“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” – David Foster Wallace
Growing up, all of us had heroes that filled our eyes with glimmer and our souls with courage. We dreamed about one day meeting them. We dreamed of one day becoming like them. They were superheroes, war heroes, and sports heroes. Maybe they’re right in saying that you should never meet your heroes. They will disappoint you in so many ways. No man on earth can live up to the fantasies of millions.
Despair not, for the only real hero that you ever need in your life is you. You’re the one who puts in the quiet hours of work necessary to actualize your potentials and becoming happy.
In this article, I want to break down the ways that you are being a hero to yourself right now, and perhaps even more so in the future.
First though, let’s start with why conventional ideals of heroism are actually damaging to our psyches if we don’t mitigate the messages they are sending to us.
A hero is probably the most universal icon across all cultures and ethnic groups of the human race. The hero is strong, masculine, confident, and irresistible to women. From very early childhood, all men aspire to become this hero. We seek out villains and nemeses to shape us and validate our masculinity.
Just as I mentioned previously, in my article about the root causes of anxiety, heroism, like many other tools of the mind, can also be misused. Infantile heroism can drive deep idealizations of the self with false claims, shoulds, and ultimately alienation from reality altogether.
If the movies would have us to believe, a hero is someone with superhuman capabilities, pre-ordained to save the day over and over again. Then, as their reward, they get the pretty girls and ride off into the sunset.
This type of heroism is more than just silly; it’s damaging.
It presents a male model that is mostly invulnerable, infinitely powerful, perfect, aloof, and distant from society. If you have read a few of my articles or been around the dating advice scene, you will see instantly all the things wrong with this picture.
Another type of hero who is less powerful, but just as widely portrayed by the media, is the action hero. It’s the men who pull kittens out of burning buildings, surf huge waves, or parachute out of helicopters. These men seem to have a special penchant and skill for thrill and excitement. Yet the more we find out about their personal lives, we start to see a pattern of avoidance and fear that they seem to overcompensate by performing extreme acts.
Lastly, most men never stop worshiping sports heroes. They go beyond wearing their jerseys and numbers. They actually dream of one day becoming just as strong, quick, and skillful as a professional athlete, no matter how old or out of shape they are. They live their lives vicariously through their mini-gods. No wonder a professional athlete’s fall from grace is such a repeated pattern throughout the world. No amount of money or fame can support such an inflated identity.
A few things are wrong with idolizing these types of heroes:
- The public seems to only grow their appetite for more fame and grandeur. Heroic acts and superpowers become mundane, so the conventional heroes are trapped in a constant loop of one-upping themselves. They constantly have to invent more extreme acts just to hold the public’s attention.
- The message that they send straight to our subconscious mind, if not mitigated, is that we have to do or be something special just to measure up to the opposite sex.
- They intensify and deepen the search for glory, in which we invest more and more of our identity in an illusion. We become alienated from our true selves if we allow this kind of heroism to drive how we live out our lives.
Yet there is another kind of heroism far less talked about. It’s the true quiet heroism that creates values in a man’s life day in and day out, without the need for accolades, recognition, and validation.
The reward for these heroes is not external. The reward is a sense of self-confidence built on solid foundations of tested beliefs and supporting actions.
True heroism, to me, is defined as doing everything it takes to become happy. Being happy requires effort, pain, rationality, acceptance, vulnerability, and the ability to do nothing less than picking one up by one’s bootstraps. The people who have become content in their lives are the true heroes in my book. This is also the heroism that I hope to develop in myself to become a model to myself and others, especially my children.
Below are the arenas where this heroism manifests itself:
We have all made mistakes in life, large and small. Yet some mistakes seem to be too large for us to fix. It’s in these times that a man truly confronts his helplessness. He is overcome with so much shame and guilt that he is reduced to fetal position. He feels like a child disappointing his parents once again. However, if a man can see the biggest mistakes in life as a gift for him to embrace and overcome with strength and responsibility, how can he not be a hero to himself?
So many superhero stories attempt to capture this rising back to one’s feet after a fall from grace. This is art imitating life. But it does badly since it doesn’t (and can’t) show the quiet fortitude of working everyday with the goal of redemption in one’s mind. It’s just not very exciting to watch someone tirelessly repeat the same action over and over. Yet this is what is required for a man to solidify his resolve to become content with who he really is.
If forgetting is repression, then forgiving is the full acceptance of the actions, consequences, and beliefs that caused the harmful actions. Self-contempt and self-condemnation is so strong and so built into each of us that tremendous mental skill and willingness are required to break these mechanisms. Those who have managed to do so possess almost unlimited personal power. They understand, forgive, and let go of the mental hold that past harmful actions of themselves or others have on them.
It takes real personal strength to understand the intentions and circumstances of yourself and others who may have wronged you. They were trying to be happy, and so were you. We all lacked awareness of the correct processes required to bring about effective and righteous actions every single time.
