Heroism, The Heroic Life

Why I’m Changing My View of Heroism

Art by Delawer-Omar

Over the past few weeks I’ve written extensively about expanding the definition of heroism. Today I’m going to wrap that up with my conclusions and what this means for my pursuit of the heroic life.

First, a recap. Among hero scholars it’s common to use a very strict definition of heroism: only those who take real personal risk (physical or non-physical) for the sake of others are heroes. But most people use “hero” more broadly. They use it to refer to individuals who go above and beyond in a variety of ways, even if there’s no risk involved. Generally, if someone accomplishes something extraordinary in the pursuit of something we value, we call them a hero.

My point has been that there may be a very good reason we call these people heroes—that their actions really are heroic on some level. For me this is an uncomfortable position. Most of the examples I gave, from artists to pop stars to athletes, don’t seem particularly heroic to me. For years I was in the camp that believes it’s wrong to call these people heroes, that it’s watering down the whole concept of heroism.

What caused me to rethink this was witnessing firsthand the effect that these heroes have. The speakers at the first Hero Round Table concentrated overwhelmingly on deeds that wouldn’t pass my “hero” litmus test, and yet these deeds hit home in a way that I’ve never seen from heroism discussion before. And this seemed to create momentum for many of the people present to want to follow in their footsteps.

And so I set off on the search for another way to define heroism, one that isn’t based just on risk. Instead, I suggested that heroism might be based on taking actions that inspire. There’s no doubt that all of our selfless risk-taking heroes inspire us, but so do lots of other folks. That might explain why we call such a large and diverse group of people heroes.

But just inspirational on its own isn’t good enough (just like not all risky things are heroic). If the old equation was risk + doing good = heroism, then my proposed replacement was heroism = inspiring others + doing good. Specifically you have to inspire others to strive to improve themselves in some way. If an action has that effect, we can call that action heroic.

Responses and Developments

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people seem to like this definition. What was more surprising is that a lot of other people seem to hate it. I always got the impression that being a heroism hardliner, back when I was one, is pretty unpopular; that most people wanted to call quarterbacks heroes and I was the odd one out. But it turns out that a whole lot of people think heroism is a word that should be used very, very selectively and that anything else just waters it down.

The responses from many of these individuals were instructive. They were essentially saying: rock stars don’t seem heroic to me, ergo, there is nothing they do that anyone can rightly call heroic. To put it another way, some people are inspired only by the most extreme acts while others are inspired more easily. This may be why there’s a debate over the meaning of heroism in the first place.

I also got a lot of insight into the other group, the people who like this definition. Their comments show a heavy emphasis on relatability. I don’t think any of them would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a greater hero than, say, their lovable grandfather. Yet both individuals inspire them to strive to be a better person, and the role that their grandfather played in their life is undeniably more intimate. This, to them, makes their grandfather a greater influence on their own ability to act heroically, even if his deeds were far humbler than leading the civil rights movement.

Both of these responses were invaluable. They helped me get a better look at what’s happening when people sling around the h-word, or when they refuse to. But I’ve also begun to second guess whether inspiration is the heart of it at all. I began to wonder if feeling inspired isn’t more a symptom of what’s going on. After all, if heroism is anything that inspires us to strive to be better, what sorts of things inspire us to strive to be better?

Starting Over

If I had to start this whole series over tomorrow, I’d likely focus on values. Each of us has a set of values, some that we all agree on—like justice or selflessness—and others that are more personal, like living healthy or being a good parent. I suspect that the people who inspire us most are the ones who take extraordinary steps in living up to our values. That’s what motivates us to be better people, because such individuals are living proof that being better is possible. It’s where inspiration comes from.

If that’s the case it explains why we all agree on some heroes, like Dr. King, because they represent values we all share. And it also explains why Lady Gaga looks like a hero to some people, while to others she’s stinking up the whole notion of heroism.

Perhaps most importantly, this theory of heroism would suggest that there’s an objective mechanism behind what we call heroism, even though we each choose different people to call heroes.

