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Lesser Heroes

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

The longer I live, the more I desire goodness.

More specifically, I've been feeling a distinct pang for clearer delineation between good and evil in an increasingly graying world, where the colors and hues have begun to dilute themselves so that all become one. It breeds a reality that is tougher to lead through, harder to be a parent in the midst of, and more difficult to simply live as a loving effective fellow human being as lines of morality and social acceptance are constantly being redrawn, only to then phase in and out of reality at the whim of the cultural tides.

The scales of good and evil become skewed in the face of such undulation. Life is messy.

We long to bring some meaning to the truths that we think we know but sometimes seem to slip through our grasp, like fleeting feelings escaping between our fingers and into the aether. They wisp off into the distant treeline, and blaze a path through the darkened wood of the unknown, beckoning us to follow if we dare.

This is why we often turn to good stories to make sense of everything. And in a story, we want to know who our hero is sooner than later and who or what the villain is. Who we should root for and against. Who we should bond with, and feel sympathy for, and who we should love to hate.

Sometimes though, it's not so clear.

Antiheroes, characters categorized as 'morally gray', often descending to downright immoral people, have risen to high prominence and popularity in the past couple decades. These are the Walter Whites, the Dexter Morgans, and most of the cast of characters in 'grimdark' stories such as "Game of Thrones" and more recently the mire of moral conundrums born out of hardship and circumstance in Netflix's series "Arcane".

These are all compelling portrayals of humanity if for no other reason than perhaps they act as mirrors, showing us ourselves and the world around us as we are and as it is in the safe and controlled environment of a controlled narrative, where the stakes couldn't be lower for us, but couldn't be higher for these fictional facsimiles of our own existences that modulates on shifting sands from goodness to corruption.

We view these flawed characters from a safe distance behind the glass as they make poor decisions, lie, cheat, hurt others, and do things we would never do. (Or so we tell ourselves.)

But a funny thing is transpiring among the younger generations. The appetites for these kinds of narratives is starting to shift in younger audiences, most notably in Gen Z, those born from 1995 to 2012. This is the generation who grew up largely in a post 9/11 world where the enemy was not one so easily identifiable, a far cry from the Allies vs. the Axis on World War II. Hot on the heels of that was the 2008 housing crash, leading many families to ruin and instability to the ends of losing their very homes, no doubt shaking their families to their foundations. Fracturing and perhaps crumbling in separation and divorce because of the undue stress.

Add to that the tumult of the recent election cycles, the rapid pace of change wrought by advances in technology and the tangled web woven by social media and the age of the influencer, Gen Z is under the influence of it all. Battle lines have been continually drawn around hot button issues with no clear cut answers, each side lying and vying for attention as they rally all who will hear to their cause with open arms, and shun all those who refuse to agree.

One could argue that the past two decades or so could be representative of the most change experienced in such a short span in all recorded human history, culturally speaking. These young lives have been (and now Gen Alpha with them 2013-2024) assaulted and assailed from all angles with agendas, reactive platitudes, and false promises goading them into constant connection. All with no clear notion of true north, or of right and wrong.

And so, it's no wonder that these generations, robbed of any sort of stability or clear handholds of what true goodness in the world looks like and who the real 'bad guys' are, would begin to crave stories to escape into that would offer just that. As with all things, what goes around comes around. Not in the karmic sense, but in the way of the passé becoming vogue.

There is a desire to enter into stories that offer no doubt as to the lines drawn between good and evil. Stories that harken back to westerns of old or classic fantasy tropes, though well worn and cliched, of a dark lord challenged by an unlikely chosen hero. These two generations who have and are experiencing drastic shifts and sweeping changes in the world almost daily do not have the luxury of such cut and dried conflicts of the Allies fighting the Axis powers, or the Rebellion fighting the Empire.

Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Humanity vs. Depravity.

As I look to the future (particularly as a parent) I know I don't want to live in the gray. I don't want a gray world for my children and their children.

But what if this is an impossible dream? What if there is no way to live only on the side of good? What, after all, is true goodness?

Maybe the scale is not a modulation between black and white or the evil and the good at all--but one ranging from selfishness to selflessness.

