how to be a hero/heroine: the power of story + the quest for true self
When I was in my early twenties, I had a moment where I thought I was going to die, and the thoughts that would have been my final thoughts surprised me.
I was teaching ESL in Japan and I was on a date. It was a first date, which was traumatic enough. We were sitting in the back of a mostly-empty Korean restaurant in the middle of nowhere, when a piece of meat lodged in my throat and shut off my breathing. I jumped from the bench and started flapping my hands at my throat, like I was doing some weird variation on the chicken dance, and waited for my date to manfully rescue me with the kind of expert maneuver you see in the movies. Instead, he sat there and looked at me and said, in a you are so embarrassing me right now kind of voice, “What are you doing?”
You hear a lot about bad first dates, but dying seemed excessive.
And what came to mind was this: the books I had not written, and the regret I felt at losing my chance to write them. How can I die, I thought, with my books still inside me?
Then, like a miracle, I felt the meat fall down my throat. And I could breathe.
My friend Todd Henry is an entrepreneur and author and creativity guru and he urges people to Die Empty. That’s the title of his book: DIE EMPTY. It did not thrill his publisher. But what he means is, don’t risk dying with your songs trapped inside you, whatever they might be or form they might take. Get them out into the world. It’s not enough to ‘find’ your voice – you must give it shape and substance in the world. The world requires it. Your soul requires it, and it will push you and nag at you and at the end of your life, it will hold you accountable.
I’m a writer and a woman, and writers and women are always being urged to find our voice. I’m lucky, because I started writing when I was too young to know that I was supposed to have a Voice, so I never worried about losing it. Growing up, I lost other things instead, like passports, and car keys, and cars. You should never let me borrow your car.
To me, voice is another way of referring to your particular and highly personal stamp of creative intelligence. Your soul’s intelligence. Your soulprint. We define creativity as a special kind of problem-solving, and we live in a culture that judges how creative we are by how productive we are. We forget that creativity is not just doing, but being. It’s a state of mind that takes in the world and transforms it, makes meaning out of it.
Because creative intelligence is especially concerned with solving problems of meaning.
Human beings have a deep need for meaning. It is right up there with water and oxygen and milk chocolate and Keanu Reeves. It is our quest for meaning that compelled our ancestors to clamber down from the trees. It gave rise to symbolic intelligence and the evolution of language. It stimulated the growth of the human brain. There’s that famous line from a movie, What’s it all about, Alfie? What does it all mean? I never saw the movie, but I know that line.
When that need for meaning goes unmet, we are highly dissatisfied individuals. Our lives seem shallow and empty and – meaningless. That’s when we turn to bad choices, addictive behaviors. I myself would go shopping. I would look for meaning in all the wrong places, like Neiman Marcus, and expensive footwear.
But here’s the thing. As creative people, it’s our job to create meaning, not just for ourselves, but others. People want it, and need it, and look for it. People are willing to pay for context and meaning.
I have A.D.D., so I am sensitive to the fact that I shape my life according to what manages to hold my attention. And nothing holds attention like a good story. If you want me to spend my attention to something, tell me a story about it and show me how I can be a part of that story, or fold it into mine.
Story sets us up for meaning.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Significant Objects experiment. These people bought junk items from flea markets and garage sales and put them up for sale on Ebay. But they also got some talented fiction writers to write a story about each item. Each story was posted on Ebay alongside the item it featured, and a copy of the story came with the item. It was made extremely clear that these stories were fiction – there was no wish to deceive Ebay customers. And the organizers of this experiment still made thousands of dollars off of junk. (They donated the money to charity.)
People were not buying the item, they were buying the meaning invested within it. Story provides this.
The story is the country you visit, and if you love it, you purchase the souvenir, so you can take some of it home with you.
I was an obsessive reader when I was a kid – I still am. I was the kind of kid who would hide in the library stacks during lunch hour and recess so I could read. I remember my eighth grade teacher pounding on the library window, ordering me to get outside so I could be socialized like a normal person. More than one adult told me, growing up, that fiction was an escape from reality.
In junior high, I was obsessed with the soap opera SANTA BARBARA. Talk about an escape from reality. So I was interested to read a story in the New York Times from 2010 about the educational value of soap operas. Countries all over the world have discovered the power of using soap operas to educate populations about everything from domestic abuse to HIV/AIDS to countries in conflict to the status of women. In Colorado, state official developed a telenovela intended to convey health messages to the population. After it aired, there was a substantial increase in the number of children applying for health insurance. Many of us kind of look down at soap operas, but these stories connected people to a message deeply enough for them to be transformed by it.
I have learned that attention is connection; when you put your attention on something, you are getting out of your own head and touching the world outside of yourself. When we compel someone’s attention, we are co-creating their relationship with the world.
Stories are not an escape from reality.
Stories are how we shape and understand our reality.
We create the world we live in by the stories we choose to tell about it.
There’s a Hopi saying: Whoever tells the stories, rules the world.
Or, to quote the title of a popular business book: The best story wins.