We all learn through mistakes, and we can only do so if we look past the painful shame that they cause us and others. With so many layers of the media, religions, and cultures pumping much toxic shame into our minds, a person who is willing to claw past all those layers to be aware of their own and others’ intentions must be some sort of hero.
Living with Purpose and Value
Anybody can say they have some form of purpose in life. Purposes like going to work, waiting for the weekend, and seeking entertainment. That might be a life fulfilled to some men. Compare this to the lives of, say, Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton though, and we see how wasteful it can be. But these men didn’t magically find their callings. They had to toil for years in loneliness and isolation. They had to overcome pressures of society to give up their purposes for vocational occupations.
So it is with a true hero to develop a sense of purpose in himself, in his most menial tasks to his life’s task. As I sit and write these words to myself, I am being a hero to my own life. The truth of the matter is that very few might read what I write, but that doesn’t seem to matter much right now. Writing is my purpose, and discovering and developing a model to myself is my true objective.
So it is with you. How will you use purpose to become who you’ve always wanted to be? You don’t have to save the world, you just have to harness your limited time on earth.
Compassion For Self
As Karen Horney said in her book, “Neuroris and Human Growth,” many people in the world live with compassion for others, yet very few actually have compassion for themselves. Specifically, I’m referring to the compassion for the inner child/teenager/young adult that has internalized all of their parents’ fears and beliefs. Self-compassion is actually the stronger form of compassion, and it is the root of all true altruism.
In “Beyond Success and Failure,” Willard and Marguerite Beecher preached of agápe, or Greek for the type of love that is given without the expectation of anything in return. Agápe starts from within. A person who loves with agápe (as opposed eros, or selfish needy love), must have a strong conviction of inner value and worth.
We want to see these values be reflected in the world we live in, not to capture and consume values from others. These values grow out of the compassion for self as he struggles to self-actualize through trials and errors. The errors will and must happen. It’s that then self-compassion must kick in to propel him beyond his mistakes to long-term personal growth.
As Daniel Goleman showed in his books on Emotional and Social intelligence, true empathy cannot take place in the face of anxiety and fear. These processes shut down empathy, and what prompts a man to help others, are false beliefs and validation. Think about it. If Daily Planet didn’t exist, would Superman still save the world?
Once again, it takes a real hero to be in touch with the inner parts of self to break down self-limiting beliefs and connect to reality. Compassion toward self, more than compassion toward others, defines true heroism for me.
A real role model has the focus and resolve to perform actions repeatedly until he realizes the values that he wishes to see in the world and himself. It’s within the powers of anyone to act in the spur of the moment.
The quiet heroes in our lives are facing their fears and overcoming them every day. It’s this commitment to act in the face of fear over and over, not simply when called upon, that develops character.
It is the hours and hours upon seemingly boredom that allows the mind to focus on the only thing it can manipulate – its own thinking processes. It is this judicious exercise that allowed men to master themselves and their environments.
Their ultimate reward is not the accolades from others. If anything, their self control and focus actually draw the ire of others who lack them. Their reward is the solidified self-esteem that cannot be easily broken with the worst that life has to offer.
I’ve always wondered why Superheroes in movies always leave a big mess behind. If they’re so strong and powerful, why don’t they fix what they’ve broken? Why do we encourage this kind of reckless behavior? Apologizing and cleaning up after, or better yet, preventing disasters that you cause are marks of a true hero.
Responsibility goes deeper than that. It demands the constant questioning of what is actually in one’s control and what isn’t. Taking responsibility for something you don’t have control over is just as bad as not taking responsibility for something you have.
We can all do a bit more, be a bit more mindful, and care for our own values more effectively. It’s this desire to deepen one’s understanding of actions and consequences that gives an everyday hero his true superhuman capabilities.
The person who looks deeper into what he can do better, more efficiently and effectively, suddenly has increasing personal power to shape the reality around him. As it turns out, responsibility is the greatest super power that any man can have.
In closing, I’d like to remark on the limitations of imaginations.
We can all dream of alternate realities of which we are all heroes of some form or another. These realities seem so seductive. We’ve all been brought up to worship heroes that we seem to do it automatically.
These realities put us in a bind when we have to come to face with the actual reality of our lives. Not only that, these alternate realities are geared for only one specific scenario of which we gain the values and love that we deserve. They limit our growth and spontaneity.
It’s only when we submit to reality and realize the true hero in each of us that we start to enjoy all that life has to offer. This type of heroism might not be as instantaneous, impressive, or exciting. But it can only be this type of heroism that ultimately opens the door to true self-confidence, deep intimacy, and lasting constant personal power.
This type of heroism cannot be seduced or reduced. It is self-rewarding and self-validating. As Henry David Thoreau said:
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them.”
I dare to say that the rest of men, while few, live lives of quiet heroism having sung their songs as loudest they can, even if only to an audience of one.
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