In an ideal world, children are loved and nurtured by their parents. Parents are responsible for teaching their children moral codes, right behavior, respect, discipline, and all the other basic life skills essential to the early years of life.
Yet, while we are learning these fundamental lessons from our parents and teachers, another skill is awakening in us organically — our survival instincts. Somewhere around age seven, the instinct to survive kicks in just like clock work in every human being.
The survival instinct is part of our animal nature. It’s a gut instinct that functions faster than reason. It activates our fight or flight mechanism. It sends feelings to our gut that tell us that the stranger walking down the street is dangerous or not. It tells us that we need to leave room or stay. Our survival instinct matures as we do; that is, as we become more able to respond to it, to trust it more, we rely upon it more.
All great heroes are great because they rely upon their survival instincts. Heroes are the quintessential examples of what the human being is capable of who knows how to count on his own inner resources, his own instincts, his own fight or flight mechanism. Heroes are the ultimate survivors not only because they are clever with weapons, but also because they are connected to one clear voice. They are not distracted in a world of chaos. They can make it in this world, no matter what.
Children know instinctively that they need to survive in this world — with or without their parents. They gravitate to larger-than-life heroes because they represent the ability to defeat any challenge that life can offer them. Young people see the flaws in their parents because they live with them. They see their parents defeated far too often by their challenges for a case of hero-worship to develop, although every now again a child does feel that a parent is his or her hero. That is a lovely but infrequent relationship.
We live in a society that loves its heroes but curiously has very few genuine public figures that model true heroes. Sports figures are not heroes — they are athletes. Movie stars and recording artists likewise are not heroes and yet many times they are referred to as such. A hero is someone who has successfully achieved a task that in some way benefits others or himself in a transformational way. Athletes and film stars do not meet those requirements except when playing roles in their films.
On the other hand, we are a nation full of silent heroes who serve each other behind the scenes and in times of great traumas. The Boston Marathon tragedy woke up the hero archetype immediately in more people than could be counted within minutes of that horrible bomb blast. Instantly people from every direction ran toward the wounded — in the direction of the bombed area — without consideration that a third or a fourth bomb might explode. Heroes think of others first. That’s what makes them heroes.
Days later a massive explosion hit near Waco, Texas, leaving almost 160 people injured and about 15 dead at the time of the writing of this article. The world around the community came to a halt as shock waves blew over the ruins of the town, devastated by an explosion in a fertilizer factory. Within minutes, first responders were on their way, along with volunteers and neighbors and people from the surrounding towns, lining up with blankets, food, water, and arms waiting to hold the weary. These people hardly think of themselves as heroes but three volunteer fire fighters looking for survivors of the blast perished. They had no idea that morning that it would be the last day of their lives, that they would die trying to save people they did not even know. But that’s the stuff heroes — real heroes — are made of.
We are a country full of silent, loving, caring silent heroes who spring into action the second crises arise. Some people do not discover they have what it takes to be a hero until their moment comes, that moment when they are called upon by destiny and circumstances to make the bravest decision of their lives: Do I jump on the railroad tracks to save that person from the on coming train? Do I stay with strangers all night because they are from another country and terrified? Do I really have what it takes to give that much of myself? You never know how to answer that question until it is really asked of you. That’s when you discover whether you have what it takes to be a hero.
In a society genuinely captivated by heroes, we should do what we can to help young people become the real thing in their own life. What if, for example, schools initiated a program called, The Hero’s Journey? It could even be a weekend retreat in which young men and women were introduced to the idea that life is a journey of challenges, some of which are supposed to be faced alone. What an outrageously original truth to teach our youth: obstacles in life are inevitable and you are meant to encounter some of these by yourself. You would be well served as a young person to know ahead of time that these challenges await you. No one ever knows when their moment will come or what their particular Hero’s Journey will look like, but every person’s journey is meant to test their fortitude, their survival instincts, and their faith in an inner common sense and wisdom.
Genuine heroes are those who make it through their own Hero’s Journey, though few if any of them would say that they recognized their difficulties at the time as an initiation into the ranks of the Hero. What they will tell you is that they knew that they had to keep going, that they had to rely on themselves especially if others were counting on them, and that they had to believe in something greater than themselves in order to get through the toughest times.
The role of being a hero is not something a person can sign on for. I’ve never heard a young person say, “I want to be a hero when I grow up.” Yet I have seen the admiration young people have for hero figures, especially larger-than-life ones who give the impression that nothing can defeat them. People who have made it through the Hero’s Journey in their own life discovered for themselves that they stand up to defeat pretty well. They know that no matter what happens in their life, they will find a way to get through it. That’s what heroism is really all about.