Issue #29: Heroism and Belonging
"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." — Arthur Ashe
I yelled out loud when I received the news of her passing. The last time I did that, I was riding BART when I found out that Prince died. I never bought into the Notorious RBG hype, but I did recognize how Ruth Bader Ginsburg carried the full weight of American democracy on her tiny back after one semester of constitutional law in college. Learning about the loss of Chadwick Boseman left me feeling heavy, as so much of his acting focused on bringing the lives of iconic Black heroes from the past and the future to life: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, the Black Panther. He was slated to play Yasuke to tell the story of an ex-slave turned samurai in 16th century Japan.
We tell these Herculean stories of people with superhuman abilities and massive responsibilities of one man or woman conquering with larger-than life obstacles upholding the solitary hero as ideal. However, the truth is far more nuanced and complicated. True heroism is a team sport. When we lose our heroes, we rewrite the stories of their pursuits in an effort to cope with the pain of their loss. The Great Man theory of history would have us believe that every moment of progress is due to the great leap forward of a singular figure.
Joseph Campbell, famous for his exploration of mythology as well as his construction of the hero’s journey, uncovered a pattern to change that resonates across time and space. At once an approach to understanding and transmitting large-scale transformation, heroism is a paradigm for making sense of change.
However, this individualistic lens misses the collective labor that enables the hero’s transformation. This is the work of belonging: creating and sustaining physical and psychological safety, establishing emotional connection, and pursuing meaning. Our love of heroes like RBG is a manifestation of our heart’s search for meaning; that through our admiration and adulation, we uncover the resources that support our safety to press through uncertainty, the courage to pursue emotional connection to those unknown to us, and the inspiration press forward through the setbacks and obstacles to find avenues for meaning.
We want to inhabit the world and values of heroes. We want to emulate their dedication and selflessness. We want our sacrifice to have mean something and have an objective beyond the immediacy of suffering. We turn to heroes because they show us what and who matters. But heroic stories end. They don’t get into the pain and agony, nor the patience and battles require upon the return after fulfilling their mission. The hero’s journey is not our journey.
We miss the grandest lesson of what heroic stories tell us if we just focus on the hero. The hero derives meaning from the pursuit and fulfillment of their goal, with our witnessing of their return as the end of the story. An investment in the individual introduces fragility into already volatile, dynamic systems. Our narrative continues beyond their return. Visioning and world building are fundamental to this journey. We learn how to dream and how much we can dream of. We learn to free ourselves from constraints.
Our collective meaning comes from envisioning, creating, and inhabiting the world springing from hope and imagination for the world that the hero’s quest or journey wants to realize. We create heroes like Chadwick Boseman by creating safety to propel their journey. Phyllicia Rashad teaches Chadwick Boseman and secures the ongoing support of Boseman’s journey by reaching out to her friend and actor Denzel Washington to fund his education. During the press junket for Black Panther, Boseman is choked up talking about the larger meaning of portraying a hero for kids living with terminal cancer he connects with, even as he is coping with cancer himself.
If we are to build a future of belonging beyond the constraint of today, we need to move past the individualistic narrative of the hero’s journey, and dig into the complexity of collective imagination and world building. Whether we risk deification of a singular human or lay the culpability of systemic failures at the feet of an individual, the hero’s journey carries a heavy cost. The cult of heroism lays bare the porous boundary between the individual and the collective. RBG paves the pathway for the legal protections that enable greater gender inclusion for women only to leave the backdoor open for conservatives to undo. In Internet speak, “your fave is problematic.”
Expanding the expectation and responsibility for “heroic acts” to a wider group of people free of the burden of notoriety enables resilience, and ideally, the pursuit of belonging builds anti-fragility. Rather than one titular hero, we can now have the weight of a complex issue like democracy or equality shared for greater redundancy in case of failure. The greater the backlash to transformation, the greater amplification of the disruption. If we’ve learned anything over the last three years about the next ten years, we need to think beyond benefit and achievement for our immediate circle if we expect our efforts to endure.
I’m excited to speak at CHROMA, the upcoming conference hosted by Black and Brown Founders. I’ll be talking about leveraging tech for the future of belonging on October 2. If you’d like to attend, grab a ticket here.
I took September off for meetups both because it was my birth month as well as the month for the Institute for the Future’s Ten Year Forecast Summit. If you’d like to see some of the highlights, check out IFTF’s YouTube channel. If you want to join this collective journey of imagining the future of belonging, RSVP to the next Future of Belonging meetup on October 13 at 5:30 pm PT/8:30 pm ET at http://bit.ly/belongingOct2020.
PS. I’d love it if you’d share a post that you like with folks you care about. It helps us all carry this burden and have larger impact.