Editor’s Note: Scott Allison, my friend and true hero in his own right, reminds us of our need for Hero Stories, as almost never before in these strange and dangerous times. We storytellers may not be the creators of a Covid-19 vaccine, but by bringing Hero Stories to today’s audiences, we will provide a virtual fail-safe medicine for soul and spirit.
Les Schaffer, August 10, 2020
A Hearty Yes! The Human Thirst for Tales of Heroism
by Scott T. Allison
Readers of this blog need no convincing that people are drawn to good storytelling. Psychologists have found that stories crystalize abstract concepts and offer vivid, emotionally laden capsule summaries of wisdom for which the human mind was designed. American novelist Reynolds Price once said that “a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”
For the past dozen years, I’ve been studying heroes and writing about their psychological importance. When my students tell me how much they enjoy going to the movies, I remind them that the entertainment function of hero stories is only one of three functions, and is probably the least important. The other two functions of hero tales are to impart wisdom, and to inspire.
The Epistemic or Wisdom Function of Hero Tales
Hero stories encourage people to think transrationally. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, love, death, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional thinking skills.
Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.
How do hero tales help us think transrationally? First, hero stories are packed with symbolism, images and metaphors. Images move us more than logic, and metaphorical meaning has far greater impact than literal meaning.
In addition, hero tales reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Phrases such as, “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after” invoke deep time. By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.
Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Research has shown that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto story characters.
Tales of heroism also shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. G. K. Chesterton once observed that paradox is truth standing on its head to attract our attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. Examples of storytelling paradoxes include the idea that suffering leads to wellness, that helping others helps oneself, and that leaving home is necessary to find home.
Hero stories also help foster emotional intelligence. Fairy tales are useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales teach us how to resolve our fears. When we read our children bedtime stories, we’re showing them how heroes manage their emotions in dealing with tough circumstances.
The Energizing and Inspiration Function of Hero Tales
Hero stories motivate us to become our best selves. The classic mythic hero is often an underdog or ordinary person who is summoned on a journey full of extraordinary challenges. We identify with underdogs, root for them, and judge them to be highly inspiring when they triumph. Success on the hero journey requires courage and resilience, two central traits of heroic underdogs.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that hero tales teach us that challenges and setbacks in life are to be embraced, not avoided. According to Campbell, obstacles help us “recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
Hero stories also promote personal growth. At the outset of the journey, the hero is initially missing some important quality, such as self-confidence, humility, or an accurate sense of one’s true purpose in life. The hero journey is always a journey toward vast personal discovery.
The discovery, moreover, is the basis of a character transformation that enables the hero to bestow a gift or “boon” to his or her community. This boon is the consummate heroic act that culminates the journey. Every good hero does more than just survive the journey; good heroes use the gift of transformation to change the world for the better.
In summary, the remarkable personal growth we witness in hero stories serves as a blueprint for our own growth journeys. We need only trust that the path of the hero is our own path toward wisdom, redemption, and growth. When we embrace that path, with all its inherent hurts and fears, we are charting our own course toward beautiful transformation. In this way, hero stories energize us toward self-improvement and a better society.
Scott T. Allison is Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. He has published 15 books on heroism and heroic leadership and over 100 academic articles. His books include The Romance of Heroism, Heroic Transformation, The Heroic Leadership Imperative, Heroism and Wellbeing in the 21st Century, Conceptions of Leadership, Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership, Heroic Humility, and the Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership . His work has appeared in USA Today, National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate Magazine, MSNBC, CBS, Psychology Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has received Richmond’s Distinguished Educator Award and the Virginia Council of Higher Education’s Outstanding Faculty Award.