Adventure, Heroism, Religion

Why I Believe in Heroism

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? 

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.


46 thoughts on “Why I Believe in Heroism

  1. Great post Drew. I grew up playing the same games (I take it you’re referring to The Illusion of Gaia) and thinking the same thoughts.

    I hope that you’re having a good time at WDS and that we’ll have the chance to meet sometime (I won’t be able to make it this year because I just moved to Japan).

    • I knew someone would recognize the game!

      WDS was incredible and there will probably be a post about it coming soon. I’d love to meet up! What part of Japan?

      • Sorry I never got back to this. I guess I didn’t turn the comment notification on.

        Right now I’m living in Kanazawa, Japan. It’s a smaller city about 7 hours from Tokyo by bus with quite a bit of cultural heritage. A real nice place to live, though, and I’m enjoying it here so far.

        Let me know if you’re ever in Japan and I’ll make the effort to meet you wherever you plan to go.

  2. Building Heroes says:

    Fantastic, thoughtful post. Thank you!

    I think you captured so very much of what I believe, what I aspire to, and what I want others to aspire to, especially, “Heroic myths are not meant to be stories, they’re meant to be instruction manuals.”

    What are your thoughts on how we can challenge or encourage people to make that heroic choice? What is the point that prompts people to step forward from the sidelines and into the fray?

    • I think one of the most important steps is to recognize that we’re not talking metaphorically. A lot of motivational speakers will talk about doing things you already do “heroically.” (If you ride your bike to work you’re a hero, if you’re a good dad you’re a hero, etc.) But living heroically does not mean talking up what you already do, it means making actually changing the way you live to put the focus on constantly challenging yourself.

      For me, the greatest way to do that is with a) travel and b) learning new skills.

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  4. Kate O'Brien Bronson says:

    One of your best yet. If you don’t mind I will be directing several friends to read this.

  5. Drew, you articulate my thoughts on this matter so well. Adventure and heroism IS possible; of course it is! I see now why you don’t ‘get’ Campbell. I like to analyze as I go along, and for that he’s great. But if analysis is all you do… well, it’s pretty tough to have any adventures.

    Also, I like the part about not needing faith. You should expand on that.

    • Thank you Shanna. Yes, it’s funny, I’ve talked to so many people about Joseph Campbell in the last few weeks that I get now why a lot of people love his work. One pattern I noticed is that people who talk about actually living like a hero tend to shrug their shoulders at his work, not that it’s horrible, just sort of “meh.” That was when I realized it is the difference between reading versus doing.

      About religion without faith… have you seen The Righteousness of Doubt?

      • I had read that… I just hadn’t made the connection, I suppose. My entire religious education consists of reading through the World religion section of the library as a kid.

        I suppose you could say I’m faithful, but not religious. I believe that everything turns out ok in the end, but it’s impossible to define ‘ok’ or ‘end’. :)

  6. Syna says:

    You and I have had very similar journeys, down to those pesky old-school RPGs. It’s exciting to see you articulate an ethos that I have myself. :) Adventure is possible! Heroism is possible.

    You’ve done this a few times thus far, but I’d love to know more about how this reflects in your practical, everyday life in future posts.

    • Thanks Syna! I could talk all day about some of those games… :)

      I’d like to write more about how I do this in my own life. There will definitely be something coming up about it. I’ve spent the last year making drastic changes in the way I live and I am still in the process of making more!

  7. The story of the sunken pier reminds me of a wonderful adventure in Pagan, Burma. I was with two other American exchange students, all of us on break from university in Malaysia, and we decided to visit a small temple on a mountain called Mt. Popa. Every local we met seemed to have a relative with a taxi who could take us there – for a hefty price. But one of my friends looked on our Lonely Planet map and saw that it was fairly close. “We could totally bike there in an hour!” she exclaimed (in fact, the map was horribly inaccurate, and the trip would actually take *six* hours, but we didn’t know that yet). So the three of us rented bicycles – not sleek, light road bikes but slow, clumsy Wicked-Witch-of-the-West granny bikes. Then we set off into the flat plain of the agrarian Burmese countryside shortly after dawn expecting to be there in a breeze.

