The Insurmountable Challenge

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Opposition is a constant experience in our human lives. To make even the simplest of changes by necessity requires that we exist in one state, with our destination in another, and some form of resistance in between the two. If I wish to stand it must be that I am first in some more reclined state and then exert force against the pull of gravity. It is a simple logic that if these different states and the resistance between them did not exist, there would never any change for we would already be at our destinations.

Furthermore, it appears that this resistance which we encounter always flows more strongly in a particular direction. Specifically, it always flows against order and improvement. Tied into the very fabric of the universe seems to be a universal principle that it is always easier to make a mess than to clean one, to end a relationship than to build one, to ruin a reputation than to establish one, and to damn oneself than to find salvation.

To become the men and women we dream of demands, then, that we live a life of constant effort, always moving upstream and against the grain. Given the exhaustion we see at that end of the spectrum and our repulsion for the depravity at the other end, most of us settle on a more comfortable middle ground. In a word we choose “mediocrity,” days spent performing no great evil but also accomplishing no great good. An existence of forever living beneath our potential.

We might even try to convince ourselves that this is as good as life ever gets. Heroes are a fantasy, we say, and effort would only lead to broken dreams. The world is too big and too evil, and trying to stand against that storm will only get you snapped like a dry reed in the wind.

It is at times like these that stories, true stories, provide an all-important lesson on the power of endurance more than strength, of sacrifice more than fortification, of perseverance more than speed. Consider the situation under which Gandhi chose to defy the British rule in his homeland of India. Most of his fellow countrymen had accepted their dejected state because the British just seemed too great a force to stand against. As Gandhi swam against the current he raised no armies and fielded no battles, at least not in the military sense. But he did refuse to obey and he did refuse to be curtailed. His victory was achieved simply by being willing to face that tide of resistance longer than the British monarchy was, a feat all the more impressive given the principle I mentioned before: that the resistance is stronger against the good.

Stories of real world change shake us out of our cushy chairs and demand we face the reality that we could be more. We all have our demons, the forces that send us scurrying back under the bed whenever we consider improving ourselves. They might be ignorance, poverty, depression, or shame. “I would like to be a better person, but to do so would mean facing the guilt for past misdeeds.”

In this way our demons hold us back, and seem to wield greater power than we possess. Even so, they can be worn down if we are simply more persistent than they. More willing to pick ourselves up after a setback. More willing to endure, to sacrifice, and to give. If we learn anything from Gandhi’s example, let it be this: you can beat a man into submission simply by standing up more times than he is willing to knock you down.

As such, I care very little for stories where the hero wins the day just by being more skilled than the enemy. If he simply shoots faster, has bigger muscles, or hits harder until he wins, then there is no relatability to me and my situations. If I could simply punch my personal flaws into submission I would have done that a long time ago.

A far more meaningful narrative example is that of Disney’s animated feature: Hercules. Here we have a protagonist who literally is the strongest all around and does indeed try to punch all of his problems into submission. Eventually, though, he is frustrated to learn that life simply will not work that way, and ultimately he gives up his physical strength to instead learn endurance of the heart. It is by this path that finally he becomes the god he dreamt to be.

Like Hercules, our personal improvement often requires sacrificing that which gives us strength and comfort: our addiction, our complacency, our facade. Growth comes by taking off the armor that doesn’t fit and facing Goliath in our true form: small, vulnerable, and weak. This deliberately stacks the deck against us and puts us in the role of the underdog.

If you want a director who is master of the underdog tale, look no further than Steven Spielberg. From his early film-making titles like Duel, to his suspenseful thrillers like Jaws, to his gripping adventures like Indiana Jones, Spielberg consistently gives us an everyman who is entirely out of his depth. For each of them their path to success is a journey of setback after setback, failure after failure, one plan crumbling after another until finally their perseverance sees them through. I finish each of these films feeling exhausted for just having been witness to such constant struggle.

