time or other it will drive them to do destructive things that harm their own and their family's well-being?
Let me give you some examples. I imagine these may sound familiar to you. This week, I happen to have been in the right time and place to hear the stories of several different couples who have had or are having marital problems - big problems. The scenario goes something like this: The marriage started off great. There were many exciting things to achieve early in the marriage - homes, children, career advancement. Life made sense and it was easy to feel like a hero while achieving early benchmarks of adult life, especially because what you did directly provided security and pleasure for those who matter most to you. But somewhere in the 40's, the basic milestones having been achieved, the marriage settles into a kind of lull. Gains in status or condition come much more incrementally, not at all, or there are major economic setbacks.
The 2008 US economic crash caused many males of my generation to experience an unexpected drying up of prospects at a time they were supposed to be at the top of their game. The effects of a slow economic recovery meant many were getting more and more under water each year, and like the quintessential frog in a pot of boiling water, not realizing it until it was too late. Coming to terms with the loss of their "hero-ability" was messy and complicated. Ashamed and scared, and probably clinging to the hope that there would be a major economic upswing that would take care of their situation (one that has never come), some sort of gratifying reprieve was sought, whether it was an affair, gambling, alcohol or impulse buying on credit. I see these behaviors now all as manifestations of the insatiable drive to be seen by others as a hero. When it is denied by day to day realities, there is a tendency to create a space in your life where you can at least pretend to be a hero.
I believe that so much of the political and economic unrest in the world today is caused by the gap between the hero fantasy and the reality in which there is very little opportunity to live out the hero story in legitimate ways. I wonder what all the boys raised on "Call of Duty" video games will do when they confront this gap as young men. Will they become like the angry young men in Greece and Spain rioting because there are no jobs, the young men in the Middle East lured by extremist groups to the promise of hero status in a "holy" bloody Jihad? Will more young men enlist to be soldiers, to be used as throwaway pawns in philosophical and economic wars? We must look under the hood and see how the hero myth feeds both sides of any armed conflict and prevents us from ever manifesting peace.
What I have found is that the hero always requires an enemy or a victim - someone to fight or someone to save. So the hero stands alone and apart, playing a role that objectifies himself and everyone else and denies our depths. In this scenario, the only "good" role, the only one that satisfies the ego, is that of the hero. Meanwhile, the enemy earns our scorn and the victim our pity. But we fail to see the price that even the hero pays for taking on his supposedly desirable role. Clark Kent was a sensitive, intelligent guy, a lover, but he had to literally change into different clothing to be seen and valued. This is a schism that sadly reflects reality for many men. The only difference is that instead of a cape and leotards, the costume of choice is a lab coat, work boots, business suit or hard hat. Instead of a gun, the weapon of choice may be a credit card, some antidepressants and a bottle of Viagra. The hero story as we have told it is the story of a loner, and does not support the inner conditions for partnership, vulnerability, intimacy, understanding, love or community. Humans are social animals. We can not thrive without these basic pillars of well-being.
Listening to the stories of regular middle age couples, the fallout from the hero myth is everywhere. Many fine and caring husbands and fathers, when faced with the cold reality that they cannot be an economic hero to their families, shut down, escape into fantasy side lives, becoming addicted to gambling, alcohol, sex, video games or drugs. The effects are devastating: affairs, bankruptcy, shattered trust, financial betrayal, loneliness, divorce. Invariably, the choices that were initially hidden are found out by the family, and then the real suffering begins. Home becomes the last place you are considered a hero. It becomes the very place you are reminded of your shame, your failures, your unmet goals. One man coped by creating a life of the party alter ego at the bars, another became the compassionate go-to confidante to his female work colleagues but found it hard to ever discuss his own feelings with his wife. One man could not bear silence, and would zone out on TV or radio on all day and all night, another was treated like a king at the casino where all the dealers and cocktail waitresses knew him by name, the chips on the table paid for by a second mortgage on his home. What all these stories have in common is that they are stories of separation and disassociation: disassociation from our true needs and feelings, separation from the family support system we need so desperately, separation from the truth of our value as unique and precious beings.
I believe the drive to feel like a hero is so deeply programmed (notice I didn't say inherent), that it lures many men into ever more risky and destructive behaviors, never realizing the price they are paying for clinging to the hero myth until it is too late. I have heard of good men who have in moments of quiet desperation cashed out their wives' 401K's and used the money to gamble instead of to pay back taxes on the house. I have heard of socially prominent men who are nearly bankrupt and constantly hounded by bill collectors but would never dream of giving up their golf club membership. I have heard of men who send their kids to private schools, but who cannot afford to keep the heat in their homes above 55 degrees in the winter. And I have heard of men - far too many of them - who sadly have taken their own lives because the rift between reality and the hero fantasy was just too overwhelmingly huge to endure. As I struggle to make sense of these counter-intuitive choices, the hardest to accept is the testimony of many suicide survivors that at the moment of taking action to end their lives, they felt utterly worthless. In fact, what I see is that the dynamic that placed them in that corner existed long before each of these good men were born. It is unfortunately the consequences of the overall Never Enough Paradigm that has been dominant in human culture for the past 5,000 years, the paradigm I explore in my book, Enough: Beyond the Myth of Lack.
