Adventure, Heroism

Is Adventure Heroic?

Photo by Juan Antonio Zamar Ripa

Adventure is not heroic.

I’m on a journey in search of the heroic life, and I also call myself an adventurer. That’s an unusual thing to call yourself. For me it fits because I’ve deliberately chosen a life of exciting, risky challenge. It’s a life of continuous change, and it’s made me a more capable human being. But it doesn’t make me a hero.

By my definition, an adventure is an undertaking so difficult that you don’t have what it takes. You have to develop or improve in order to complete it. So at a minimum it requires you to gain new skills or a new level of competence, although in many cases it will also demand that you grow as a person.

That certainly makes it a powerful tool.

On its own that growth is ambivalent. You may not become more selfless or loving simply because you become tougher and more talented. There are plenty of criminals whose activities are undoubtedly adventurous, yet by no means heroic. A pirate off the coast of Somalia, for example, has chosen a highly adventurous pursuit that will almost certainly develop his skills—as a mariner, as a team member, as a combatant—but involves cowardly acts, not heroic action.

But I do believe you can start an adventure with purely selfish motives and end up becoming selfless (and potentially heroic) purely because of the adventure itself. There’s an element in the challenge of adventure that forces you to re-evaluate your beliefs and priorities. In this crucible, some people find a higher calling while others just get better at doing selfish things.

So what makes the difference?

I doubt there’s a hard and fast rule as to whether a great challenge will improve a person’s heart. But often it does, and there are elements I believe make it more likely. Such as:

  • It’s voluntary. Many people use the word “adventure” to mean some accidental trouble they got themselves into. That’s definitely one kind of adventure, it’s just that such adventures are more likely to become a traumatic crisis (or a joke) than a chance for personal growth. An unplanned adventure rules out the possibility of training or preparing, making success less likely. And anytime human beings feel like we have no control over our fate we are more likely to experience stress and trauma. This is not a productive situation.
  • It involves travel. Travel is a tool to find a sense of purpose in life. This requires looking beyond the self. And while not all adventures involve a journey, those that do will build the same kind of pro-social skills that any other long trip provides: familiarity with other cultures, a level of comfort among strangers, and a willingness to stand out as “different.” These traits will prove fertile in any circumstance that calls for heroic action.
  • Losing everything. If an adventure is not voluntary (for example, persecution under a tyrannical regime) or cannot involve travel (such as losing one’s job and house) then I suggest it’s more likely to create a heroic individual if that individual loses everything. By “everything” I mean whatever was crucial to their former sense of self: family, friends, social position, economic status, etc. I’m not suggesting anyone should intentionally lose everything, but when it happens I believe it spurs serious introspection. Losing your identity means losing some of your ego, or at least confronting it, which pushes you toward selfless views and selfless action.
  • It’s ongoing. Momentary adventures like skydiving or bungee jumping can bring epiphanies, but they also allow you to retreat quickly to familiar and comfortable surroundings. This is not a recipe for introspection and growth. Extended situations, such as a sea voyage or camping trip, offer continuous tests with no quick way out, and force more growth.
  • There’s risk. Risk is an essential element of heroism, and it’s not present in every kind of adventure. To some of us, anything extraordinarily challenging is an adventure—such as facing stage fright. But many of these small adventures, uncomfortable as they are, involve no real risk. A risky adventure better prepares you for the tough choices you will have to make to act heroically.

My mentor Ken wrote to me that adventure is not heroic because, “Adventure is taking for yourself. Heroism is giving of yourself.” I don’t think it’s that simple. Adventure is neither altruistic nor selfish, it’s simply a personal practice. To the extent that that practice demands or cultivates the qualities we expect in heroes, it is itself a tool to heroism.

What is a life of adventure really like? Get one of the last copies of my book and find out for yourself. 

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7 thoughts on “Is Adventure Heroic?

  1. Given the etymology of the word ‘hero’ to literally mean ’protector’, I’m thinking that for the hero, to place himself voluntarily in this position of defender, with all the risk, travel, loss, and anticipation that this position entails, the only thing that makes sense is not explained by a philosophy of action, but rather by a philosophy of the standstill. Waiting is the only thing that makes sense for the hero if he is to have a sense of his heroism. It’s only at the standstill that there’s no give or take. As soon as you move, Drew, you negotiate. I’m interested in action at the standstill. How does the hero breathe here?

    • Well, I should start by saying that I use a different definition of hero than you do. While the historic roots of the word are interesting to me, words aren’t always well defined by their etymology. “Spirituality” for example may not involve any belief in spirits at all, and “animal” certainly doesn’t mean “soul” to most biologists. Similarly the English word hero, today, does not mean only a “protector” regardless of where the word came from.

