The Form of Heroism in the New Era
“In this overpoweringly humdrum existence, alas, there is little out of the ordinary that is healthy, and not much room for conspicuous heroism. Not that heroic demands are never put to us: on the contrary—and this is just what is so irritating and irksome—the banal everyday makes banal demands upon our patience, our devotion, our perseverance, self-sacrifice; and for us to fulfill these demands (as we must) humbly and without courting applause through heroic gestures, a heroism is needed that cannot be seen from the outside. It does not glitter, is not belauded, and it always seeks concealment in everyday attire.”
Carl Jung (1943)
“The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul…. And this is not a work that consciousness itself can achieve…. The whole thing is being worked out on another level, through what is bound to be a long and very frightening process, not only in the depths of every living psyche in the modern world, but also on those titanic battlefields into which the whole planet has lately been converted…. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery…. The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. … It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
Joseph Campbell (1949)
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Recently, in both a course I was teaching and in a one-on-one session with a student I noted how the journey of the soul is a hero’s journey. This elicited surprise, and these two experiences made me realize that I have begun to use the term “hero” in Jung’s sense of the term. What society has meant by the term and how Jung, Campbell, and others of spiritual insight, like Mother Teresa, think of “hero” are very different. This essay examines this difference and how heroism appears for those on the spiritual journey.
Our English word “hero” comes from the Greek hero, which meant “hero,” but in the sense of “warrior.” To the ancient Greeks a true hero was the man (always a man) who was successful in battle. Such figures were venerated, so “hero” came to mean an “object of worship,” one of the special breed of men who founded cities and came to be revered as something akin to local deities.
Modern dictionaries define “hero” as a person “admired for his/her bravery, great deeds, or noble qualities.” Central to this definition is its externality: brave acts, deeds others see and regard as extraordinary, qualities that the society considers “noble.” When we hear someone described as a “hero” we think of
- the soldier who, under heavy enemy fire, saved the lives of his whole platoon, or
- the firefighters who went into a burning building to save the lives of those trapped inside, or
- the man who jumped on to the subway tracks as a train approached, to pull a person to safety
All of these are brave persons doing visibly heroic deeds. We appreciate their courage and reward their actions with Congressional Medals of Honor, citations for bravery, even television appearances and rewards from the Mayor. In the circumstances of war, natural disasters and times of crisis, we applaud the heroes who find the strength to do remarkable acts of bravery and courage.
The Nature of Our Time
But Jung and Campbell recognize that there is another type of hero, a type for our time, now evolving in response to current crises—crises that are not so obvious as earthquakes, tsunamis, or other disasters. These crises are cultural and are reflected in what Joseph Campbell has called “the collapse of the timeless universe of symbols.” It is in response to this grave situation that a new form of hero is emerging.
A previous essay on this blog site spoke of the crucial role played by symbols, and how our world is now jeopardized by the loss of the “symbolic life.” We live in a society that no longer supports the gods, with social units no longer centered around religion but around economic and political organizations. Our focus now, as a global culture, is on competition for “material supremacy and resources,” and this materialistic focus has led to the decay of the arts, morality and ritual.
In such an environment, the individual person faces some serious dilemmas. With the lines of communication between conscious mind and the unconscious having been cut, the modern person has been split, cut in two. Living in a spiritual darkness, he/she has little impetus and few goals beyond getting ahead, “making a living” and getting to a retirement that may not actually ever materialize (given the bankruptcy of both the nation and our societal values). Lacking a deep sense of meaning in life, unaware of the true meaning of life, modern people find it hard to get past the “local threshold guardians” that serve to divide us—e.g. nationality, patriotism, and sectarianism. Mired deeply in the materialism that is the driving force of our time, the average person has little awareness of, much less interest in working with the unconscious and mining its resources to enrich his/her life.
The New Form of Heroism
But the hero for our time does have this interest. He or she responds to our crises, but does so in a new, more interior form. The table below lays out the differences between our current sense of hero and Jung’s hero.