    Well, suffice to say it didn’t go quite as planned. We rode and rode and rode, and an hour after our expected arrival time, we hadn’t even come to our turn-off (half-way point). We were headed to a mountain, and on a flat plain you would expect to at least *see* it off in the distance somewhere. We kept asking locals along the way and they said yes we were going the right way, just keep going. It was getting to be hot and blistery, and all our water was gone. We were long past the painful, panting stage of exhaustion and into the dull, serene stage where your mind goes totally quiet. But no one wanted to be the first to give up. So we kept on.

    At last we came to the foothills. The terrain became steep, so we ditched our bikes by the roadside and stumbled our way upward. Still no one wanted to quit. Then storm clouds started to roll in. It was getting really dark. Finally, we conceded and caught a taxi for the last one-tenth of the way. On the way back, we recovered our bikes and found that we could actually coast without pedaling at all – the whole way back to town. It seemed we had been biking slightly uphill the whole way.

    What was so amazing this experience was not so much that we biked for six hours, but that all three of us refused to give up. We fed off each other’s endurance, and went farther than any of us would have gone alone. That’s what I look for in a spiritual community, and that’s what I look for in friends. I like to surround myself with people who dare to embark on an adventure, and who don’t give up at the first inconvenience. It’s very rare to find a person like that (just one of the reasons why I treasure our friendship, Drew – you’re 100% that kind of person!).

    Most importantly, though, I learned how far I could push myself. I don’t know if I’ve ever quite rivaled that level of mental endurance with anything I’ve done since. Sure I can do more push ups, more crunches, and ride farther now, but my body’s in better shape than it was then. To be able to push myself that far at the time was a breakthrough experience for me.

    • “We fed off each other’s endurance, and went farther than any of us would have gone alone. That’s what I look for in a spiritual community, and that’s what I look for in friends.”

      That sums up why I just closed Temple of the River. That idea is at the heart of everything I do – you took the words right out of my mind.

      Brandon, if you ever write a book of these stories I will read it, buy it, and promote it :)

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  10. Soliwo says:

    I have just read on Patheos that the Temple of the River is closing. I am surprised. I am also wondering to what extent there were personal reasons as well as those you mentioned in the interview (not being suited to the 21 century). Will you keep practicing the Old Belief yourself?

    • Hi Soliwo,

      I still practice the Old Belief. About personal reasons, obviously the Temple is near to my heart so it was a hard decision to make. But no, there were no overwhelming personal reasons – it was really because the structure we had wouldn’t support the work we wanted to do. I’m preparing a very detailed post for another blog that will go over the reasons in detail – I’ll let you know when it’s live.

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting!

  11. Forest Friar says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these powerful spiritual insights! Your experiences mirror my own spiritual journey in so many ways. I’m looking forward to following your blog in the future!

    I have to say that I’m a little confused regarding your views of Joseph Campbell. From what I’ve read in his writings and lectures, he makes many of the same point you do. I remember him having quite a bit to say about “saying yes to your adventure” and “answering the hero’s call”. What particulary sticks out in my mind is his examination of Maslow’s five values.

    “Survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, self-development–in my experience, those are exactly the values that a mythically-inspired person *doesn’t* live for… Mythology begins where madness starts. A person who is truly gripped by a calling, by a dedication, by a belief, by a zeal, will sacrifice his security, will sacrifice even his life… he will give himself entirely to his myth.”

    People might get bogged down in his analysis of historical mythology, but the way I understand him, he believed that it’s only worth anything if it spurs us on to leave our comfort zones and accept the challenge of becomeing what truly inspires us. That’s what I always understood “following your bliss” to be about.

    • Hi Forest Friar, thank you so much for commenting! I still go really back and forth on Joseph Campbell. For a whole I’ve wanted to write about why I’m not a fan of his work, but I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are fans and trying to wrap my head around it.

      I’m glad that he urged people to say yes to the hero’s call, but it raises a question for me: did he?

      Did he ever throw away security and take great personal risks for others?

      I don’t know enough about his biography to answer that question, but I’d love to hear your take on it.

      • Drew, I have to disagree. It doesn’t matter if Campbell led by example if he inspired. Does every minstrel and jongleur have to be heroic before they are fit to tell tales?