The reality is this: No well-conceived character in any narrative sees themselves as truly evil. They are doing what they believe is good and what is right. They are acting the way they are because of what happened to them, what was done to them, what they feel they are owed or what they need to restore or win back. At least, this is what the most compelling characters, and certainly the most compelling heroes and villains do.

The difference between the protagonist and the antagonist most often is how much they are willing to sacrifice of themselves to get what they want.

How selfish are they? How selfless can they be or become?

Each and every day, we act out of some level of vain ambition and selfish conceit. It's ingrained in us. A primal survival mechanism. The movement to the other side though, to selflessness, is a microcosm for Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.

In this classic construct of story referred to as the 'monomyth', there is always a refusal of the call to action. Let's say this call is refused by a jaded, grieving old gunslinger called upon to take up arms one more time and defend the town against encroaching bandits. But let's remember here that the antagonists, the marauders coming to take what they need to survive (or at least what they feel they need or are owed) are operating from the same spot on the continuum as our hero. (Also, let's call him Wyatt)

Wyatt is still operating out of a firmly rooted place of selfishness. He'd rather stay in his self-protective cocoon, the persona of burned-out curmudgeon who would rather stay safe in the walls he's built up, than risk the pain of unburying past failures and grief, even if he is the only thing standing between helping others--the only one who can stop the helpless being taken advantage of by others' selfish lust.

Would it be 'evil' for him to refuse this call to defend the town?

No. But it would be selfish.

Only when Wyatt accepts the call does he take a first step toward selflessness and then take more strides to face trials of many kinds throughout the second act. When Wyatt finally is forced to face what he fears most, standing on the precipice of the veritable cave where lies the elixir or in this case, when he faces down the bandits, Wyatt chooses to be selfless. He's taking the risk that he won't come out of it alive, but more than that he's willed himself to open old wounds and face his fears.

It's the same for us each morning.

When we rise, there is an inherent call to action at the start of our day. A call toward doing that first thing we don't want to do. Heroism isn't about doing what fills you or feeds your own sense of self. Self care is important make no mistake, but it doesn't change the fact that we are by default selfish beings, taking care of our needs first and foremost, perhaps only ever our only own needs when given over to the unrelenting clutches of avarice breathing only the fetid air it breeds.

If we don't fight it, we fall to it. We fail to live into our call.

Every day there is opportunity to move beyond ourselves and into something greater. To play a role in someone else's narrative. For they too are on a trajectory, traveling the continuum between selfish and selfless. When you cross their path, will be selfless and help them in their journey, bringing encouragement, offering wisdom, and doling out kindness and help in unabashed measure? Or will you choose self above all and become an obstacle in their path, a trial for them to overcome?

Here's the irony, though.

For this thing called life to work and to grow us into who we were made to be, acting more selfless and seeking to breed goodness for those we love and ultimately to all those around us, we need to face trials first. The very same trials that are wrought and rendered of our own selfish choices and the fallout from them, as well as those contrived by our fellow travelers who choose to become the obstacle in our path by protecting their interests alone. If we all fell squarely and only ever on the high echelons of this continuum, a planet of nothing but selfless beings would fall to ruin with no one able to accept help offered and dying of self induced physical and emotional starvation. Conversely, a world dominated by extreme selfishness where it's every man woman and child for themselves would result in an apocalyptic hellscape.

We all start each day with selfish ambition. We need to settle into the journey as each day, we start over and choose to move somewhere on the path that winds from selfishness to selflessness.

Is it possible, then, that this desire for stories from the younger generations that offer a clearer view of this hard-to-navigate world, is actually a desire to be shown how to move toward selflessness through both narrative and real world tangible examples of people actually living it out?

Good and Evil are real, but are only made more tangible when we put them through this human lens:

To live more selflessly breeds goodness, prosperity, joy, hope, and all manner of health and growth for ourselves and those around us.

To live out of selfish desire alone breeds contempt, corruption, violence, greed, and all manner of ill intent.

We all start as lesser heroes on the march to becoming something greater than ourselves. We will never be perfectly selfless, for we are human, flawed and fallen. But not failures.

We can try to do better on each page we write and on each new day, when we choose to lean into the call.

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