Talk of heroes seems stale when it takes (only?) an eponymous action camera for one to “Be a Hero” – and yet, from the author of “Born to Run” comes a new tale of heroic outcasts that is also a wake-up call for the everyday person to become a hero…
Chris McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” out April 14, 2015 strikes at an issue that is at the heart of some current confusion:
For one, talking of “heroes” seems a thing of the (mythical) past at best, a failed understanding of human imperfection at worst.
It’s become a label affixed to people doing what they prepared to do (like firefighters; just think of all the “heroes of 9/11″…).
It’s attached to people doing something that’s simply human: caring and being strong for others.
And, worst of all, it’s the tagline for Youtube “heroics” that are just action sports, if that.
Even worse, our idols seem far from any heroic ideals.
Success, in fact, seems something for sociopaths.
After all, those people upheld as great examples of success are the ones who are rich and famous (or at least rich) as – following another pattern of ‘extremization‘ – we make money the only measure. And if not money, then fame. Popularity, at least.
Their character, the sources and consequences of their money, i.e. their supposed success, don’t matter anymore, then.
The good person who did some kind of heroic deed, meanwhile, is looked at somewhat askance.
“Why would you risk your life for others? What’s the profit in that?” is the immediate thought.
At the same time, though, we still want to see and respect values. We treasure the person who is strong not for himself but for others. We long for adventure and meaning.
Here, however, we also find a problem.
Reading a title like “Natural Born Heroes” will probably make you think only of people who were genetically gifted with special skills and characters.
Enough recent books have mentioned (e.g. Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them), if not been all about (e.g. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance), the genetic component to athletic prowess, for example.
“Me, I’m no hero,” you will more likely think.
And that’s exactly where “Natural Born Heroes” draws you in and carries you through the story of the WWII resistance fighters on Crete and McDougall’s discovery of their skills in our times.
It reads just like a story of just such people who must somehow have been gifted, only waiting for the right conditions of adversity in which to excel – but there’s an almost immediate twist:
If the people who are the heroes of that story are supposed somehow to have been born as extraordinary specimens of our species, then a hero awaits in every stereotypical basement-dwelling nerd. And every playboy and outcast and ordinary laborer.
And that is just the point.
As McDougall argues throughout the examples he gives in Natural Born Heroes, jumping between the shenanigans of our World War II resistance’s heroes on Crete and modern representatives of the skills he is talking about, the “what” of hero training is what leads to natural born / everyday heroes. And, we all could be them.
“[H]eroes [aren’t] a different breed–they just had different breeding.” (Chapter 4)
“The art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance [for much of human history]; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along… The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.” (Chapter 3)
Now, I believe this is quite a re-reading of history, but as a goal, it certainly isn’t the worst.
We live in a time in which we have all the conditions for such a re-reading and such practice towards greatness, after all – and we are using them to discuss the minutiae of TV series while getting fat rather than form the fandom of life.
I just have to think back to my high school days (which were before the internet and even before most computer games).
And, there was a martial arts student who was strong but couldn’t run far, many soccer players who couldn’t even manage a single pull-up, and the highly intelligent kid who remembered everything he wanted but was so in his head he thought he would always be able to think himself out of any dicey situation… and apparently, with kids ever more indoors and playing only on tablets and computers, even balancing or playing tag has now become an issue.
Weakness Is a Human Strength
It does not end with physical skills, though.
Noticeably, McDougall is big on virtue. Yes, he says that heroes were created through the above “what,” but also that it is ultimately the “why” which brings forth the hero.
“Virtue isn’t respectable these days, and we’ve certainly seen enough hypocrisy among so-called moral leaders to question what they tell us to do,” he quotes one of his interlocutors. “But at some deeper level, we still instinctively idolize the kind of heroic behavior we claim is foreign to us, and keep acting on the heroic urges we claim we don’t have.” (Chapter 5)
The hipster, or the equally-as-ironic critique of the hipster, would even go so far as to claim that all such virtue and heroics is either self-serving or unreal, I fear. Just look at the example of what goes for personal development nowadays: It is, all too often, all about gaming the system and bending the rules for one’s own gain and appearance of greatness.
When one of personal development/lifestyle design’s biggest guru’s biggest claims to fame are the most turns in the shortest time in tango dancing, and having tricked his way into a lower weight class and then technically k.o.-ed, i.e. thrown out of the ring, his opponents in a martial arts tournament, it is more than refreshing to hear such an earnest call for virtue.