Recidivism

I don’t think I’ve got heroism all tied up in a nice neat package. The theory I just gave would seem to explain all of the different phenomena we call heroism and what they have in common. But the truth is… I don’t feel it.

The whole reason I chase heroism is because of stories of great sacrifice. In Irish legend, when the hero Cú Chulainn is fighting alone against an entire army, 150 little boys decide they’re going to go help him. Their fathers are sick from a curse, so they take up their hurling sticks and march off to war against men armed with chariots, swords and spears. All the boys die. And the enemy’s advance is halted.

That is the spirit of heroism. From the smallest social risk to risking life itself, heroes traffic in sacrifice. They think less of their own wellbeing than of what they value. That is heroic, at least to me.

But then I have to question myself. I’m not wired any differently than the rest of humanity, and I’m doing the same thing we all do. I’m looking at what inspires me, what lives up to my values, and saying “that there is heroism.” And when you call David Bowie a hero, I don’t feel right about that. But so what? Why should heroism be based on my values, and not yours?

That’s not necessarily an argument to open heroism up. It might simply mean that basing heroism on values isn’t a productive way to go. By far the best objection to my idea came from my friend Ari Kohen, who said this:

…if Lady Gaga is your hero and if the situation ever arises where a stranger’s trapped in a burning car or someone’s fallen onto the subway tracks, you’re more likely to be a bystander than someone who steps up and does the risky thing.

This resonates with me. To me, creating heroism is about creating people who won’t be afraid to speak up. (Or who will be afraid, and speak up anyway.) People who won’t be bystanders. People who will act when no one else will.

I’m not as confident as Ari that Lady Gaga’s example can’t help you with that. Or the example of a charity founder, or your grandpa. The truth is we don’t have a lot of data on what sorts of things prime somebody to be the one who steps forward. But we know a few things that definitely do help prime you, and they all have to do with being aware of others and being able to envision yourself taking action. It’s not clear what role, if any, a celebrity hero can play in that.

So the end result of all these posts is I don’t know. I don’t know if a broader definition of heroism is a good thing because I can’t tell if it helps us make more heroes or not. And I have an inner struggle over whether the definition of heroism I really believe in—the strict, sacrifice-based one—is truly better or if it’s just me pushing my values on people. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that possibility.

For now the quest continues. I’m not going to stand firmly by the new definition I’ve proposed (with apologies to those of you who loved it). Nor can I return firmly to the narrow risk-based definition, at least not without further thought. That there has to be a way to understand this phenomenon we call heroism, and I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I do suspect it’s connected to extraordinary acts in service of our values, and yet I feel that sacrifice is an important component. Making the two work together is likely my next step.

What does this mean for the heroic life? I don’t think  it changes much. I may not know, on paper, what makes a hero but I know, in my heart, exactly what I must do with my life. I have wandered and my journey has taught me my life purpose. Deeper, I know too what I stand for and what I must do if faced with a bad situation. I must put my ideals before everything else, hold them like a sword, and trust in them. They are the one part of me that can never be destroyed.

Here’s an index of all the posts on inspiration as a force of heroism:

Next time I’ll get back to road logs from my journey.

 

 

 

 

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Adventure, The Heroic Life

To adventure is more than a quest for love

Picture by Javier Eduardo Piragauta Mora

This is the story of why love isn’t always enough.

It’s no secret that I’ve found a happy relationship. She’s a fellow traveler and very independent. She revealed her adventuresome nature on an 80 mile bike expedition and since then we’ve run away like bandits.

For me, this is very special: a woman who roams like I do. When we’re knee-deep in mud, or packed with 18 people in a 12-person van, I look over at her, waiting for the flare—the anger, the what-are-we-doing? Instead, there’s my fellow adventurer, chin set, hair up and no sign of anything but determination to beat this challenge.

I’m honored that she’s with me. My time with Jessica gives me a new faith in love.

Yet the reaction I get from others expects more than that: that love itself is the journey. That falling in love is, somehow, everything I set out to search for.

I don’t believe that.

