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…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“I think there are limits [in ultra-distance running]… but I don’t think anyone actually ever reaches theirs.”
Anton Krupicka in Kilian’s Quest S04E05.
For training and gear testing – and of course, for the fun of it – I found myself running around the lakeside road to ‘my mountain’ (the Traunstein) again. It was a nice-enough day with a lull in the worse weather that had been moving in.
With an insulating layer and a Windstopper top, what I wore felt rather too warm.
One week before, the temperatures had been even higher, the sun was shining, hardly any snow was visible any more, lots of people were out and about on that beautiful day.
A mother with a twin stroller, running on the lakeside road? Check.
Two old men already coming down the mountain that morning? Check.
Young hikers out for a day of fun? You betcha.
Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.
That was then. The week later, it still seemed a nice-enough day, but more of a dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Traunstein was proof of the worse weather that had started moving in.
Getting higher up the mountain, whose top kept itself shrouded in clouds, the expected wind kicked up, too.
Only that it pretty soon was enough wind that the two layers that had just seemed too warm started feeling too cold; out came the windproof/waterproof jacket and pants that have become my constant companions on such tours.
And still, looking around, listening to the wind, noticing some snow start to fall, it was not enough for me.
A man whom I’d seen at the foot of the mountain came past me as I’d decided to turn back, and of course I didn’t like turning back when someone else went on – but it’s just this sort of social comparison and ego-kick that gets us in trouble. Turn back I did.
Not Doing, at least Not Comparing
Not doing anything isn’t the best thing for growth, of course.
Doing will lead to comparison, however, and that may make for some dangerous challenges.
Even on the nice day a week before, I had noticed that.
Compare yourself to those who are really fast, and you may feel like you belong in a wheelchair.
Walk past hikers, and you feel pretty okay with yourself.
And now, with social media, comparison has all the worse a context, especially upwards to the truly extraordinary people.
The only solution, same as it’s always been: If you are not among the best and greatest who have to compete, retreat from the competition.
Be(come) good enough and better, living for yourself.
Know when to pull back to keep yourself safe and go on another day; be happy not in comparison to others but with what you are able to do.
Having gone once across to, over and around the mountain, and back, and then still having been able to head right on to the train back to my wife – that had made me happy.
Having felt the need to turn back even as I could have gone on (and saw someone else do so) this time, that left me feeling daunted by the mountain, especially as a bit more sunshine would break through the clouds as I was on my way back.
It was only a wee bit of sunshine, though, and at least I got on my way back, not stuck in cold and wind up a mountain, which could just as well have been the case.
Out Further, Comfortably Inside
Becoming at home means both drawing back, making oneself comfortable, and pushing at boundaries, growing.
So, the more you force yourself to do something, to act in a certain way, and the more you simply have to make decisions, the weaker your power over yourself will become.
Choices such as what to have for breakfast are enough to drain ‘ego’ a bit; by afternoon, you just reach for the worst kind of quick sugar fix.
It doesn’t matter if the choices are inconsequential or important, they all require an effort that the brain will start to have trouble with.
Interestingly, there is an insight from the seemingly physiological side of things that sounds related:
When we feel that we just can’t go on, e.g. running, it may not actually be the muscles that are fatigued to the point of not working anymore, apparently.
Rather, it is our brains triggering a survival mechanism, looking to conserve some energy in case we should still need it later.
In both cases, choices (to make, or just the choice to go on) are necessary, and our mental household of energy is the decisive factor for how this will fall.
To a large extent, our conscious minds may be contributing (and we can learn to override some of these processes), but the real decision falls outside of its purview.
Rationality looks like it plays a role, but its main role may well be to rationalize the decision that came about at a deeper level.
“Hypo-egoic” behaviors that don’t need such willpower because they have become ingrained in us, though, can go on – and we see that in running, where it’s necessary to forget the ego and just become motion if we want to go on at a certain point.
This is also, and more usually, the point of habits.
Make something a habit, and it will happen on cue and without a conscious, rational, energy-draining decision about it being necessary.
Just try to make sure you create good habits for yourself, be they going out for regular runs, turning back when things get too dicey, or regularly cooking good food, not flopping down in front of the TV with a beer when you really, really, would love to make more in and of your life…
… but don’t forget to take your relaxation seriously, too ;)
From sports clubs to cosplay, from nerdy themes to kinky fanfic, and perhaps extending into religions, some of the roots of these “tribes” may be old, but much of them is new.
