Last week I answered a lot of questions about what my temple teaches: a branch of polytheism firmly rooted in old Irish traditions. But one of the things I value about that path is that it allows members to have their own individual beliefs. My spiritual views go far beyond polytheism.
Although I will always honor the gods of nature, I don’t consider their worship to be my religion. The Heroic Life is my religion.
Dreams and Distractions
When I was a boy, I believed I could be a hero. I knew that I wasn’t very athletic, and no good at fighting. I got scared easily by roller coasters, horror movies and haunted houses. But somehow, whenever I watched a movie with a hero in it I was sure I could be one.
Most kids feel this way.
As adults, we feel something very similar, but with a twist. We empathize with the hero but we assume it’s just fantasy. Adults think of heroic stories as an escape, an amusement, a moment spent in an imaginary world.
Kids don’t make that assumption. Being a hero is not just make-believe and definitely not a fantasy. It’s an aspiration.
Kids sincerely expect that one day, they can be heroes.
I think they’re right.
A Steady Diet of Fantasy
As a little kid I was into the normal stuff—ninja turtles, dinosaurs. I even went through a lengthy Greek Mythology phase. At the time, I didn’t know that was unusual.
By age 12 I had cozied up to my Super Nintendo and become a pretty serious gamer. The games I liked all had something in common: they were fantasy adventures with strong storylines, RPG video games. Since I was overweight and introverted, I found it a lot easier to play in those imaginary worlds than the real one. In the games I could go anywhere; I traveled the earth with Will, a psychic boy with a flute, and visited the Seven Wonders. In the real world I was in a house in Wisconsin.
These games had powerful motifs in common. The most important was that a small group of people, working for a common cause, could do anything. They might come from very different backgrounds and not even get along, but if they stood by each other in the hard times they were unstoppable.
And ultimately, that was the allure of the games. It wasn’t about completing quests and it definitely wasn’t about defeating monsters. It was about a journey with friends to places unknown.
These journeys were always a fantasy.
A Day at the Wharf
By college I was a different person, but I still felt this secret sense that something much bigger is possible. I threw myself into a variety of projects, not least of which was the Stone Circle Study.
But this was before that.
It was a beautiful spring day. The school year was almost over. I was with two talented artist friends, and we decided to walk down by the lake.
Lake Michigan is a sea. It extends far beyond the horizon and brews some fierce storms. Milwaukee is on the west side of the lake, which makes for delightful weather: the winters aren’t too cold and the summers aren’t too hot.
This particular day was warm, but not what you’d think of as swimming weather. We walked along the broken remains of a concrete pier. It had once run far out into the lake, and now it looked like a lost roadway to a sunken city.
We walked as far as we could easily go. Broken chunks of pylon sat before us, waves ripping over them. Another intact section of pier beckoned ten feet away. My adventure gene kicked in, and my friends weren’t far behind.
With some precarious balancing and a giant leap we successfully crossed to the farthest section of pier. We didn’t even get (very) wet. We chatted for a while, and learned that crows and gulls seem to get along pretty well. But I kept eying something.
That damned underwater road.
You had to do it. You would’ve done it, right? We sure as shit did.
Next thing we knew we were in the water, riding the waves to leap from sunken block to sunken block. Sure the air wasn’t that warm, but that made the water seem warmer. We were in full clothing but who cared?
We skittered, splashed, scrambled, waded and outright swam our way from block to block, buffeted about by waves and laughing as we went. That kind of moment is the very definition of being alive.
We had to help each other to climb back onto the pier. The waves battered at us and the broken concrete was at once sharp and slippery. But together, we were able to make it.
I remember the thought coming to me so clearly: This is the closest I’ve been to one of those games.
And then: We could do this. We could just journey around and have adventures.
Adventures? Was that a lifestyle? I quickly thought of the problems: money, food, shelter, weather, hygiene, and health.
I shoved the thought aside, reluctantly. We walked home soaking wet, and the day ended like any other. But that was the first time that I imagined a journeying, free lifestyle as an adult.
Every Day is Training
Although I did not run off to be a professional pier-climber, my perspective changed. Every time I did something adventurous I witnessed firsthand the powerful sense of self-determination and fulfillment it provides.
I stopped thinking of stories about heroes as fantasies that reality can’t match. They’re not. Stories about heroes are based on our highest aspirations.
And that’s the hook. The reason people naturally love those stories is because they are founded, however remotely, on the reality that humans can do virtually anything.
Heroic stories in their earliest form started off not as fiction, but as a code of values. Heroic Age cultures like ancient Greece honestly expected their warriors to emulate the heroes in the myths. The values of courage, endurance, honor, truth and generosity were the goals of real society. The myths are value narrative.
This approach gave us our most enduring mythic themes and the story structure that is used in epic movies to this day. Pop culture repeatedly confronts us with this narrative, which whispers to us: You are the one. You can be the hero. Be brave. Take action. You are the one.
Heroic myths are not meant to be stories, they’re meant to be instruction manuals. That’s what Joseph Campbell missed: analyzing heroic myth is beside the point. Understanding it means living it.
I didn’t realize all that at the time, but I intuitively began to plan and lead adventures of my own. And I continue to live that way. It might take years to be able to travel freely, but that is ultimately the next step. Every day is training.
You Want My Faith?
People are often surprised when I say I don’t have any use for faith. I’m a priest after all, and anyone from a Christian tradition would expect a priest to have faith.
The fact that faith doesn’t matter much in polytheism is hard to explain.
So I thought about it—is there anything I believe in with all my heart? Something that fuels my love, demands my respect, and guides my decisions? Is there anything that I, as a skeptical thinker, can feel that strongly about?
Actually, there is.
I believe that mortal men and women can do amazing things.
I truly believe that each and every one of us has the spark of heroism within us, that it is our heritage and our evolution, and that when ignited it is virtually unstoppable.
Bullets won’t bounce off of you. You will not shoot lightning from your fingertips or fly through the sky.
Heroes can be killed.
But those with the bravery to try can do incredible, mind-blowing things. They can change history and move hearts and minds.
And those without the bravery to try? That’s most people, and that’s fine. Heroes exist to look out for them, to act on their behalf.
It’s a choice everyone has to make. I believe in living heroically. That is my religion, and my only faith.
You can live heroically too.
Which choice do you make?
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.