I was asked, once, to name someone I consider a hero and why. It was not, and is not, an easy question to answer, because I am pretty much the antithesis of a traditionalist. I am a secular humanist. An iconoclast. An idealist. I neither believe in the fabled “rugged individual”, nor the “self-made man”. I am not the kind of person who believes in the supremacy of an individual over everyone else. I know no reason to think of people as anything but equal in every way that matters. We are not special, little snowflakes, we are instead all part of a single, swirling, spiralling snowstorm sweeping ceaselessly across the planet. It is that force, all our strengths combined, united, that I find inspiring. I celebrate humanity as a whole, and freely embrace the freakishly brilliant, the brilliantly freakish and everyone in between.
While that is my view, it is not the cultural narrative in which we currently live. The most visible form of that narrative is most readily demonstrated through the current spate of superhero movies. These days, we watch Batman, Captain America and Iron Man, and feel compelled to idolize them and their actions. One man against the world. A person who unerringly, unswervingly fights against accepted knowledge, all odds, and always, ALWAYS turns out to be correct by story’s end. These heroes’ decisions are spot-on. Always. That’s how they are written. And that’s just the point – they are imaginary, and destined to win precisely because that’s how the Hero’s Journey is told. They can’t lose. And what does this teach the rest of us? That we are effectively powerless, and that we must all bow down in obsequious submission at the hint of a glint of some saviour’s shining sword.
Entertaining as superheroes might be – and they are – the philosophy that spawned them and blesses them with this uncanny, unprecedented luck and skill, permeates our culture and guides our actions in the real world. All too often, we adopt that philosophy as our own, the idea that each of us are that omnipotent superhero, and that all others are helpless, mindless victims. We can’t lose, or so we might think. But is that truly empowering, or a dangerous concept that has long been tested and failed for all but a few?
Much of today’s political and social dialogue, particularly in the US, is informed by a philosophy called ‘libertarianism’. An idea wholly embraced since the 1980s, its basic elements remain at full strength today. Selfishness and greed are good. Government regulations and social programs are bad. Every action taken by the elite, those heroes of our tale, is an inherent good, and the benefits of their actions will “trickle down” to the lowly creatures scrambling at the bottom of the pit. If they think us deserving, of course.
For those already at the height of their political and financial strength, it is a powerful story, a real inspiration. They wholly believe in this fiction, or at least act as if they do, and why not? It works for them. Their greatest success over the last half century has been to convince everyone else that not only can anyone be a member of this elite, but, in many cases, that they already are. The American Dream: prosperity is the product of the perpetually pugnacious and persistently perspicacious. One man against the world, Triumphant!
I look at history and see the names of a handful of people, acclaimed for the work they could not have done alone. Does a pharaoh build a pyramid alone? Does a military leader win his battles alone? Or are these just legends, simplified and embellished stories we tell ourselves in order to remember general ideas, rather than specifics? And whom do these legends serve, should we choose to accept them?
In this day and age, we seem to have forgotten about our connection to other people, and to the world at large. Somehow, it has become a part of our culture, particularly in today’s workplace, to struggle with and defeat those whom we should regard as our colleagues, our associates, our friends. They are competitors, not teammates. I think this is a horrible approach to work and to life. It is not only unnecessarily cruel, but genuinely inhumane. Not only does it place an enormous burden on us, to always strive to defeat and conquer, but it can set us up for humiliation and torment should we not meet that standard.
Odd as it may seem, I believe that there are more freedoms to be found, a loosening of the bounds of our cultural narrative, by accepting that we might not succeed at everything. That we don’t have to. Only then will we become more willing to tackle the problems that we fear the most. We need to acknowledge that we have weaknesses if we are to overcome them. Weaknesses make us human. It takes strength to admit to them, and to unite with people whose own strengths make up for those weaknesses. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is not just a handy phrase, it is truth.
Isaac Newton said “I stand on the shoulders of giants”, an acknowledgement that his many works could only have come to pass through the help and assistance of others, both living and long since deceased. Charles Darwin said much the same; his theory of evolution was the culmination of centuries of philosophic and scientific thought, which he applied in painstaking detail. Rachel Carson, too, drew from decades of work performed by other people to kick-start the environmental movement. These individuals made important contributions to humanity, yes, but they understood the important contributions of other people, too, and never hid that fact.
People are at their best when they work together. The key is to be willing to challenge ourselves to identify what our individual abilities are, and use those to the benefit of all. There is no Übermensch, no Superman nor John Galt. None of us live in a vacuum, destined for victory irrespective of our connections to other people. Far better to think of us as trombone players, flutists, and cellists, all playing our hearts out in arabesque, concordant symphony. This is humanity, doing its best to survive, and, hopefully, striving to make things better for its descendants. It is time to let go of the superhuman ideal, the myth of who and what we should strive to be. We need to learn how to work together again.