They are based on our ‘natural’ heritage as social animals, our urge to socialize and form communities, and our typically human propensity to be both parochial, suspicious of strangers, and welcoming, at least as long as an other does not seem to pose a threat, to life or to psychological well-being.
As fandoms, though, such groups are combinations of people into cyber-tribes of shared (pop-cultural) interests, removed from much of the real-world, practical relations to survival that an actually co-habiting community would have faced.
The passion and creativity being invested in the discussion and continuation of the stories that bind them is all the greater, utterly fascinating – and perhaps a little bit problematic.
The unity achieved by way of shared interests, among people who may otherwise not even want to see each other eye-to-eye, is a fantastic difference to how things typically are in what is often labeled “in real life.”
The way that looks and status often do not matter online, and sometimes not even in physical meetings of fans, can bode well for the potential for human understanding.
But of course, the same abstraction of persons into online personas, the same relative anonymity, also comes with easy misunderstandings and quick emotional flare-ups. Flame wars and trolling are another side of that coin.
This discussion is common, but it overlooks another relationship that deserves more attention: The overlooked question, to me, is what it tells us about our (not) being at home in this world when so much energy is devoted to the virtual lives of others, to the desire to immerse oneself in these imaginary worlds, but not to one’s own life and the actual world.
It is understandable that we would be interested in some escape from what we ordinarily do and can be and have any day, into a world designed to appeal to our desires.
Whether it be romance or a(nother kind of) thrill, hidden lives or even superpowers, stories make it possible to let the imagination run wild and to try out different kinds of identities. As one fantastic study put it, it gives us an opportunity for “Becoming a vampire without being bitten.”
The last time you, as an actual person and not a character in a story, were somewhat free to change who you (thought or played) you were was as a child, just playing.
As a teenager, you might have played around with different identities and tried to come into yourself, too.
But then, as an adult, you are expected to play certain prescribed roles, fall into certain schemas, and have no more time, money, or even just energy to be or become anyone but who you’ve come to be.
You are not supposed to be anything more than a part of the economic machine, anyways. Work, make money, spend it again.
You can’t typically change yourself too much too quickly, be that because your own capabilities are limited and because new skills take time to develop or because the social ties, conditions, and circumstances you are in restrict your possibilities.
Real change takes real time.
But you can imagine being completely different. You read or play a character, and you gain some experiences, or at least memories/stories, of their personality and adventures. Even if it isn’t different, at least it feels so.
It feels good, and with that, much attention and cognitive capacity gets invested in knowing and discussing all the details of the respective fandom’s central theme. It may go to the point where the most minute details are gleaned from freeze-frames of a show, references are checked and allusions interpreted, characters put into further situations and raised up as ideals and objects of desire.
Nothing against a little infatuation with a story of interest or even a hero or heroine to emotionally attach to in a world with too few friends and too little excitement – but wouldn’t there be a lot that could be studied about actual life and the real world, and a lot to be gained from doing so?
Couldn’t we invest a bit more time and energy, not into wanting to be some fictional other in another world, but into making ourselves and our world better?
Life isn’t (just) a story, and therefore it does not appeal so easily. It’s dangerous and messy, and the hero doesn’t always win. It takes time to change, to grow, to create your better self, yes.
But it’s also real and it’s as fascinating as we make it out to be.
Me, I’m a fan of the trail to run, build endurance and explore the world, make myself at home in… this world. (Here, the Dragon’s Back on the Hong Kong Trail)
There is a lot to discover. And besides, if you were a character in so many a novel or movie or TV serial, you probably wouldn’t be the hero but just the passerby or the random victim.
I sometimes wonder if I could ever be interesting enough to fit into Preston and Child’s Pendergast series (yep, I’m a fan of that), and the conclusion is that only one thing is sure: If I were a character in there, I’d probably be one of those who had long since encountered a gruesome and untimely death…
There are stories to delve into, but there is also the story you yourself “write” by what you do every single day.
Every step taken – or avoided; every little piece of learning that makes you know more, every decision taken, makes you go on. If it’s not in a good direction making you a fan of your life, maybe it’s time to take a different approach, to re-write a bit.
It won’t happen overnight, there will be no magical pills or brain-expanding drugs or radioactive spiders – but training and learning and adventures to go out to and get better at, there sure are.