        Like Cat in the comment below, everyone need not be a hero in the traditional sense (of course, we are all heroes in our own tale, but the quest can be more subjective).

        • I don’t think everyone needs to be heroic, least of all to tell tales. But Campbell reinterpreted tales to redefine our understanding of heroism. I think understanding heroism comes from living heroically, not from reading stories. At least in my own life, heroism was always just a fantasy until I went on actual adventures. Even then, when I was adventuring but not necesarily taking risks to help others, I didn’t fully understand it – but I began to get the powerful inkling that it would be possible (and fulfilling) to do so. I think that firsthand realization is a crucial step.

      • Forest Friar says:

        Well, I know that he and his wife lived in a one-bedroom apartment their entire married life, and the one bedroom was his study! He wrote his books and gave his lectures, she was a dancer and later a choreographer. they just continues to live in that little space while they gave themselves comepletely to their passions.

        You should definitely read about how he discovered his “adventure” and how he used his own life as an example of his belief that doors open for you when you discover and pursue what you’re truly *meant* to do. He tells about it in one of the lectures that were compiled in “Pathways to Bliss” by the JCF.

        There’s one anecdote of his that I really love. He told about how his wife Jean was normally very sensitive to the cold, but when it was wintertime and she would go out with him to one of the evening functions associated with her dancing career, she’d be wearing “next to nothing” (what I assume was a little coctail dress and one of those gauzey-type shoulder wraps) and not even notice the cold. He said that is what happens to people when they’re truly in their persona, when they’re living their myth.

        • Interesting, so he did have a strong philosophy of people finding and pursuing their purpose in life. I’d love to read more about that. Is there a biography about him that you’d recommend?

  12. Dennis Nock says:

    my freind , i understand of what you speak , altho i’m a bit older than you , we did n’t have video games in my mis spent youth . but i understand identifying with heroes , i always have . my heroes were movie and story book in origon , but heroes just the same .i also strive to live a heroic life . altho my life to some looks quite mundane , i live my life in a heroic way with heroic ethics and priniple , ones i cannot and will not violate . i walk the warriors path with all the accompoining ethics and principles that go with it . Kilm

  13. Cat says:

    When I was a teenager, RPGs were my myths, as well. I had an entire pantheon of heroes. You know who they were. Cecil and Terra were my Gilgamesh and Odysseus. Will, Kara, Lance, Lilly, Erik, and Seth (oh Seth) were there too.

    I didn’t, at the time, recognise the similarity to myth. I only knew that these figures were of monumental importance, and what they had done was sacred to me, and mattered more to me, if I told the truth, than anything that I heard at church. Everything those characters did, whether a mistake or a triumph, was sacred, and perfect because it happened– what mattered was the knowing and telling of the story in every particular. I used to retell the tales to my dolls, as if I were the village elder handing down the legends of a golden time. And yet, the idea that this was really like genuine religion didn’t occur to me because I was still an uneducated kid. The understanding came when I was older, and noticed the shift between that kind of thinking, and the kind that can criticise a story for being unrealistic, or a character for being foolish. My approach to those 16-bit traditional heroes somehow dissipated when I discovered the internet and fandom, and studying literature, learning a critique mindset, drove me even further away. But these days I’m striving to reclaim that way of looking at RPGs, because they gave me a mythic structure I could relate to like none other. I still feel that I can get more from them than from researching the pagan gods of my ancestors, which feel so distant and concerned with things that aren’t emotional to me.

    The importance of your post to me is that someone else has acknowledged that we can accept as myth alternate narratives from the oddest-seeming places, from a kind of media that’s barely becoming accepted as genuine art, as much as we can accept traditional ones.

    I am not really an adventurer. I am not the item shop owner, either, who charges your party for supplies they need to save the world; nor am I the townsperson who frets about the monsters and the local economy. I’m the save point keeper, who heals your HP and wants to transcribe these stories into data, and more importantly, turn the saved data back into meaningful information for people’s lives again. I don’t care about being the one who gets to go out and do things. I care about taking what does exist, and turning it into meaning. So, your way of living heroically isn’t the thing for me. But your acceptance of these particular narratives means something.

    • Syna says:

      I think that’s important to recognize: there are far more roles in an adventure story than just the Hero. If you aren’t the Hero, you can still be the Wise Sage, the Shopkeeper, the Brother, the Friend– even the Storyteller.

