Each of us is the main character of our own life. We really don’t have a lot of choice about that. But whether you think of yourself as the hero of your life story is another matter entirely. Whether you’re writing a memoir or just thinking about changing the direction of your life in small or large ways, re-examining what you bring to the table as a person is important. Thinking of yourself as a hero might just help.
Why Seeing Yourself as a Hero May Be in Order
There are several reasons why thinking of yourself as a hero of your own life story can be a useful reframe.
For one thing, heroes are not defined by outcomes but by their character. Not every story ends with the hero accomplishing their intended goal. My sense is that we too often think in terms of winning or losing in life as defining our worth. There is a richer meaning to be had by being able to say that we remained true to our values, regardless of whether things turned out the way we hoped.
That said, heroes respond to calls to action. They may be reluctant, but they ultimately engage in problem solving. Heroes attempt to overcome the obstacles that they face. They respond proactively. They are intentional in their actions.
Heroes also accept help along the way. Too often, especially in a Western culture that often values independence and autonomy above relatedness, we try to go it alone. We can forget that Joseph Campbell, the master mythologist, wrote about how the classic hero journey involves the protagonist receiving help from a wise other or a mentor. It is helpful to allow ourselves the same assistance.
It’s also worth remembering that heroes always face ordeals, what in spiritual writing is sometimes referred to the dark night of the soul. To know this is part of venturing into uncharted territory can be reassuring. Experiencing profound doubt means you examining choices of action when outcomes are anything but sure. This is the hero’s challenge. It is hard to travel very far in your life journey without facing some unsettling ordeals. Such experiences are far from a sign of failure.
Finally, heroes experience transformation. It is hard to make meaningful change in your life situation without allowing yourself to change as well. The hero’s journey reminds us of that.
Thinking of yourself as a hero means you don’t accept that your future is set in stone.
But What Makes You the Hero of Your Life Story?
You may be thinking, all of this sounds fine and good, but I’m not certain I AM a hero. I would argue that to greater or lesser degrees, all of us have an inner hero. It may just take some extra effort to reframe how we see ourselves. Finding ways to build our heroic image first depends on taking a look at ourselves and the various roles that we play in our lives.
If you’re game, take a moment to list all the roles that you play in your life, all of your identities, if you will. Try to limit yourself to one or two word answers. Now list each role or identity at the top of a separate sheet of paper.
For each role or identity answer the following questions.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in that particular role?
What are the personal qualities that have helped you face up to those challenges, whether you’ve been entirely successful or not?
What are the values you are living when you’re being your best self in that role?
Who has been an ally or mentor in helping you face those challenges?
What have been one or two helpful sayings or principles that have helped you do better in that role?
When you’ve finished, go back and write down all the positive attributes and values you listed on your various pages in one place. Write down all the allies and mentors you’ve had in one place. Write down all of the helpful principles you’ve learned
Take a moment and let all the positive attributes you listed sink in. You may have identified qualities like determination, perseverance, love, courage, commitment, trust, faith, even stubbornness. Values like courage, integrity, compassion, helping others, or the Golden Rule. Are these qualities that would be helpful for a hero to have? Values it would be helpful for a hero to hold? Might you just be more of a hero than you originally thought?
Heroes in Relationship
One more task. Feel free to save this one for another day if you want. But, when you’re ready, take a moment and write down the relationships that each role involves. If you wrote down a mother, you’d write down your children, but also in all likelihood your co-parent. If you wrote that you’re a teacher, you’d write down students, but secondarily some other folks as well.
The reason I’ve added this step to this exploration of yourself as the hero in your own story is that in Western cultures we tend to think of the self as singular. As such, heroes in our movies and other popular media can often be portrayed as very independent men and women, able to resist corrupting influences and get the job done when it seems no one else can.
Janet Surrey, an early feminist psychologist, challenged this notion of the ideal self. She felt the Western notion of the singular, autonomous self was more of a masculine model and underestimated women’s valuing of relationships. She proposed that we adopt a new way of thinking about the self, which she christened as the self-in-relation.
Surrey’s argument was that we as individuals are always in relation with someone or something: another person, a task, an environment, even ourselves. As such, personal growth (our heroic journey, if you will) involves nurturing these relationships, not finding ways to autonomously rise above their influence.
How might you be a hero in each of the relationships you identified? If you originally wrote down “writer” and then noted you’re in relationship with your “readers”, how do you hope to be a hero in that relationship? If I think about being a writer from the singular self-perspective, I evaluate my success in terms of my craft, how adept I am at a turn of phrase, and my creativity. If I think about being a writer from a self-in-relation perspective, I consider my success through the degree to which I entertain, emotionally enrich, and/or am helpful to my readers. While both perspectives are important, and interrelated, for me looking at success from these two perspectives feels significantly different.
In a compassionate fashion, consider how you’re doing in your heroic self-in-relation quests? Without expecting perfection, does thinking of your relationships in this way give you any new ideas about clarifying a worthy path for yourself?
Now, if all the above feels old hat, it may be that you already approach life from a self-in-relation perspective and honor the values that it implies. If so, it’s possible that reconsidering some of the more self-focused heroic goals may be helpful.
The ability to independently pursue self-nurture key. It helps empower all other actions. The hero from a singular self of view is all about overcoming personal obstacles and mastering destructive influences in your life, be they internal or external. The hero from a self-in-relation point of view is about helping others and sustaining relationships. Both are worthy sets of goals.
Finding a Balance
For what it’s worth, I think a balance between the two is ideal. If you think of your accomplishments in one of these ways to the neglect of other, consider what it might mean if you began to honor both as heroic action.
Enough for now. Next time, a discussion of heroic selves and their opposites and exploring our “Achilles’ heels.”