      The definition of a hero that I’ve developed is “someone who takes a risk to help others (or a cause) with no personal stake in doing so.” That’s similar to the definition developed by several other hero scholars, and it’s a very strict definition – there are many ways to do good things and inspire people that do not involve taking risk, for example.

      (I should note that I am certainly not a hero and none of my adventures are remotely heroic.)

      Thus, heroism as I see it is absolutely tied up with taking action. Even heroes who simply “stand their ground” are taking a deliberate action that they know makes them stand out. It is a very active choice, even if it simply means refusing an order, violating a law or standing physically to hold a space. The student who stands peacefully in front of the advancing tank is, truly, an action hero.

      And more to the point, the people who stand passively and watch—those who do not take deliberate action—are bystanders. They are the opposite of heroic. The bystander response (to watch, rather than act, when something bad happens, and to wait for someone else to do something) is a natural human response, but it’s one that heroes have to overcome.

      Okay, all of that is kind of background though. I do think you raised a great point and that is: how does a hero have a sense of his or her heroism?

      The surprising answer is that they do not. Almost universally, the people who take heroic action when needed later disavow their heroism, and they seem sincere in doing so. They do not believe they were heroic, they believe they did what “anyone else would have done”—even though we know that, by the numbers, their choice was incredibly rare. Almost no one is willing to act heroic, and those who do don’t think of it that way at all.

      The interesting part, to me, is that this no-sense-of-heroism among heroes is vital to doing heroism. To take the heroic action I mentioned above, you have to willingly defy the group response and stand out from the crowd. This is unpleasant. Afterward, there is a panicky urge to get back into the crowd and get your head down. Leaving the herd is, historically, quite dangerous—and a hero’s biological instinct is to shed the hero status and get back into the herd as quickly as possible.

      This phenomenon is fascinating to me because it’s one that I witnessed firsthand, and yet to my knowledge none of the pyschologists who study heroism have discussed this instinct. As far as I know I’m the first one to write about the motives behind saying “I’m not a hero,” and yet it’s the single most consistent feature of real life heroism.

      • Thank you, Drew. I get what you’re saying. And yet, I’m suspicious of the following: how do we know that what you call ‘action’ in the ‘emergent’ heroic sense of how you define what’s at stake here is not actually an act of convergence to the limit, namely the limit that has this paradox at its core: you say, ‘I’m not a hero and none of my adventures are remotely heroic,’ and yet you prepare for the heroic: You WILL stand in front of an advancing tank – actually I tried that once myself – if the situation SHOULD arise. Is it for you to judge that you are NOT a hero in the same way that it is not for the hero to either declare or judge himself one?

        • Right, good question. I think there’s three reasons I say I’m not a hero. First, I would sound arrogant if I said I was a hero and I really don’t like sounding arrogant. Second, I frequently get backlash from people who assume “writes about heroism” = “believes he’s a hero” and I try to minimize the opportunity for that kind of misunderstanding. But third and most important, I don’t feel like a hero. I don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything that meets that mark, although I’m proud of what I have accomplished.

          But theoretically that could be because I’m some kind of big hero and I just don’t want to admit it, right?

          That’s why I don’t think “feels like a hero” or “says he’s a hero” are good yardsticks for heroism. That’s all just public relations. The better yardstick is to look at someone’s actions. Have they, in fact, taken risk to help others even though they had no potential personal gain?

          I haven’t met that yardstick. My actions don’t pass that barrier. I’m dedicated to living the kind of lifestyle that we see in the legends of heroes, and it’s a fun lifestyle sometimes that I really enjoy. It’s kind of you to assume that I would do the heroic thing if the chance came up, and I’d like to believe that too. But everybody wants to believe they’d be a hero. For now, I’m just a writer with a good deal of faith in humanity.

          • I like, ‘I don’t feel like a hero’, as that bypasses assumptions, both your own and those you may anticipate others can articulate. It also bypasses belief. Where heroism is concerned, I think it’s the least of the ‘action ideals’ – I can’t think of a better way to put it right now – that operates on belief. Heroism ‘believes’ nothing at all, and perhaps it’s precisely therefore that we may still entertain some faith in humanity. Thank you for this exchange. My adrenaline has just gone up a notch.

            • Thanks Camelia. I enjoyed it too. You write in a very poetic way and sometimes that makes it hard for me to respond to your points, but I find that if I work at understanding them it’s worth it.

  2. Pingback: In a time gone by there was a romance for adventure | a collection of writings

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