Adolescents and the Scale of Heroism

August 22, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As many of us embark upon a new school year it feels appropriate to reflect on healthy heroism. Late adolescence is a time of vital dreaming when the armor of character is formed. The purity and power of the hero’s journey at age seventeen or eighteen is something to behold. Students express the foolhardy courage of the Monty Python Black Knight who cries, “It’s only a flesh wound!”, while simultaneously exhibiting the vulnerability that typifies their youth. They are godly and they are creaturely in spades. They are also works in progress. Society has had its say but they are still flexible, formed but not finished. This seems a very opportune time to introduce Becker’s core insights because the students have the cognitive ability to grasp the insights and also the vitality of youth to carry them heroically forward. They have the courage to be. Becker can percolate as the vital lie of their character forms. Some will keep their eyes open. Some will understand.

Regardless of whether the students follow up with Becker specifically, I’m hopeful they’ll  become more reflective on the role and nature of heroism in their lives. Becker refers to “the paradoxical gift of a confusion about heroism” that his parents gave him. He experienced the confusion as a gift because it called him forward toward greater understanding. Unfortunately, not all confusion about heroism is successfully resolved, as Becker so insightfully chronicled. A confusion about heroism, writ large, can produce war, famine, pestilence, and death as we try to escape from evil. Becker’s ability to address heroism on both the personal and the societal level makes him extremely relevant to young adults who feel their singularity intensely, even as they are inevitably drawn into the web of culture. Just as Becker concludes The Denial Of Death with a strong statement about the limits of a heroic individual, so too he ends Escape From Evil with a parallel statement about the limits of a heroic society. There is a nary an apotheosis to be found. What does this mean for the students?

For educators of youth, it is vital to engender hope. Hope represents that liminal space where the falling angel meets the rising ape and nihilism is countered. Where is hope to be found? In his critique of the limits of Enlightenment rationality, Becker at one point quotes Paul Pruyser who asked, “If illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate  into delusions?”  This is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “good lies.” It may be that history is unwinding in a way that will allow us to take advantage and create such life-affirming illusions. Specifically, we are in the midst of a massive contraction occasioned by the crisis of natural limits, oil, water, food—you name it. Large institutions and the expansive mythologies that have undergirded  them are  fragmenting under these pressures. Has it not been the case that our capacity for ideologically driven mayhem has followed the oil curve upward? And have not our illusions followed an Apollonian trajectory borne on the wings of the great god Technos? What will happen as we draw down? Certainly one scenario is that we will fight ruthlessly over the shrinking pie, and there are signs that is happening. There is another possibility. Life lived at a more local level may afford the opportunity for a heroics of local scale: less John Galt and more Wendell Berry, less individualistic and more communal. My students are encouraged to view themselves generationally, as a collective making positive and necessary change. The cult of the individual seems to be running out of steam. This, coupled with the immediacy of our physical needs in the draw down might be the impetus for a healthier heroism. History seems to be the balm for our existential crisis, the realm of new possibilities where hope can dream.



  1. Thanks Bill. I teach a fourth year ‘personality’ class where I get into a lot of existential and TMT themes. You are absolutely correct – this is perhaps the most appropriate age to introduce these ideas to young minds. I find psychology students are resistant to the idea of ‘critical thinking’ or anything that sounds ‘philosophical,’ so I have to start a ‘crash course’ in the philosophy of science… demonstrating to students how science is inseparable from critical thinking. I find this assists in their ‘unlearning’ what ‘scientific facts’ they may have learned and prepare them for thinking more flexibly.

    I love the idea of the ‘authentic hero’ – as you know, many of my own thoughts are borrowed from Camus, who draws a parallel in the idea of the ‘authentic rebel.’ We all need to reify meaning in some way… it seems to me that we will either undermine our own values in our search for an absolute hope (an illusion), or we will courageously make due with a ‘relative hope’ and tenaciously defend the values (e.g. relative freedom and justice) that unite us all as humans.

  2. Thanks Brad. I’m glad to see you agree on presenting this material to youth. The paradox of rebellion today is that it has been commodified. I remember as a young teenager in the early 70’s buying a peace symbol belt buckle. It felt like my ticket into the counter culture. I did not realize that if I was buying my revolution, Wall Street already owned it.

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