I believe in a life of seeking challenge and attempting impossible tasks. Adventure is not just a pastime until I find love. Adventure is an end in itself, a vehicle to reshape a life.

I guess I can understand why people view love as the greatest adventure. It’s frightening and thrilling, and if you don’t go out trekking through unknown lands then love is much easier to relate to. But for someone who does both, love and adventure look very different.

And different types of adventure are not interchangeable. You can find true love and still fail to overcome your drinking problem; you can lose a marathon and still help change children’s lives. The purpose of one quest is not the purpose of them all.

My purpose is most certainly to explore. To explore myth, to explore the globe, and to dig deep wherever I go. It is to pursue the heroic life.

The heroic life is the choice to use travel as a practice to change lives, starting with your own.

For some, love will be the ultimate treasure found in that journey. But to many others, love will be the temptation holding them back.

That’s because adventure, in the sense of physical, out-in-the-world adventure, is the most transformative practice I know—but it is not the most alluring. It’s much easier to sell comfort and safety, or even mere thrill-seeking, than it is to sell real adventure.

Love, on the other hand, sells itself. We are built to seek love, and told it is pure—but love is just one treasure, one of many wondrous treasures.

So the adventurer has to choose sometimes: do you want to adventure, or do you want love? And if you choose love, what will you give up?

I believe one can have both, but that’s because I believe in true love—love that abides. If you have a quest, true love will not require you to give it up, not to delay it, not to reduce your dream in size or in scope. Your true love will bless you, and send you to finish your great quest. You will both understand that you will be together again.

It is right to take risks for love. But it is also right to risk love itself. True love will not give you up.

One day there will be bands of people pursuing the heroic life together: private journeys on a shared quest. Each of them is on a journey to find (to choose) their purpose in life. And some will find, and choose, Love.

Their fellows will sit down and celebrate with them, will let them go, will let them settle down without objection. And their fellows will go away, still wandering, still in search.

Because there is more to find than love.

Lift yourself up, oh adventurer, and look to the sky: is there not something higher than the heart beside you?

To many, the answer is no: even just finding one heart, one kindred heart, is so much more than many people ever achieve.

But the heroic life dreams bigger, dreams too big, dangerously big. To live the heroic life is to attempt inconceivable things. The moment the journeyman contemplates a normal goal, an admirable goal, his hopes are set too low.

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Adventure, Heroism, The Heroic Life

Abstract of a Heroic Life

Photo by James Jordan

This November I’ll speak at a first-of-its-kind conference, the Hero Roundtable. I’m probably the least qualified speaker there, but the founder urged me to accept. So I did.

I was asked to provide an abstract for my talk. Here it is:

I have never done anything heroic. I’ve chosen to follow the path the heroes took.

Every one of us was raised on stories of great heroes—active, cunning individuals who won against all odds. Those of us at this conference have never set aside those stories. We have dedicated ourselves to understanding what heroism is, and to enacting heroism today.

Yet the scholarship of the twentieth century has trained us to handle these tales with rubber gloves. Hero scholars almost universally take their cue from Campbell and treat mythical heroes as literary characters. These heroes are purely fictional, their lessons psychological.

I reject this approach. It’s ineffective at understanding or creating heroism in real human lives.

I believe we can live the great myths. I believe these stories were created not just to inspire but to instruct. The common themes of the ancient myths are a blueprint for determined individuals to become truly heroic.

The heart of this blueprint is an actual, physical journey. Not a literary or figurative journey, not viewing volunteerism or education as a journey. The road to heroship is to travel.

But it is much more than that. It is to go freely into places unfamiliar and unknown. It is to seek challenge, and live by your own ideals. It is to willingly place yourself in circumstances you are not yet capable of handling.

In short, it is to adventure.

The conceit of the hero myths is this: we are at our best when we’re tested past our limit. To adventure hones you as a person. It changes you morally: what began as a journey for yourself ends up demanding your social grace, your communal spirit, your empathy for those unlike yourself. It also changes your capabilities. You develop new and greater talents. The result is an individual who is both highly effective and yet highly idealistic, a person who makes the unbelievable possible.

