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.
What is a Blog?
- NOUN: a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.
synonyms: description · report · version · story · narration · narrative · statement · news
- VERB: add new material to or regularly update a blog.
“it’s about a week since I last blogged”
Now that you know what a Blog is, it’s time for you to support your local Blog.
We need your input and we’re looking for member submissions. For this month, we’re asking how are you surviving and thriving through these Strange Times? What’s your best advice for the rest of us? Perhaps it’s a bit of hard-won wisdom? Something that’s really bugging you? Maybe a joke or funny story? Or a tasty recipe? Please send your submissions to me, Les Schaffer, VASA Blogitor – in chief, at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s your shot, so go ahead and take it – NOW!
Dear storytelling friends,
Many of you already know that our dear Jackie Baldwin transitioned last month. While we knew her as a storyteller and owner of the Story-Lovers website that gave us all so many gifts of story, there was so much more to this warm, remarkable, generous woman.
Jackie’s daughter Val posted this about her and she gave me permission to share it with all of you. What a life she lived!
“On June 12th our family lost its center, Jackie Beverly Baldwin. We had her for almost 86 years. Somehow, this only child who was brought up in multiple foster homes, raised five kids on her own, working harder than what seemed possible. Mom was brilliant, funny, loving, complicated, and movie star beautiful. Fueled by optimism, huge creative dreams and liters of Diet 7 Up, she helped each of us discover what direction we wanted our lives to go in and gave us the confidence to know we could achieve our dreams. Court reporting, typing, and executive secretary work put food on the table for years. Work was so important to her. Somehow she managed to get a master’s degree in the midst of it all, and through all of the struggles, managed to stay positive and strong. Once we flew the coop, she went on to write and produce children’s television, teach writing and create multiple small businesses. She traveled the world on her own, New Zealand, Brazil, Ecuador, and even took a trip down the Amazon in her 50’s (capsizing while following a wild boar). Her loss is huge to all of us. Full disclosure: She HATED Facebook! She was way too private to use it. I hesitated posting anything here, but ultimately realized that the woman we called Mom Dot Com had so many people who loved her. She was an incredible storyteller and touched many lives in the storytelling community, giving them a place to gather and find stories and fables to share with others. We wanted them to know that she loved providing that place for you and it gave her so much joy. We love you, Mom. The world is so much smaller without you in it. And, yes, even though you raised us to be good little atheists, we kind of hope you’re somewhere really, really wonderful.”
I have the honor of writing an article for the Remembered Voices column in the Nation al Storytelling Magazine about Jackie. If you have a story/memory you would like to share please either post it here or email me at email@example.com .
Thank you so much. Jackie’s memory is surely a blessing to many.
It was great to see so many of you at last week’s Online Gathering. In these days of isolation and anxiety, it was, for me, a healing experience to meet (if only on Zoom) and talk to you. And, speaking of meeting, here’s a chance to meet and get to know a bit, one of our new Board Members, Anette Stjärnhjärta. Anette is a very smart, outgoing, and totally charming person who is the chief energizer and organizer of Fredericksburg’s Rappahannock Rap Story Slam. Here Anette tells us something of her journey adapting to the strange culture of Fredericksburg, VA, USA.
I also need to remind you to submit your thoughts, stories, ideas or shout-outs to this VASA Blog.
Les Schaffer, Board Member and Blog editor
A Swede in Fredericksburg VA: Standing out and Building Community
In 2010, I moved to America to marry a wonderful and amazing American man. I was thrilled and excited and, at the same time, didn’t know what to expect. I thought I knew because I had visited several times. And besides, I had lived in another country before, New Zealand.
But let me tell you it was a big shock. I felt like I landed on another planet.
I will share my experiences, in five parts, and talk about what it is like to be a foreigner in the land of freedom and opportunities.
- THE FIRST THING THAT SURPRISED ME IS HOW FRIENDLY AND EASY-GOING AMERICANS ARE.