    • Hi Cat. Thank you for this!

      What a beautiful, inspiring story. I can’t begin to thank you enough for sharing it. I think I know exactly the feelings you mean – those fictional characters were indeed mythical to me.

      What you said about being the save point keeper is stirring.

      Something I want you to know, that really I want all my guests to know, is that I don’t think everyone on earth has to be a hero. The greatest thing an individual can do is pursue their passions. Most people’s passions don’t involve taking big personal risks for others. If you are a storyteller in your heart then there is nothing more glorious than being a storyteller.

      Welcome to Rogue Priest :)

      • Forest Friar says:

        “The greatest thing an individual can do is pursue their passions… If you are a storyteller in your heart then there is nothing more glorious than being a storyteller.”

        And as you’ve said in other articles, expand on what you’ve accomplished. There’s no excuse for not publishing a grand compendium of stories you’ve told, or starting a training school to teach new storytellers!

        (By the way, fellow RPG freaks, I am now listening to a Pandora station I made with Tangerine Dream and Vangelis as artists seeds, and I am in Heav-eeeeennnnn! Something about that synth-heavy music that takes my right back to those computer-rendered dungeons and forests!)

        • First off, BRILLIANT. I’ve created a station with the same seeds called “1992 RPG Radio.” It’s a public station and anyone who wants to listen to a clone of it can go here.

          And yes, I would like to see Cat tell more stories… hers was brilliant! To that end I’m emailing her to ask her to do a guest post.

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  15. brilliant. I recognize Illusion of Gaia, but Final Fantasy 7, Xenogears, and Chrono Trigger will always be the source of my kings of Olympus. It really is surprising to me just how many aspects to your story resonate with who I am. Can’t wait to follow up on some of the other aspects to your path… the martial training especially is on the list.

    It’d be trite to say I appreciated having the chance to meet you in person at the WDS. Maybe this is what I’d like to say… your passion for the life of the hero, and your dedication to actually walking that road is an inspiration to me. Your story is part of what I think about when I wake up and try to do my best to live as my True Self for the day, and in the end… that’s what heroes are for. All hero stories are true even if they didn’t happen. “Stories about heroes are based on our highest aspirations.” They’re there to inspire.

    Thanks for sharing, and I can’t wait until our paths cross offline again. In the meantime, I’ll be around.

    • Ah, those games also hold a special place for me – except Xenogears, which somehow (?) I never played. Final Fantasy VI competes with VII though, in my nostalgia.

      Thank you so much for your kind words James. It means the world to me. I want you to know I also really valued meeting up at the World Domination Summit. The late night talk was especially powerful. I believe we haven’t seen the last of each other!

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  17. Hi. I must say: thank you! Thank you because I thought I was the only one with an heroic mind. Each time I talk to people about it. They always end up saying something that means “grow up”. While I strongly believe that I am right and they are already dead. Or they live like zombies might be a better explanation… I have my heroic accomplishments to do on my part too. But knowing that I am not alone in the world now will be less of a burden to carry. Do you think there is more out there? I kind a stopped my blog on the heroic life but reading your blog is an inspiration and I shall resume on writting my blog. Thank again. and keep on the good work.

    • Hi Whitesquale! And welcome to Rogue Priest :)

      I have to admit, at first I was a little put off by the title of your blog. “Übermensch” comes from Nietzsche and to me (rightly or wrongly) Neitzsche’s writing carries a sort of selfish better-than-thou vibe. To me, one of the most important values of the Heroic Life is that we’re not better than anyone else; to help those around us we must respect them. The hero acts out of love for humanity, not contempt.

      But I went and actually read through some of your blog, and I realized that’s not what you’re about at all. Climbing Kilimandjaro, creating an oasis of peace… I shouldn’t jump to conclusions from blog titles :) Good stuff, and keep up the great work.

      As far as others being out there, I know at least B. T. Newburg and Matt Langdon blog openly on the topic, and Shanna Mann writes extensively about a lot of these ideas. I’d say there were quite a few people at WDS are living the Heroic Life or working toward it, too.

      Looking forward to hearing more from you Whitesquale. Thank you for your comment!

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