In this talk I will share my own experiences attempting this journey, and discuss how others can attempt it.

The conference is surprisingly affordable, thanks to creator Matt Langdon. Seating is limited and I hope you will take a look for yourself and consider getting a ticket.

What do you think of the abstract? Is this a talk you’d want to hear? What parts seem weakest?

 

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Adventure, Bicycling, New Orleans, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life, Travel

Journey to the End, Day 3: Who Beside You?

And after the End, what is it like? How do you get back?

One of the magic places on the way back.

One of the magic places on the way back.

The Levee

The last leg of the Mississippi River was behind us. We had biked all the way to the end, made offerings in a lonely place, ignored a sage perhaps; we were done. And it was dark, or damn near.

We planned to camp on the levee. I have written before about the problems with illegal camping, but down here was different—we were far from any farm, any house, no one was bothered, no one could find us.

We could lie where we pleased.

What pleased was the nearest, flattest, driest, quietest place we could find, with “nearest” leading the compromise. It becomes a scramble when the sun is low—I remember these days well; Jessica was about to be initiated.

Venice is built outside the levee. We crossed back over to the protected faux-basin of lower Louisiana. We took a side road that followed the levee, a high rampart above us. I spotted what looked like a service road and we went to investigate.

Below the levee’s crown was a flat spot. It was protected from view, it was grassy, and it was high up—zero danger of flooding and little of gators. The breeze helps reduce mosquitoes, though that’s a joke: you’re in a swamp, son.

We hauled our gear up by hand, to lighten the bikes. Then we hauled the bikes.

As with an air pump earlier, we had never before used the tent we’d brought. It’s actually an ingeniously designed piece of gear, but in sweaty dusk by lamplight and ear-buzz I would have welcomed something a little less ingenious, a little more familiar.

The tent went up.

Sweatbox

Inside was a nylon oven. Sweat threw itself from every pore. Itchy legs, dirty clothes, fever skin, exhausted limbs. Rationed water.

I got ready for bed.

I looked over at Jess. “How are you doing, Broome?”

She looked straight ahead. “Give me thirty minutes.”

It was the voice that brings men ulcers: the am-not-happy voice of a woman. But she was self contained. She neither complained, nor blamed, not pretended to be well: she asked for thirty minutes.

I nodded, said nothing, and gave her the time.

This is miserable, I knew. Not the trip as a whole—the trip I adore. But there is a certain malarial fatigue that happens when you race the sun to camp. You arrive exhausted, stressed and worried; you must then do physical work by little light in unsavory conditions. When at last you get into your cocoon you’re wired but deflated. You tremble, you toss around wishing you could sleep.

In 1,900 miles I had many nights like this. I never grew to like them, but I grew to manage them.

The person beside me was experiencing her very first one.

Thirty Minutes

I’ve been reading a book by Ed Stafford, the first (known) person to walk the entire length of the Amazon (thanks Sharla!). The biggest barrier to Ed’s trip, every day, was tension with traveling partners: guides, friends, locals. Learning to handle the psychological and social aspect of the adventure was far more critical to his survival than knowing how to deal with snakes, spiders or caimans.

Likewise, as I prepare to kayak the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve spoken with a wonderful doctor who’s done the same. His words about travel partners echo Ed’s perfectly.

And that was my only concern with bringing Jess (or anyone) along: we get along great, but how about under pressure?

The answer, it turns out, was not bad.

Jess calmly listed her thoughts in no particular order. Thoughts like:

  • She did not want to give up if camping out was important to me.
  • She was hot and miserable.
  • She wanted to be able to say she had camped on the levee.
  • She knew she could force herself to remain in the tent all night, uncomfortable as it was.
  • She was worried that if she slept poorly our final day of biking would suffer.

I listened to all points and suggested we go to a motel.

On the way we got lost in the fog.

Checking the phone (map) I turned us around. Jess asked me several questions: how we missed our road, why we needed to turn, how sure I was, etc. These are reasonable questions. Finally I had to answer:

“Right now my body’s tired. When my body’s tired my mind gets tired. I really need to not answer questions right now.”