As someone who spends time on social media, I am fascinated by online word-of-mouth; by what makes people want to share things other than cat videos. (Although I’ve seen – and been disturbed by — some oddly compelling cat videos.) So I was riveted by a study involving, again, the New York Times. This study looked at the articles people emailed the most, and studied them for what they might have in common. The upshot was this:
People share the stories that above all give them an experience of awe. People share stories that enlarge their frame of reference, shift their personal paradigm. Despite – or maybe because of – the fact that we live in what many writers describe as a narcissistic culture, it turns out we want to connect to something much larger than ourselves. As Martin Seligman put it, the self is a very poor site for meaning. True happiness comes from thinking less of ourselves, and finding a way to connect our daily actions to something so big that it reminds us of how small we actually are.
The best stories, the ones that last, contain nutritional value that teaches us how to do this; how to grow into heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for the people they love and the ideals they believe in.
I love the idea of oral storytelling, of stories as a breathing, living thing that are constantly evolving. As people told and retold them, they stripped away the boring parts, and reinvented the details. But the bones of these stories stayed the same: the archetypal truths, situations and characters that remained relevant no matter what time or culture you lived in; that made you want to tell the story in the first place, or see the latest Hollywood version of it.
And all these stories turn out to be pieces of the same big, overarching story, the monomyth that Joseph Campbell described and made famous as the hero’s journey. Perhaps you are familiar with it. The hero is forced to separate from his familiar world, go through a series of trials, slay a dragon and then return to his community with a boon that will transform that community and restore health and wellness.
It’s about separation, initiation, return.
The hero’s journey is really a metaphor for psychological development. This idea of of fulfilling your destiny by following a unique path of development, resonates across the cultures. The Navajo call it the Pollen Path, the Sioux call it the Good Red Road, the Chinese call it the Tao. Jung referred to it as individuation, and Maslow called it self-actualization.
The goal of this journey is to come home to your true self through transforming your view of the world– which ends up transforming the world. In other words, you let go of your old story, so you can step into a bigger, better one – and this ripples out to impact the stories of the people around you.
What is not as well-known as the hero’s journey, but is emerging strongly into the culture in stories such as FROZEN or Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, is the heroine’s journey. (In this case hero and heroine do not refer to gender; either gender can take either journey.) The journeys complement each other. While the hero’s journey takes him (or her) out into the world to slay a dragon, the heroine’s journey takes her (or him) deep into the psyche, where she must wrestle with her personal demons and recover previously exiled or abandoned aspects of her identity.
It’s about enclosure – transformation – re-emergence. It is the butterfly emerging from the cocoon.
The enclosure is the heroine’s secret world, where she withdraws from the demands of her community and the voices that would have her be what they want her to be. It is ‘a room of her own’, where she is free to discover and rehearse a new version of herself. This is a place of creative incubation.
But before she can reach for the new, she must let go of the old. She must dwell in the uneasy place in-between. She must tolerate ambiguity and not-knowing and the feeling of being adrift. She must stay in the dark long enough to nurture visions and dreams, and to follow the clues to the new thing as it presents itself. She must have faith that the new thing will appear.
Anyone who engages in creative work will recognize this process. It’s one that our culture does not make so easy to honor. These episodes of time-out — of feeling personally disrupted and lost – are looked at with suspicion and regarded as a waste of time. You are not being productive. But if we don’t make it a habit to seek out inspiration and integrate new experiences, to engage with them deeply, we won’t get those flashes of breakthrough synthesis that allow for game-changing insights.
Joseph Campbell writes about the need to have a sacred space, what he calls a ‘bliss station’, in order to explore our fascinations and incubate new ideas. Creativity happens when we combine familiar things in new ways, and if we don’t take the time to refill the mental well, we find ourselves with a dwindling number of things to smash together.
As we let of the old beliefs, we create space for new things to enter. As we discover what we are truly drawn to, we invite creative inspiration into our consciousness. We can recognize that the journey of life isn’t simply linear, but also moves in spirals. We descend into ourselves, but then rise into the world again, higher than before. At some point we descend again, but it never to the same sacred space. (As the saying goes, you can’t step into the same river twice.)
We don’t go through this process alone. Every hero has a mentor, someone ahead of us on her own journey who can reach back and help us with ours. The mentor gives the hero a gift to aid in the quest for self-actualization. This gift can be an insight, a tool, or a strategy. It can be a product of some kind, invested with the meaning of the story you tell around it, a story that encourages the hero toward a higher version of self.
When I read about people who succeed at building online communities, they sound, to me, like mentors. In a community, members collaborate toward a shared purpose of self-actualization. The mentor keeps this larger purpose front and center, stretching people with a higher vision. The mentor delivers an inspirational message alongside a focus on tactics and performance, and creates ways for members to make personal gains along the way. The mentor also recognizes the truth of his or her role, which is to enable the community members to be the true heroes.
David Whyte has a poem:
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
To find those good words — words with meaning — each of us must sound the depths of our true selves, and bring up the music we find there. When you liberate the songs of your soul, you grant others the freedom to liberate theirs.