Luke Skywalker was one of my childhood heroes; in fact, not only mine but the hero of millions of children around the globe, including my 6 year old today. And that’s no coincidence. I didn’t know it at the time, but Luke Skywalker is actually the archetypal hero, closely modeled after a concept called “The Hero’s Journey”.
The Hero’s Journey dates back to the 40s and Prof. Joseph Campbell, a mythologist at Sarah Lawrence College. He had studied thousands of myths from around the world, looking for similarities. What he found out was rather astounding. It seems that the great mythical stories follow a common general building principle. Put in other words: It seems that every great story is basically a variation of what Campbell called the Hero’s Journey.
It works like this: At the beginning of a story we meet the hero in her ordinary world, not necessarily a nice place, but what’s normal for her. Suddenly, this ordinary world is somehow disrupted, the hero is called to action. She must face a challenge. Campbell then identified up to 17 phases that are commonly found in many myths.
The Smith family
Take the Smith family. They are just returning from a nice picnic trip. It’s getting late, so Mum sends the children upstairs to prepare for bedtime while she carries the basket into the kitchen. She puts it down. While turning, barely from the corner of her eye, she notices a note hidden behind the coffee maker. She takes it, reads it … reads it again. It’s a letter to her husband. It’s from his love affair.
She’s shocked. Suddenly, her whole world collapses, it’s not ordinary anymore: „This can’t be true. I mean, we just had the nicest family afternoon.“ But it is true.
And that’s why she needs to become heroic. There is no hiding. Of course, she might ignore the letter, just pretend she never saw it. But how long would that last? She will have to make a decision for herself and for her kids. She will have to act.
What heroes do
And that, in fact, is what heroes do: When they face a challenge, they act as opposed to re-act. They might at first hesitate – and in fact the Hero’s Journey identifies this initial resistance in many great stories. But in the end they make decisions, hard ones, not of the kind „red shoes or green“, decisions where there’s something at stake. And then they act accordingly.
What’s your favorite story? Have a closer look. Why did you like it? I bet there was a struggle of some kind. A hero who faced change; who had to make a decision that was far from easy. And by that decision she changed the world, in a big way – like Luke Skywalker – or just a tiny bit; but she changed it.
I think it’s about time to consider heroic behavior not as something that super humans do but as something that happens everyday, everywhere. Transforming challenges happen all the time. And we are fascinated by it, wether it’s in the movies, like Luke Skywalker, or in real life, like my neighbor or my best friend – or myself. What we need to do is open our eyes, learn to look, see them and then learn to speak about these everyday heroes.