She understood and we continued in silence, successfully reaching the motel.

After coffee and showers, I said: “Jess, I feel like we both did something mature tonight.”

She nodded: “I’m really proud of us.”

Ferries! (I did not make us late.)

Ferries! (Me not making us late.)

Tail Wind

All of that was the night of Day 2. Day 3 deserves little mention, because it was so simple.

We had a tail wind. We had different priorities for pace and schedule: fellow adventurers warn that this is the biggest source of contention. To her, we had reached my goal and the mission was over; get home quick. To me, we’d found one magic place at the end of the river and there were many more to discover.

We worked this out, doing mature things.

We pedaled 80 miles in a grand day, sailing on an 8 mph tail wind and strong legs. We crossed three ferries so we could follow the prettiest roads; in Algiers we faced our toughest traffic, conditions that left me with a pounding heart and an iron grip on my bike. Jessica handled it with a cool head.

We also crossed this bridge:

Highway 407 Bridge

“Report a Problem.” Problem: THIS BRIDGE!

After a rain shower and a gated dead end we reached the Dry Dock bar and restaurant (site of our first date) beside the Algiers Ferry. (For non-New Orleanians, that means one ferry ride from home.) There, no one cared about the miles we had gone or the dangers we had faced. We were just two more people with too many requests for our overworked waitress. Her adventure occluded our own.

Beer, salads, and too much food; an oddly comfortable ferry ride; a jaunt through the Quarter; coming full circle at Rogue Chateau; and 3 more miles back to Jess’ place for champagne and cookies.

This is the first leg of the Great Adventure. The first leg of a dream, a prophetic dream come true; the first leg of wresting Fate, of choosing Fate, of lightly holding Fate.

This is what it is to seek the heroic life.

This is the last part of a series. You can also read Day 1, Day 2 and reflection 2.5. Better yet, you can even read Jessica’s version.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, New Orleans, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life

The Crawfish Chronicles

This is an excerpt from the Wandering Dragon.

Picture by Wandering Dragon.

After having been in association with this guy for over four years, I can honestly say that he is the most cunning, determined, and foolhardy person I know… I have come to New Orleans to see him and symbolically “send him on his way” across a vast unknown that most of us would fear to tread.

He questions religion, belief, even experience, and yet sees the need and the usefulness for things like magic, ritual, and community, and does his best to ensure they reach those who need them. It’s like he wants you to believe in what you believe because you really believe it, and not for any other reason or self-serving excuse.

In his article Of Crawfish Boils, Magic Spells and Revelations, my friend and brother the Wandering Dragon (Mauricio) goes on to paint a picture of me as traveling philosopher that is at once embarrassingly accurate, and touchingly astute. This article was published weeks ago, and I hesitated to share it: would it be too self-serving? But he knows me (and my ideals) better than just about any human alive, and what he wrote keeps strumming chords in me.

If you want to get a look at what I do, and why I live, from the inside out—I don’t believe anyone has ever captured it this well.

Wandering Dragon is a blog of many topics, and you never quite know what you’ll find next. But I hope you’ll take a look at Of Crawfish Boils, Magic Spells and Revelations and leave Mau a comment or a question—tell him what you think, and dig for a little more.

Thanks brother. And thanks to all who follow me on this crazy adventure.

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Adventure, The Heroic Life

Sometimes you stand alone

Photo credit: “Venture” by orangeacid

Adventure is a way of life. It is putting your ideas ahead of your abilities, and your dreams ahead of your fears.

Before you begin to adventure you are mocked, judged, criticized: that will never work! But once you take your first step the whole world is rooting for you, the people you meet are amazed, they want you to succeed.

Not every single one of them, but enough.

Along your way you’ll find the lowest times, the deepest pains, fears in your soul that you did not know you harbored. You will look around, gasping, for anyone to blame—and there will only be yourself.

At these times you must pull forward, one hand over one hand, until you can walk again. You will want to give up, but adventure has its own siren call, and you will perhaps keep going. First you must forgive yourself.