In fact, “Natural Born Heroes” doesn’t even stop at virtue.
McDougall refers to a lesson from Plutarch, which taught that “Heroes care. True heroism… isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion. … Empathy… [is] a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” (Chapter 5)
Later, too, where I have found personal development pros claim that you have to cut your ties to people, be they friends or family, if they are not 100% supportive (useful?) to you, McDougall calls for compassion which “really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what is going on around us and the smartest way to respond. It’s your social spider web, a protective netting of highly-sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you.” (Chapter 15)
What shall I say? Take that, egotistic preppers who think the apocalypse will be won by every man to himself…
In all that, where so many a physical feat seems to be all just about a record to break, McDougall (re-)discovers something that often seems to have been forgotten: that there is a deeper meaning in the pursuit of physical (as well as mental) fitness. Xenía, compassion, also expresses itself with/as the usefulness of a person to his/her group.
This idea is neatly summarized in Parkour’s, Georges Hébert-inspired/inherited, motto “Être fort pour être utile” – Being strong to be useful (as it has long been translated in articles around David Belle; it is “Be fit to be useful” in McDougall’s rendering); and it is the same spirit that I have seen in ninjutsu/To-Shin-Do, which Stephen Hayes has long been presenting as a practice for a protector.
Complete and Useful ‘Strength’
Sports and fitness are currently mainly seen as practices to get oneself lean (or built), but there is a usefulness and fascination (and fun!) with a very serious background when one looks at the modern era through the historical example:
“We’ve been living a lethal fantasy, Hébert realized. We’ve lulled ourselves into believing that in an emergency, someone else will always come along to rescue us. We’ve stopped relying on our own wonderfully adaptable bodies; we’ve forgotten that we can think, climb, leap, run, throw, swim, and fight with more versatility than any other creature on the planet.” (Chapter 26 – and Hébert was writing before WWI !)
We are now also ever more specialized, not just in work, but even in such fun, but, as McDougall quotes Hébert again,
“An individual who is satisfied with performing in exercises or sports of entertainment … but ignores the art of swimming, self-defense, or fears vertigo, is not strong in an useful manner. … A weightlifter or a wrestler who cannot run nor climb, or a runner or a boxer who doesn’t know how to swim, or cannot climb, is not strong in a complete manner.”
Never mind so many a current intellectual or ordinary person incapable of running for a few miles or pulling him-/herself up a wall or roof… (which I’ve argued to be a better sign of fitness than things like running a marathon, long before).
Here, there is so much fun and usefulness, be they for health and fitness or in preparation for whatever trouble you may happen to find yourself in, it is hard to believe that we need a wake-up call for that.
But from moving to throwing to finding food around us, we clearly do.
We aren’t – sorry, can’t resist bringing in my own concern here – not at home in this world, with the situations we may encounter and as the beings we are.
Beings who, to get back to what McDougall describes yet again, should “[aim] for the hero’s holy trinity: paideia, arete, and xenía: skill, strength, and desire [compassion]. Mind, body, and soul.”
If there is one serious downside to the book, it is that it felt a bit short on the modern expression of such skills, the practical ideas to follow up on. McDougall visits people who represent those skills, here and there, but what they do and what there is to learn, to me always just felt shown in appetizer-sized bits.
The videos McDougall has been presenting on Outside Online illustrate these practices rather better (and maybe gave the impression that they would be the main focus when Natural Born Heroes‘ red thread is actually the WWII story).
McDougall’s book presentations (in person) seem much more focused on these practical skills rather than the WWII kidnapping, too (and so I wonder if a follow-up practical handbook, or a guide to relevant training courses, at least, is already in the works).
The story of the Cretan resistance was captivating nonetheless.
It was hard to put the book down – and at the same time, what I kept wanting to do more than anything was to put the book down, watch the videos and read the articles about the skills Christopher McDougall suggests we could and should be learning in order to turn us ourselves into heroes.
And, above all that, to go out and really learn and practice these skills.
In fact, I’m sure to be at the next parkour meeting in the city nearby. The tallest tree in my backyard will get a climbing rope put on it (again). And I’ve been exploring the edibility of wild herbs and the healthiness of real food, anyways.
This may all not be particularly heroic yet, but even if it’s just playing at following examples, it’s both a fun diversion and a great practice of useful skills for the now and any possible futures.