The Old Hero
The New Hero
has physical courage
has moral courage
has an external orientation
has an internal orientation that has an impact on both the inner and outer life
confronts physical danger(s): fire, guns, falling buildings etc.
confronts inner fearsome realities: the shadow, complexes, the daimon (his/her creative force), the Self, the inner darkness
enduring physical hardship, fighting, rescuing, giving first aid, spontaneous acts that put his/her life in danger
enduring psychic hardship (e.g. feeling inept, anguished, confused); holding steady to connect with inner energies; holding the tension of opposites; dream work (remembering, recording and working with dreams); active imagination; meditation; noting synchronicities in outer life
these activities are noted by others and often rewarded
these activities are often not noticed by others; if noticed (e.g. by family or friends) they often are criticized or ridiculed
expends physical energy in the heroic act resulting in the need for R&R
expends psychic energy in working in the unconscious, resulting in initial fatigue but greater energy later, as repression lessens and the energy that went into repressing unconscious contents is freed up for living
results: saves a life or lives
results: moves toward individuation, opens life up, makes living more fulfilling, joyous and successful; creates more consciousness; affects others, not always in ways they appreciate; can make people uncomfortable, as the hero perturbs the field within which others (especially family and close friends) live
preserves the status quo, or operates with no thought of changing the status quo
recognizes the problems in our current reality and works for change
does not contribute to raising the level of our collective consciousness
contributes to raising the level of our collective consciousness
As the opening quote from Jung indicates, the new form of heroism occurs amid the banalities of life, and as such, it is not very obvious: “chopping wood and carrying water” have little glamour, but when done while wrestling with one’s inner demons such simple activities make severe demands on the hero to be patient, devoted, persevering and self-sacrificing. The new heroism does not shine. It does not get praise. It requires humility and spurns public acknowledgement, which is a good thing, because rarely is this form of heroism even visible, and when it is, few people recognize it as heroism: they are more likely to think of it as “weird,” perhaps even incomprehensible. “Why wrestle with inner demons?” people are likely to ask. Or they may reply as one of my cousins did to me, when she learned I worked with my dreams: “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of!”
Stupid. Incomprehensible to those oriented to contemporary culture, because--as the above quote from Joseph Campbell indicates—this form of heroism is working at a different level from consciousness. It is not active on the outer level of the ego and the conscious mind, but works in the unconscious, in the depths of one’s humanity, as the person undertakes the spiritual journey toward individuation. Jung’s hero lives on two levels simultaneously: the interior level of soul and unconscious, and the outer level of ego consciousness, the level that is set in our collective reality, with all the challenges of our world. As I noted above, this new form of heroism is closely tied to the crises of our time, and is evolving in response to them. Specifically, the new hero is transmuting the whole social order, by working on him/herself. By becoming conscious of the unconscious, by facing his/her shadow, by discovering the “inner city” that lies within, by encountering the Self and then enduring the “defeats” that are an inevitable consequence of this confrontation, the hero steps out of the mainstream and takes on the hero’s mantle. And in ways that our disempowering society finds hard to believe, these nearly-invisible acts of heroism can change the world. How so?
Discovery of one’s inner city leads to the recognition of the many different energies that make up our humanity. This sparks a deeper appreciation of diversity in the outer world, fostering greater tolerance and the desire to transform the divisive institutions of our collective past. The new hero of our day, and even more the hero of the future, champions bio-integrity, ecological health, global unity, and social, economic and cultural organizations that bring people together. The modern hero rises above sectarian divisions to promote peace and harmony.
The new hero helps to make our world spiritually significant. This has little to do with religiosity, and much more to do with the personal experience of the Divine, via the confrontations with the Self noted above. Rather than through religions, sects and other divisive groups, the modern hero finds significance and purpose in life through contact with the Self and then through unity with others. Heroic actions promote unity.
