World Peace and New Mythic Narratives
Humanity is at a cross roads environmentally, economically and socially. As the stories we tell and retell affect us personally and collectively is it time to reconsider the shape of our dominant stories? Is it time to ask how the stories and story structures we imbibe affect our ability to embrace and enjoy the sustainable peace we need to cultivate in order to survive?
Superman, Batman, Iron Man and the all the other hero characters; Hollywood, under the influence the Hero Myth continues to project these super hero characters and their story arcs into the collective imagination. Particularly this is so since the work of Joseph Campbell was taken up by George Lucas. Further, when a seven-page company memo based on Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces was written and distributed, the Hero’s Journey became a formula of sorts for Hollywood writers. It was seen to pay in the box office; it satisfies, its a sure fire thing. So we’ve all been exposed to the Hero myth endless times. That said, perhaps not all of us are aware of its underlying structure.
Essentially it is a story of an - often young- person’s transformation through being “called” to journey beyond the known world of the family, village, planet etc to right a wrong, fight monsters, be challenged and suffer in the fight, but eventually, gain the needed elixir and make an often perilous journey home with the said elixir to restore whatever is missing in the collective. Being lost and for a time refusing the call, then finding your way and redemption, are also part of this story pattern. While there are influential encounters within the journey cycle and often the appearance of a side kick, it is essentially the story of an individual beating odds and overcoming them. If a collective is involved, then the protagonist will often be found to be leading it, if not physically then spiritually.
As the hero myth has arisen in stories worldwide and models the push in culture for transformation and singular effort ultimately for a collective good, it follows that humanity has obviously needed it. Yet do we continue to need to model singular effort and suffering at the expense of modelling the joy, and/or frustrations of collaboration and collective effort? Our most powerful technological development; the internet - shows us the power, not only of the collective, but of conversation and connection and many social theorists argue this moment needs concerted collective action to combat issues affecting everyone; taking responsibility where we can. Do we then need to keep pressing a story that models singular, rather than collective action? How do we combat our culture’s addiction to the hero myth and the popcorn fed corollary of all that heroic action being consumed; that someone else, someone more powerful and heroic, will make it right?
While adult minds might know there is no one hero out there who will fix things, this story pattern seeps particularly well into adolescent minds, feeding as it does an adolescent’s need to test and exceed boundaries, to experience initiation and to receive recognition.
And many are not satisfied with a vicarious experience.
The young people who leave their families and join ISIS know they will be tested in a place that will exponentially exceed their normal boundaries. They know they will experience an intense initiation and receive some recognition, either amongst the “heavenly choirs of Islamic afterlife” or amongst the group itself or on Facebook; whichever way, recognition will come.
The hero’s journey is woven into our culture in so many ways, from Hollywood to monotheistic religion, so is it too far to ask if it could be a significant factor feeding the inflamed desire ragging in the imagination of these young people?
Ameliorating these largely unfulfilled desires could be approached from a number of angles. One is to focus on the lack of initiatory experiences in our culture. Another is to look at the stories feeding the desire and the possibility of alternative stories; an imaginative solution. How else could the hero myth be shaped?
Classically the goal of the protagonist involves beating a personified foe, an antagonist or antagonists, individual or group who need to be, if not killed, then in the final instance eliminated from the action, if not the face of the Earth. That is unless a sequel is in tow. Antagonists embody all that is unacceptable, undesirable and “unnatural” . They are “the other”; “the evil empire” who embody and contain all that should be eliminated. In the most primitive version of the story made manifest by Americas response to 9/11; the last Iraq War, this evil included "weapons of mass destruction” of which there was no evidence. The US administration used the ubiquitous nature of this story to trigger and solidify the nation's response. The story efficiently and dogmatically eclipsed any initial questioning that happened in the wake of the Twin Towers collapse when journalists were asking in an open way, "why?"
The hero myth and the hero's challenge have spurred individuals over generations to take action against perceived or actual wrongs but clearly the hero's journey has been co-opted to tragic ends.
How can it be changed or modified? What could a female perspective add?
This myth structure arises from deep within the patriarchy, indeed the moment of its initial creation defines a line where patriarchy and male archetypes took power. In prehistoric Mesopotamian mythology, the hero Marduk slays the primeval Goddess Tiamat who had been made monstrous by her grief over the killing of her children. (It is written, they were “too noisy”!) This is the first recorded “heroic dragon-slayer” story and the hero-centered consciousness represented by Marduk opposes the prior cyclical view of the world centered on communal values, where the collective takes precedence and female figures were often central.
Hero's journey stories have few female protagonists and most frequently use violence to achieve the goal. They keep their audience addicted to egoic challenge and to the adrenalin kick aroused through violence. By egoic challenge I mean challenge which feeds the protagonists ego more than the collective. Plus there is, for the most, little emotional intimacy in these stories and sustainable emotional intimacy goes hand in hand with peace.
In the accounts of life in the captured towns and hideouts of ISIS women are treated as sexual slaves often after their captors announce a faux marriage to their victims in order to appease their laws and their faux God. Is it unreasonable to assert after knowing of this brutality that these terrorists have no experience of emotional intimacy between genders and if they do, that they fear the vulnerability accompanying it perhaps even more than death?
What human qualities enliven the ability to live peacefully with others? Emotional vulnerability, emotional intimacy and connected sensuality, ability to communicate openly, creativity, insightful humour and respect, all these qualities may thrive in the space created by peace and will also in turn feed a person’s ability to live peacefully, because these qualities nourish us.
I would like to leave you with these questions. What kinds of stories can be told which are lively but which encourage the development of qualities that can sustain peace? What other archetypes can we celebrate than the hero archetype? What story structures would encourage transformation rather than elimination? How can young people be educated to critique the hero myth, to see how it has been co-opted and to appreciate other kinds of stories? How can the hero be made more nuanced?
Its certainly not a matter of tossing the hero myth, but of working towards a greater balance of archetypes and more story patterns where the audience is shown the point of view of "the other" or their developmental crucible, ie how they became the way they are and further, that transformation of the situation is possible, rather than resorting to a Dalek response.
As collective of humanity is the most powerful force on the planet affecting all life we need to examine our story patterns in relation to peace, economic and environmental sustainability. We need to become more conscious of the power of story to influence us and to start producing other kinds of stories.