You will meet companions. Some whom you trust, some whom you don’t; some likable and some grotesque; you will learn to check your judgment, to silence it, and not to mock others as you were once mocked. Sometimes the people least like yourself will be the ones you love the most.

You will enjoy nights of fatal bliss, nights beside a friend you will never see again: one you understand perfectly, and who understands you. You will speak in hushed tones like two thieves planning conquest. And you will know that, no matter where you go, you will always find your kin.

And when you kiss! When you kiss, it will never be halfway. You will grab them and possess each other.

Then you will learn to talk to storms, winds, streams, and wooded glens: the world will become an old chum, a well-known companion in her own right. You will learn her temperaments, and speak to her not as shaman but as lover. Her rhythms will beat warm against your skin, her temperaments endearing.

The world has both good and bad. When others run in fear, you will walk peacefully toward the wind.

And your fearlessness comes in. Not rashness but a knowing smile. You pull the arrow from your side and tend your sewing kit. You give shelter to those who shrink, you forgive those who run. Sometimes you stand alone, sometimes you are creatures of legend.

This is a simple process. It is not elusive. Adventure gives you hardship, victory, and unshakable peace. It is the practice of heroes.

Can anyone adventure? Yes but—no one will ask you. Every force will hold you back except your heart. If your heart aches for it, the door is open. Adventure is open.

It is the practice of heroes.

You might also enjoy my essay The day I had nothing left.

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Spotlight, The Heroic Life, Travel

I told a friend I would never be happy

Used without permission from Jodi Ettenberg.

This is an excerpt from an essay by Jodi Ettenberg.

A long time ago, I told a friend that I would never be happy in life. That my brain was too whirry and too busy thinking of all the things I could/should/will be doing and never able to focus on the present. How can someone be happy if they’re thinking of something else all the time? In the last few years, however, I came to accept the fact that this overarching, fuzzy idea of happiness couldn’t be my goal. It was unrealistic, and I felt that I was failing  – people were writing to say “oh, you’re living the dream!” — but internally I was struggling with what I was doing and why I was doing it.

What I was feeling made sense given that I got here by accident (as in, I didn’t quit my job to be a travel writer or seek happiness), but I still needed to parse through my thoughts and also take stock of who I had become after many years of travel.

* * *

I use the term “building a life” a lot lately. It’s become my preferred expression to discuss my choices because there is such weighted agency in it – I, Jodi Ettenberg, chose this path. It has been a fallback to say I got here by accident — factually accurate, no less — but relying on kismet or coincidence also lets me off the hook for the hard and very damaging decisions I made in leaving New York. I left a place and people I loved, and a career that was going well for me.  It’s true that I didn’t do this to “be” happy or because I was burned out. But regardless, I did it because I wanted to see the world, and the pull of that otherness – not just to see it on a short vacation, but to live it and get my hands dirty – it drew me in. It became bigger than me, a restlessness that corroded. It grew and it grew until I had to act on it; ignoring it was just hurting people around me and myself.

When I left for what I thought would be a year, I found that the restlessness dissipated. I wasn’t looking to travel around the world indefinitely. That’s never been an aim. However, the restlessness was replaced by an extraordinary curiosity for just about everything I saw. I wanted to build a life around that curiosity. All of the work I do – the consulting, the food writing, the blog – is to facilitate that, and to enable me to see and experience more of the little things in life. In acknowledging this shift away from restlessness and toward learning, I came a long way to accepting more of where I am today. I’m making choices only for me, which is not something everyone has available to them.

Jodi is different than other travel bloggers. She speaks about her own experience and doesn’t try to sell you on anything. Here, she really inspires me by showing that travel really does work as a practice—one that helps you find your purpose and live by your values. And that means it also works as a lifestyle. 

This is one of my favorite articles about travel. I hope you will read the rest and share your thoughts. 

In the last year you have helped me launch an adventure, complete a novella (currently in editing) and fund a community atelier of magic. You are the best readers in the world. Thank you. 

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