Such actions also bring to conscious awareness what Joseph Campbell calls “the vitalizing image of the universal god-man.” This is a “universal” symbol in that it transcends cultures. As “god-man,” it represents all that a human being can be, and so is inspiring, a worthy goal for anyone. It is “vitalizing” in that it helps the hero to reclaim vitality and enthusiasm and then, in turn, to infuse that in his/her environment.
Finally, the new hero is brave, but not in the sense of the firemen or soldiers under fire. Far more subtle, but no less arduous, is the bravery of the soul’s journey into the “mystery” that is man. The modern hero is not fearful of mystery, does not fear his/her inner depths, does not shrink back from entering into the unconscious. He/she has grown past the ego’s need to shine, to take center stage, to be validated by external figures by achieving great deeds, “to court applause.” This is what Mother Teresa meant when she spoke of doing small things with great love. Derring-do is not necessary. Great ambitions to achieve power and prestige are not heroic. The key to modern heroism is not the “what” so much as the “how:” small acts, often not even noticed by most people, deeds set amid the banalities of life, but done with great love, the selfless love of the Self—these acts are the stuff of modern heroism.
When I encounter students at the Jungian Center for the first time, most of them have begun to get interested in personal growth. Some might even be well along on this path, but few of them really understand what I mean when I say that, for the spiritual journey, “only heroes need apply.” And I use the word “apply” advisedly, because the spiritual army is staffed only by volunteers: no one is ever drafted. Our new heroes freely choose the spiritual path. Their courage is moral, rather than physical courage. Their bravery is the toughness that can endure agonies of soul, rather than body. Their commitment is the determination to create more consciousness in the world.
Jung’s hero does not reflect our culture’s image of the hero. Jung’s hero is not oriented as much to the outer world as to the world within, to bring forth from his/her inner city the resources needed to turn banality into meaning, darkness into enlightenment, and personal despair into enthusiasm for living. With such enthusiasm the new hero plays a vital role in saving the world.
Buckley, Cara (2007), “Wesley Autrey, Hero,” The New York Times (January 3, 2007).
Campbell, Joseph (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Meridian Books.
Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
 “On the Psychology of the Unconscious,” Collected Works, 7, ¶72. As has been the convention in these blog essays, Collected Works will hereafter be abbreviated CW.
 Campbell (1949), 388-391.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 355.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 926.
 E.g. Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the most recent recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented by President Barack Obama on November 16, 2010; for details, go to: www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3471/giunta-salvatore-a.php
 The most stellar example of firefighter bravery was during the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when hundreds of firefighters, wearing 70 pounds of gear, headed into the Towers, prepared to walk up over 100 flights of stairs to rescue those trapped on the highest floors. Over 300 hundred of “New York’s Bravest” were lost that day.
 E.g. Wesley Autrey, a 50-year-old construction worker, who saved a man who had had a seizure and had fallen on to the tracks of a New York subway; Autrey jumped on to the tracks and put his body over the man’s body as the train rolled over them both. Autrey later was feted by the Mayor for his bravery; he told reporters he didn’t think of himself as a hero! See Buckley (2007).
 Campbell (1949), 387.
 See “A Way into Mystery, A Way Out of Catastrophe: Jung on Symbols and the Symbolic Life.”
 This is the title of volume 18 of Jung’s Collected Works, and also his term for the reality of centuries past, when symbols still had power and value in the Western world.
 Campbell (1949), 387.
 Ibid., 388.
 Ibid., 389.
 Jung reminds us that “…the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.” CW 14, ¶778; italics in the original.
 Campbell (1949), 389-390.
 Ibid., 390.
 Ibid., 388.
 In my experience some of the major consequences of contact with the Self are a sense of oneness with all life, compassion for others, and an appreciation of diversity.
 Campbell (1949), 389.
 Ibid., 391.
 CW 7, ¶72.