On January 15, 2009, Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River after both engines were disabled by a bird strike. All 155 people on board survived. While some of that successful outcome was later attributed to good fortune, much commendation rightly went to “Sully” and his co-pilot for their quick decision-making, aviation skill, calm communication, and courage (St John, 2019). The story went viral around the world, and Sullenberger was an instant hero.

From time immemorial, for multiple reasons, we human beings have loved hero stories. From the biblical David (prevailing over Goliath) to the likes of modern-day heroes such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we have lapped up notions of those inspiring souls who have expanded our sense of possibility. In this post we look at heroism through the prism of how it can re-inspirit a struggling client with hope and a newly identified emotion called “elevation”.

What heroes do for us

The word “hero” seems to derive from a 14th century Old French word meaning, “man of superhuman physical strength or courage” and from Latin and Greek words possibly meaning “defender” or “protector” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2019). Heroes save lives, of course, but on closer examination, there are some other important things that heroes defend, protect, and even nurture.

Heroes engender “elevation” and lift our spirits

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist serving as professor of ethical leadership at New York University, has written and researched much about the emotion he calls “elevation”: the response of being “surprised, stunned, and emotionally moved” by unexpected acts of goodness (Haidt, 2005). Acknowledging that many social science theories claim self-interest as a core motivation for actions and feelings, Haidt poses the question of why we are sometimes moved to tears by the good deeds or heroic actions of others. Defining elevation as a warm, uplifting feeling — encompassing awe, reverence, and admiration — that people experience when they see a morally beautiful act, Haidt observes that elevating, heroic deeds make us want to help others and to become better people ourselves.

Heroes give us hope

The world can be a dismal place: full of terrorism, natural disasters, and personal catastrophes, yet amidst the seemingly endless suffering, heroes provide proof that all is not lost. There are some people on whom we can rely to rise to the occasion, doing the right thing even when it is personally dangerous or morally difficult. We can look to them as beacons of light in a dark world (Allison & Goethals, 2013). Scott LaBarge, writing from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, notes that, while modern-day heroism includes the notion of morality — applied only to those whom we admire and wish to emulate — earlier understandings were that heroes were so because they had done something extraordinary, expanding the sense of what was possible for a human being. As LaBarge explains, we need heroes because they help define the limits of our aspirations (LaBarge, 2000). In other words, where we — or a struggling client — felt defeated, the hero can raise the ceiling on what is possible and what, therefore, we, too, may be able to achieve, even though a situation may seem hopeless at the moment.

Heroes help heal our wounds

You can imagine sitting around the open fire tens of thousands of years ago, listening with rapt attention to elders of the tribe telling inspiring stories of predecessors’ exploits. Their successes would have made the tribe safer, calming your fears, and stoking a sense of strength and resilience in an uncertain world. Life was now buoyed with greater meaning and purpose. You would have felt comforted and even healed. You would have released any existential concerns, feeling restored (Allison, 2014; Stone, 2016). Heroism has that power.

Heroes foster social connection and the development of valued qualities

Just the act of gathering around that fire would have assisted social connection, but the stories told around it would have additionally engendered an ever-stronger sense of the family, tribal, or community spirit that is so central to human wellbeing. Positive heroes exemplify the best in a society’s cherished values. They point to the qualities that we must develop — sometimes seemingly absent in “ordinary” people — in order to have a successful family/tribe/society. Moreover, the strengthening of social bonds that takes place in active storytelling rituals about heroic deeds serves to validate the world view of the listeners.

The heroic impulse lives within us all, transforming us

Carl Jung proposed that all human beings have within them collectively inherited unconscious images, ideas, and thoughts, or archetypes, which reflect common human experiences shared over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. The purpose of the archetypes, said Jung, was to prepare people for the experiences. Many of these were opposites, which needed to be transcended and integrated in the course of human development. Heroes and demons were two of the archetypes. Haidt’s (2005) emotion of elevation could be said to be bringing into consciousness a person’s innate desire to act from the Hero archetype, behaving more virtuously and becoming a better person. The elevation we feel upon seeing a heroic act transforms us into believing that we, too, are capable of heroic acts. Thus, heroes not only change themselves for the better, but also transform the world.