I walk into a store, restaurant, the Gym, or the dentist, and nine out of 10 times, the employees will smile, greet me with enthusiasm, and make small talk. They know how important it is to make the customer feel good. Even though it’s their job and they probably don’t want to hear my life story.
The episode that stands out the most was when my husband had to go to the ER. It turned out that his colon had twisted and blown up to the size of a football. The Doctor tells him that normally a colon will burst at 8 inches and yours is 11 inches. Then he is joking as the nurse laughs and it seems they are in no hurry at all. I freaked out, “Hurry up this is SERIOUS! BE SERIOUS!” That is how we would be in Sweden. We are so freaking serious.
Afterward, I got it. Oh, to joke and be easy going makes you relax. WOW, I like that.
- WHERE IS THE COFFEE AND THE COOKIE?
We have a thing called FIKA. That is usually whenever someone comes over to your house. You offer them coffee and a cookie. And that is FIKA.
My husband and I drove over to visit my father and mother-in-law. We were sitting down and chatted for a couple of hours. I kept wondering in my head are they going to offer us a coffee. Where is the Fika? Where is the Fika?
In the car when we were driving back, I asked my husband, “So Dirk, is it normal that you visit without being offered something to drink and he said, Yes, pretty much.” Hmmm
- MY LAST NAME – A PAIN IN THE BUTT TO PRONOUNCE FOR AMERICAN’s
I kept my last name. I knew it is hard to pronounce and spell. I don’t expect anyone to get it right and at the same time, I can make it a problem or take it as an opportunity to be remembered. Every time I get asked, “How do you pronounce your last name?” I appreciate the effort that everyone makes. I make sure everyone feels at ease by not making a big deal out of it. Sometimes I ask, “Do you want to know what it means?“ And if yes, I say Stjärnhjärtais Starheart in English. Cool name.
- ON THIS PLANET CALLED AMERICA YOU CAN’T WALK FREELY IN ANYONE’S FOREST!
I have a habit of walking in the forest or on the beach every day. In Sweden, we have a common right to walk in anyone’s forest. We are allowed to pick berries and mushrooms for our own use. We are all obligated to take good care of the land.
Imagine my disbelief when I understood I had to drive at least 45 minutes, or even several hours, to a National Park, just to be able to walk in the forest or on a beach.
I was miserable until I found out a way to do it. My husband is a great problem solver, so he said “I can talk to one of the neighbors and ask if you can walk on their land”.
YES! I am excited. We walked over and they said yes, of course, you can walk on our land.
The next day I took a walk and, in horror, discovered, there is a garbage landfill in the back of their property. I did not return.
Luckily after a couple of years, I found Motts Run Reservoir, just a 10 min drive from home. They have awesome trails and it’s free to walk the trails. You can rent a canoe or a boat for use in the lake. I can highly recommend it.
- INDIVIDUALITY vs. CONFORMITY AND FITTING IN:
So how did I try to fit in here when it’s not about fitting in?
It finally dawned on me “Oh, it’s about standing out”.
Which is scary for we Swedes because in Sweden that is a no-no!
In Sweden, there is an especially important cultural law called “JANTE Lagen”, which stands for “Don’t think you are something special!”, among other things.
I love being able to stand out, without being judged. Does that mean American’s, or I don’t care? Or are they able to build community? NO
I have found people in Fredericksburg being very supportive. There are a lot of people building community, supporting each other in many different ways.
And I am so happy that I can contribute and provide Fredericksburg with storytelling through Rappahannock Rap.
I can be ME and you can be YOU.
How awesome is that! Thanks for reading my thoughts and experiences.
Dear Storytellers, Story-listeners, Story-lovers:
You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.”
– Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale
I’m Les Schaffer, storyteller, Virginia Storytelling Alliance (VASA) Board Member, and now tasked with editing the VASA Blog in what may be the darkest times I’ve ever lived through. And I’ve lived through the Great Depression, WWII, the Polio epidemic, the threats of nuclear and environmental destruction, decades of seemingly endless wars, Civil Rights good and bad times, vast and violent financial instability, and more than enough personal crises and issues.
Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free.”
– Francesca Lia Block, author
Right now, you and I know that, as Howard Gardner has written, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” And as story-people, our communities, our nation, our world needs us now more than ever. Yes, the world needs a Corona-virus vaccine, needs sensible economic recovery plans and execution. We are needed to tell the stories of where we’ve been, how we got here, where we are going from here, how to make it safely through the dark forest.
Hopefully spaces like this blog, will provide safe spaces to work out how we story-people can find and illuminate the paths forward. How the professional tellers in our midst can be supported, sustained and protected as they struggle to survive and move forward. My hope is that this blog can help us to figure out what we need to do to nourish ourselves and grow the next generation of story-people to carry on the work. And to share our ideas as to how to best bring our fellow community members along with us.
I invite you to send in short personal essays and other pieces that you feel will work for this blog. You are also invited to send me any comments you may have about already posted items. I will do my best to update the Blog, at least weekly. Please send any submissions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help jump start our blog, fellow VASA Board member, Ruth Walkup, issues a call to arms and a practical set of suggestions to help get us going. Ruth is an academic, an anthropologist, a former diplomat, and as an executive leadership coach; she uses, teaches, and encourages storytelling. Ruth tells stories gathered from her life and work in the US and as a ‘global nomad’. And to my mind, perhaps the thing that most personifies her, she is a veteran Triathaloner, having completed – so far – about 30 races. She is definitely someone in for the long haul.
Dear Storytellers, Story-listeners, and all others –
These times of a global Covid-19 are strange times, both confusing and frightening as well as possibly healing and stabilizing. Right now there are few answers about what our world will look like after this wave of the pandemic rolls through our country and the world. One thing is certain – social connections are and will be as important and as valuable as ever – maybe even more.
As a storytelling species, we human beings need to connect with each other through telling and listening to our stories. We need to be heard as we go through this Covid-19 experience. We need to share our fears, our pains, our stresses. We need to share our successes and realizations, our dreams and our plans. And we need to listen to each other for hope and creativity, sanity, courage, and grace.
This is where you – as storytellers, story listeners, story promoters – come in. While storytelling as an art has grown in recognition over the past few decades, never before in our lifetimes has it become so critical for us to tell and listen as a global community. In stories, whether written, spoken, or shown visually we have a way through this puzzle of our current social lives.
So, how can we up our storytelling game now? Here are some ways:
- Tell a story to anyone who will listen on whatever platform you choose – in person to your roommate, partner, or kids, on the phone. And then tell another one. See where it goes.
- Organize a ‘gathering’ that is story-centered. On your porch, on Zoom, over the phone.
- Develop new stories. With so much time away from other people, this may be a perfect time to develop new stories.
- Sign up to tell stories virtually. VASA is working with libraries in Virginia to engage storytellers through out the summer. Stay tuned – and tell us how you are doing it elsewhere.
- Listen to stories that stretch you.If you are used to listening to stories by and for adults, try listening on YouTube to stories told by school kids. Look up tellers who enter liars contests for a different look at life. If you gravitate towards American tellers, go out on a limb and listen to tellers from India, Jamaica, Canada, South Africa, the UK, Indonesia, or Sri Lanka. Many of them tell in English or have translators so language won’t be an issue.
VASA supports story people in whatever ways we can. We have hosted some online sessions about getting financial help for folks who tell stories for a living. We are planning an online Gathering. We are connecting libraries with tellers. Let us know what else you think we can do to help.
Finally, please send us your stories about how you are ‘doing stories’ during Covid-19. Write us, tell us on a video, write a story-poem. However you feel inspired. We’re eager to hear. Send stuff to VASANews3@gmail.com
Signing off with ‘Once upon a time . . .’
VASA Board Member