James Bond, Jason Bourne, Thor, Odysseus. We love heroes, all cultures do. Jung talked about the collective unconscious, a unifying network across time and space where certain archetypes are ubiquitous and the hero is one of them.
Joseph Campbell identified the stages of the hero’s journey; the call to adventure, the quest; overcoming obstacles, vanquishing foe, finding allies, reaching the jewel, the grail, and then arriving back in ‘normal’ life again with the jewel, and wisdom to share with the tribe. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter and Toy Story work with this structure.
Heroes are knights slaying dragons, boys finding horcruxes, men uncovering international espionage. Latterly, women have joined the fold; Princess Fiona in Shrek, Katniss in The Hunger Games; fearless, strong and brave.
Which is why we like a hero: they will be braver than us, stronger than us, smarter than us and will do everything they can to protect us and keep us safe. They will overcome darkness, be uninjured from falls, recover from poison, dodge the bullet and never be fooled.
The hero archetype is an unconscious projection for who we would like to be; immortal, invincible and recognised, eventually, for their great deeds.
Whether it is Bowie promising we can be heroes just for one day or Bonnie Tyler wailing for the hero she needs, the heroic is in every Marvel film, every episode of Sherlock, every book and film. They make dramatic exciting narratives that allow us to imagine ourselves greater than the humble creatures we are.
Heroes are a fiction and a projection and sometimes, in some moments, all of us can act heroically. The kid who steps next to the kid who is being bullied so that the victim isn’t alone, the person who catches your child as they are about to fall off the swing.
Real people – not heroes
Heroic moments are possible for us all, but I worry about the rhetoric about our heroic NHS. I get it. I completely understand the appreciation all of us feel for the people who are working to save lives, for the police who are gently, firmly trying to persuade frustrated people back into their homes and clearing bodies into temporary morgues.
But these are people, not heroes. They are scared, vulnerable, stoic, frustrated, have kids, mortgages and bills to pay, just like us and it bothers me that we want to make them something more than they are, for surely to be humans is to be enough?
It bothers me because heroes are there to rescue us, when what is required at this time is to rescue ourselves; stay in, shop less, wash your hands, be kind. These things we can all do, and time and again we have been told the importance of doing just that, and yet daily the news has stories of people who aren’t.
Because the heroes will save them. The NHS. Agentic control means we don’t have to take personal responsibility for our actions, for our life and of course when we are frightened it is much better to have a hero to look after us, whether Boris, a nurse or your boss. But in so doing we render ourselves powerless.
Heroes are superhuman and immortal and at this time, where death creeps sneakily in the shadows all around, of course we want immortality and magical powers and this talk of heroism reminds me of the magical thinking children are so good at; fairy-godmothers, fairies, Ninja Turtles which will come to our aid.
There are no heroes
One of the psychological milestones of individuation; the process of growing up, is the realisation that our parents are flawed, fallible, frail humans just like us. It is a shock, for if they are not all-powerful, all-capable, as they seem when we are young, then the world feels a little less safe, and we feel a little more in the front line.
And this is the truth, we are on the frontline whether in the NHS or staying at home. There is no them and us. We all need to do what we can, there are no parents or heroes who have all the answers to look after us.
Creating heroes creates cowards, becomes divisive and binary and nobody wants to be a coward, our ego doesn’t like it, there is peer pressure against it, it leaves us feeling diminished and ashamed. But cowards are also constructs. We can all be cowardly; we laugh at jokes that offend someone, we say yes, when we wanted to say no.
Now is not the time to resort to magic, or heroes, or cowards; we need to constantly remind our self that this is happening to real people not myths. It is harder to spit at a policeman when you remind yourself that he is someone’s dad, someone’s son. When we remember that every nurse is a son or a daughter, every doctor has a mum and a dad, then we see that they are like us, scared, tired, humble and doing what they can.
Which means we have to do what we can. There is no one braver than us, more cowardly than us, who can solve all this.
Only we can. We humans. Each in our every way. Moment by moment. Controlling our controllables, Staying home. Shopping less. Washing our hands.