The Hero’s Journey is that of every individual

Heroes fulfil many more roles than those we have just elaborated. They solve problems (think inventors of modern vaccines), deliver justice (think anti-terrorism police that foil terror plots), and provide dramatic entertainment (those stories around the campfire, or in modern times, the gripping internet clips and other narratives that go viral). They save us — or even animals, such as beached whales or ducklings caught in drainage traps — from danger (Allison & Goethals, 2013).

Perhaps, however, one of the most important yet unsung roles of heroes is to provide inspiration for the Hero’s Journey that each person undertakes in life: the quest for psychospiritual development leading to personal transformation that is the story of each individual’s life. Joseph Campbell originally proposed the idea of the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth (Vogler, 2003; Jeffrey, n.d.) as a way of understanding what was common to all of the myths, fables, and religious stories that he studied. It is a universal story structure: a template that takes a character — the “Hero” — through a sequence of stages en route to victory (meaning, in our case, transformation or resolution of a pressing problem). It is a roadmap for self-development that we, as mental health professionals, can tap into and use to help clients understand the bigger picture of their struggles: the epic and universal battle to claim their authentic selves, to live their best life.

As you will be aware if you have ever watched a movie or read a piece of fiction, the journey starts with the Hero in normal life — the “Ordinary World” — but the person soon receives the “Call to Adventure” (when our client comes to realise that he or she has a problem). Often the Hero (whom we refer to here as “he” for simplicity) refuses the Call to Adventure. Our client, say, fails to heed warnings by loved ones that he is becoming dangerously addicted to alcohol, or that his marriage is failing, or that his depression is taking over his life and he needs to do something about it. Eventually, though, the message cuts through and the Hero undertakes the Journey; that is: the client presents for counselling.

Some of the steps along the way include crossing a threshold or point of no return: i.e., the client commits to rehab, marriage counselling, or therapy to move past depression. He encounters a series of trials (efforts to derail his quest), and finds a Magical Mentor — that’s us, the mental health professional — who is often attributed supernatural powers (due, in counselling, to transference). Eventually, the Hero enters the Dragon’s Lair. In our analogy, that is when our client comes face to face with the full horror of the problem: that healing addiction is jolly hard, that his estranged wife is having an affair, that he has lost his job due to depression, etc. The Hero feels despair, and probably has more trials.

It is at this stage — far from the finish of the journey — that real-life heroes can help our client-Hero. Both Jung and Campbell (Jeffrey, n.d.) point out that many people never complete their Hero’s Journey in life; they stay stuck at the stage of despair, or caught in the Dragon’s Lair. Real-life heroes/role models can demonstrate that, even when it seems that there is no way to prevail and the odds are completely stacked against him, victory can come. We know this, because we have seen our heroes do it; if they can slay the dragon, perhaps we can, too.

Most Calls to Adventure come to the Hero with an external situation that seems to need transforming (the enemy army must be overcome, the disease must be healed, the love interest must be won over or wooed back), but Jung and Campbell were both clear that, by the finish of the journey, the main transformation that has occurred is internal. In 12-step programs, the alcoholic takes full responsibility for what occurred in his life, and realises that it is he, not life, that must change. The spurned lover/partner changes a perspective that had dealt a nearly fatal blow to his relationship. Thus, the personal transformation becomes the Reward, the Ultimate Treasure that the Hero takes home, with the final stage being one of Resurrection: the re-birth of the Hero back into the Ordinary World, but with a broadened, more mature experience of reality. In counselling, our client-Hero finishes the rehab and knows he will be able to maintain sobriety, the lover re-unites with the estranged partner after couples counselling, the depression lifts as therapeutic and pharmacological interventions take hold.

Our client-Heroes need hope

If we wish to identify a single quality that stands out in making the perilous journey from the Ordinary World to a personally transformed one, that quality can only be hope. Slaying dragons is hard work; the road of the quest has many twists and turns and danger lurks behind every corner. Thus, the more we can inspirit our client-Heroes with this elusive but powerful elixir, the more likely they are to complete the quest — the Journey — that they originally presented for help with. The more we can help them recognise and emulate the heroes that are most greatly relevant to their quest, the more likely they are to experience Haidt’s emotion of elevation. What is at stake is no less than Maslow’s self-actualisation (1968; 1971) or Assagioli’s self-realisation (1984): that is, the evolution to fully consciousness living of the journeying client that, as noted above, also has transformative power for all of society. Beyond that, hero stories are heartwarming, fun, and a wonderful antidote to the bad-news world, where “good news” is not “good” news.

We can start right now: who’s your hero?


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