How many more men need to die and how many families must be destroyed before we look to this common cause - the hero myth itself? When will we link arms as mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, friends and daughters to confront the common enemy which rips the men we love from us and from their own hearts? Little boys are just as sweet, sensitive, intuitive and emotionally open as little girls. When will we see how seemingly innocuous entertainment and social conditioning changes the psychology of boys forever, creating a slew of minefields as they seek to define the true meaning of manhood?
I believe the work begins in our homes by engaging our husbands and sons in heart-centered dialogue. It is hard work, but well worth the effort. Although our marriage was not one of those in distress, my husband and I recently found a way to a deeper level of connection after 25 years, and I can see that for us it has everything to do with acknowledging how the hero story has kept us from fully experiencing emotional intimacy.
I have come to understand through him how pervasive and invasive the hero story is, how it makes men afraid to take emotional risks or to appear weak or uncertain to those they rely on for love. To allow a woman to hear tales from one's underbelly is to allow an intrusion into the exclusive world in which a man is taught to be self-sufficient and to value his autonomy and dignity above all else. The last person a man wants in there is a woman who feels sorry for him.
The self-imposed isolation and depravity of this feels so unnecessary to me. So I have learned to begin by simply listening to my husband's stories. Gently, softly, I offer comments that simply say I hear him and I appreciate what he has had to go through to be my hero. I reinforce everything about his essence that I love - his sense of humor, his way of looking at the world, his values. My job, I realize, is to remind him he is not a role, but the most important person in my life. I reinforce that I didn't sign up for a hero when I married him, I signed up for a partnership. I admit how I had bought into the hero myth through the feminine half of the hero fantasy - the story of the princess who is swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor. I apologized for how easy it was to pretend he was not suffering at times under the burden of this impossibly huge hero role.
As I grow older, I am learning more and more to relate to others with empathy instead of sympathy, and I think this is a key element to breaking the hold of the hero story. Empathy says, "I hear you. I see you. This is your journey, but I am solidly with you." Sympathy says "I feel sorry for you. I will try to fix or save you." When the hero receives sympathy, he feels shame and builds bigger walls to isolate himself because a hero isn't supposed to need to be saved. I am and have always been my husband's biggest fan, and it was shocking to know that most of the time he did not experience my love as approval, but as the risk of disapproval. Old tapes of judgement from childhood, society or from our earlier years of marriage when I was less patient and less mature were still very much running the show in his head. If we are to repair the significant damage done by the hero story, we need to begin with our boys and our men by simply saying, " I hear you now. I see you now. I love you unconditionally."
The conspiracy theorist in me sees how cleverly the hero story keeps all of us separate and in a state of self-blame, never-enoughness and disempowerment. This is quite convenient for those who require a ready crop of heroes to do their bidding for them. I am convinced that the insidious nature of the hero story affects each and every one of us without exception.
My work on the Enough Message has taught me that our greatest fulcrum for change always rests at the level of cultural story, in realizing that we have not only the right but the responsibility to choose our cultural story consciously. The Hero Story has been nothing more than an "attractive" delivery system for the old Never Enough Story. That bigger Never Enough Story is crumbling, and so, too, will the old hero stories. We are outgrowing them. But I think we can make it happen more quickly when we participate in the shift. So I am on a campaign to blow the cover on the hero paradigm, to call its bluff and to encourage the formation of a better story. If we are lucky, another generation will not have to live with its spirit-numbing consequences and will come to know that the true call for humanity is to live according to the wisdom of our hearts.
In my next blog, "The Real Hero Within Us: The Drive to Pay it Forward and Pay it Back" I will explore the inherent, benevolent drive in all of us to serve the greater good, how this has been distorted and co-opted by the hero story, and how we can attune to our authentic drive to serve a "higher calling that does no harm."
Laurie McCammon, MS, is the author of Enough: Beyond the Myth of Lack. Her website, www.weareenough.com has free articles, videos, quizzes and more to support those making the shift from Never Enough to Enough.
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Laurie McCammon is a planetary change agent, blogger, facilitator and author of Enough!How to Liberate Yourself and Remake the World with Just One Word, published by Conari Press, out April 1, 2016. You can contact Laurie with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, Like LaurieMcCammon on Facebook or follow her on Twitter at @EnoughMessage