Another underdog tale I appreciate is King Henry V by Shakespeare. What I like most about this is that it leaves no question as to whether the uphill battle is worth the effort. The story certainly spends its time in the trenches, setting Henry and his small band against a series of losses and facing down innumerable foes. But then, at long last, there follows the triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, the charmingly bumbling courtship of Katharine, the King of France adopting Henry as heir, and the peaceful union of two great nations.

The play speaks a great truth, one that all of us would do well to remember when facing our own uphill battles.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone laying on their deathbed and saying “I just wish that I had tried less.” In the end we never do regret our efforts, only what we were. I cannot name all of the rewards we may find by our betterment, but the first of them, the heart that has its reclaimed itself, is already more than enough for me.

 

At this time I would normally do a little plug for my short stories, instead I would like to take a moment to dedicate this post to a dear friend of mine who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday.

Corey Holmgren was a military chaplain, therapist, youth teacher, father, husband, and friend. He was also the mentor who initiated me into the ranks of those that fight for their best selves. He did so much to show me the complacency I had accepted, and the potential that was waiting for me. It was he, and others like him, who inspired me to wake up and improve myself, making a number of changes, including writing these regular blog posts. Corey was a part of me that I was not ready to lose.

His family was not ready to lose him either and I’m including a link to the GoFundMe that has been set up for them. As it says over there: “If you are unable to donate, please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”

Fly in peace, friend.

The Good Fight

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One of the endearing elements of the typical literary protagonist is that they are usually unaware of their role as the hero of the story. Instead, when we first meet our main characters they are just ordinary people like all the rest of us, with no notion of the wonders they are soon to witness, nor the titans they are soon to become. Even as they are in the midst of accomplishing their tremendous feats they still may not realize their own legend, they’re simply trying to do what seems right for its own sake. This idea that someone just like us can achieve unexpected greatness through steady, good works is an optimistic and motivating message for all readers. One day when we look back at the accumulation of all our little efforts to do what is right we also hope to see a legacy worth being proud of. In other words, each of us needs our own story to be the hero of. That need is universal, it is not a career option that only a few of us must apply for. That need is the answer to the age-old question “what is the meaning of life?” In no uncertain terms, the purpose is for each of us to become our own hero. With that principle in mind, it becomes clear that if we wish to create meaningful heroes in our stories the key is to understand the human condition first. When we do that, the stages that define the hero become self-evident.

Conflict

Those that have no purpose in their lives aspire to find their great calling. Those that feel insignificant trust that greatness can come from the smallest of places. Those who are slogging through adversity seek reassurance that doing their best will be enough when all is said and done. Those that are burdened with guilt hold faith that what a person is now does not decide who they must be tomorrow. As we consider each of these life situations where we seek to find the hero inside a common theme emerges: conflict.

It is in the face of opposition that we feel the need for our inner hero, and indeed it is that opposition which gives the word “hero” any meaning. Our ultimate purpose in life is to strive, to overcome, and to become something greater. Indeed, without strife you can have the mentor, the lover, the confidant, the bystander, and even a main character, but you will never have any hero. Before you can tell your story you must first know the relationship between the hero and their conflict. That source of conflict might originate in another villainous character, a life situation, or an inner flaw, but there must be something that the would-be hero stands morally opposed to. Just like us when we face our life trials, the hero has to fundamentally feel that the opposition is against their very nature.

Loss

Diametric opposition isn’t enough by itself, though. The fact is that many of us live compromised lives, finding that it is easier to turn a blind eye and quiet our conscience than to act. We are naturally averse to conflict, after all, and so we attempt to mitigate evil rather than eradicate it. We even reach the point of doing things that go against our very nature for their convenience, and in so doing sin against the heart within us. All too often, people will not lift themselves above this self-cheating lifestyle except when some terrible loss occurs to awaken their resolve.

And so, make no mistake, the villain of a successful story means serious business. They do not come merely as the irritator or the inconveniencer, they come as the destroyer and the ravager. If left unchecked, they will take all that the protagonist holds most dear, and they communicate this intention by destroying the first of that which the main character loves. Indeed they typically destroy the one person or thing which that character holds most precious of all.

Decision

In our modern vernacular we sometimes call this moment of loss “hitting rock bottom.”  The evil we chose to not get involved with has invaded us directly, demanding our attention. We feel simultaneously burdened with animosity towards it, but also paralyzed with guilt and self-doubt. In this moment we perceive two great choices gaping wide for us.

The first is to despair, to be consumed by our shame and to give ourselves over to the adversary. We let this tragedy happen on our watch after all, so we deserve to be destroyed as that which we loved was destroyed. This is Simba in The Lion King feeling personally responsible for the loss of his father and running away from all that he was born to be, while his evil uncle reigns unchecked.

The other option is to throw down the challenge. Perhaps there have been mistakes made and prices paid for them, but the call of the hero is to refuse that this evil be allowed to go on any further. This isn’t about “joining” a fight against the villain either, it is a moment of claiming that fight for your own. Perhaps others may fill the ranks beside you, but they are ancillary. This is the hero’s own personal war.

Outmatched

The balance of power always seems to be in the hand of the opponent, though. They had a headstart on us after all and most often have seduced the masses into supporting them. There seems to be a fundamental rule of the universe that doing the right thing is always the more difficult path to follow. If it were the easier thing to do, we already would have done it after all. It was the notion of an uphill battle that gave us our pause in the first place.

And so it would feel dishonest to us if a story presented a hero that resolved themselves to the conflict, marched right into the thieves’ den, and by their greater brute force destroyed every enemy immediately. Again, if the hero already held the greater strength, they would have resolved the situation back at the very start. It is imperative, therefore, that the hero is to be the underdog here, and we should feel that they cannot win in a direct assault. If the hero is not stronger, then they must rely on something else. Often the hero is smarter, calculating, and more daring. They use their intelligence to leverage the enemy’s own power against them, letting the foes collapse under the weight of their own hubris.

Sacrifice

Change inevitably involves sacrifice. It was loss that brought us into our life predicament, but it is sacrifice that will get us out. On the smaller end that may simply be a sacrifice of our time and energy in overcoming our life situation, and on the higher end it may be a sacrifice of our entire lifestyle in overcoming our inner demons. In order to make space for wine, you first must pour out the water that was already in the cup.

As we just said, the villain usually has more power than the hero, but the hero has the greater determination, the greater resolve to see things through to the end no matter the cost. And it certainly will come at a cost, in some cases even the cost of the hero’s life. Often I see stories being averse to take this step of the hero’s journey, too afraid of a bittersweet ending. Even worse, some stories flirt with the idea of sacrifice, suggesting it is about to happen, but then pull their punch at the very end. Perhaps I’ll discuss this matter at greater length in another post, but for now I’ll just say sacrifice is sacred, and ought not to be treated lightly for emotional manipulation.

More important than what is actually sacrificed by the hero for the victory is the fact that they are willing to sacrifice all. After all, when any of us attempt to change our own lifestyles, we will soon find that there is no winning from half-hearted measures, we have to be willing to sacrifice whatever is called over.

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A week ago I pointed out that the classic archetype of heroes striving against villains is an obvious reenactment of the universal war between good and evil. That we tend to look for ourselves in the hero reveals our bias that we are each of us basically good. That is an optimistic notion and one that I personally agree with. There is something noble inside each of us, and it is that nobility which compels mankind to write these heroic tales; tales which serve the dual purpose of fanning the flames of those in the midst of their own great life adventure, as well as to stoke the embers of those who are waning in them.

Last Thursday I shared a story about a hero that followed through each of the steps I’ve mentioned above. In that story we met a character named Kael who was conflicted about his own dual nature, one part being good and the other being evil. Kael tried to compromise between the two parts until he was driven to decide between the two when he lost the trust of Ayla, the character he loved most. As he attempted to make things right, he found himself outmatched by his opponent, and only by being both cleverer and more willing to sacrifice he eventually found his triumph and became the hero at the story’s end.

At the opening of Kael’s story, he encountered a sage-life character, whose purpose was to  provide Kael the core questions which led him to his great purpose. That role of the wise mentor is another essential role in literature and one that I will pursue in my next story entry on Thursday. I’ll see you then.