The Heroic Attitude

The mood of the times in which we live affects all of us in one way or another. Weary, discouraged, disoriented, and depressed—and I could add angry—describe what many people feel. These emotions affect each and every one of us to some degree. We could talk about the political situation, or climate change, or the stock market, or corruption in high places, or any number of “issues.” But what, if anything, lies at the root of the malaise many perceive in our society?

In a recent essay, Henrique C. Pereira (2018) addresses this issue. In “The weariness of the hero: depression and the self in a civilization in transition” Pereira “raises the hypothesis that depression could be related to an increase or inflation of ego-consciousness which, in turn, is inseparable from the development of modernity.” (p. 420). He acknowledges that there can be many causes of depression. However, historically the ‘hero’ has symbolized the process of the development of self-consciousness and autonomy. As the sense of independence increases, the sense of interdependence tends to decrease. At a societal or cultural level, emphasis on individual aspirations and goals tends to lose sight of shared community aspirations and needs. Gradually some people begin to wonder: Where are we (as a couple, a family, a nation, as a species) going? Hence the confusion and call for strong leadership to set things right, and the appeal to get back to the way things used to work. But we also know that trying the same old thing hoping for a different outcome is one of the definitions of insanity.

In her introduction to the 2004 edition of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Clarissa Pincola-Estés describes the heroic attitude when functioning healthily:

This heroic way offers depth of insight and meaning. It is attentive to guides along the way, and invigorates life. We see that the journey of the hero and heroine are most often deepened via ongoing perils. These include losing one’s way innumerable times, refusing the first call, thinking it is only one thing when it really is, in fact, quite another—as well as entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude. Campbell points out that coming through such struggles causes the person [or the culture, I might add] to be infused with more vision, and to be strengthened by the spiritual life principle—which, more than anything else, encourages one to take courage to live with effrontery and mettle.” (p. xxiv)

When an individual, or a society, cannot pay attention to the guides along the way, nor face ongoing perils, nor deal with “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude,” that individual or society can become depressed; or worse, endangered. As William Butler Yeats wrote so powerfully in his poem, The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The heroic attitude runs amok is weary or misdirected. Perhaps the current hero attitude doesn’t know what to make of or do about an endangered civilization in transition.

We need to say more about the hero, specifically in terms of ego. The journey of the hero or heroine models the development of ego, that sense of “I.” Joseph Henderson (1964) writes that in the myths of diverse peoples all over the world,

Over and over again one hears a tale describing a hero’s miraculous but humble birth, his early proof of superhuman strength, his rapid rise to prominence or power, his triumphal struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a “heroic” sacrifice that ends in his death. [This pattern, he continues,] has psychological meaning both for the individual, who is endeavoring to discover and assert his personality and for a whole society, which has equal need to establish its collective identity. (p. 110)

The hero pattern informs the development of both individual and society, and both individual and society risk hybris when they become inflated with their accomplishments, as Shakespeare has Anthony ironically say of Caesar in act 2, scene 1, “scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.”

Hybris, inflation, in the psychological sense, identifies a condition of consciousness characterized by “a feeling of power in which we are blown up by an unknown force that is not our own . . . . However, it feels as if it were and we claim it as our own. It makes us feel cocksure and self-righteous . . . .” (Whitmont, 1969, 59) Inflation differs from the experience of being “swept away.” When one feels swept away, one recognizes one’s loss of control and feels the exhilaration or terror that accompanies it.   Inflation feels strong, powerful, self-righteous, holier-than-thou. Assertions like “I’m the most successful” and “I’m the greatest” and “I’ve got the biggest audience” betray ego-inflation.

To return for a moment to Clarissa Pincola-Estés’s words about the hero’s or heroine’s struggles, “These [ongoing perils] include losing one’s way innumerable times, refusing the first call, thinking it is only one thing when it really is, in fact, quite another—as well as entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude.” What are these “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude”? Societal and cultural habits, natural challenges (such as climate change), as well as personal and tribal conflicts constitute one set of challenges. The other set of challenges with which both the individual and a society or a culture must contend consist in the “invisible” transpersonal/archetypal forces once upon a time referred to as “gods and goddesses,” or the Zeitgeist which we now can also study astrologically and psychologically in the writings, for example, of Richard Tarnas (2006) and Stan Groff (1988, 2012).

The development of modernity (from the late 18th and through the 20th centuries) has included the mechanization and industrialization of work, the development of experimental sciences, the historical-sociological-critical study of Christianity but also the steadily increasing interest in “Eastern” beliefs and religions as well as the rise of various psychologies that have, to a great extent, supplanted the role counseling and therapeutic role formerly fulfilled by clergy (to name only a few salient characteristics). Many people in industrialized countries have gradually but steadily lost their living connection with the  “invisible” transpersonal / archetypal / astrological forces, those “powers” greater than the individual ego-consciousness that one must take into account lest one risk ego-inflation, the erroneous belief that “I did it all myself; aren’t I wonderful,” and the consequent fall from power that every hero and heroic consciousness or society must experience when it meets its match as outer opponent, inner obstacle, insuperable limit to its expansion, or the sense that all the toys aren’t worth the effort. When the experience of feeling held back lasts long enough, weariness or discouragement or depression follows. Then neither pill nor stimulant nor conquest can alleviate. So what do we do now?

 “Head knowledge” doesn’t help much. Intense experience does. Intense experience worked through transforms. The client who deeply grieves with me in session does the emotional work necessary to move past the loss. The client wracked by sobs about life and opportunities squandered does the emotional work necessary to move on to new opportunities, often never dreamed of. The client raging to exhaustion at mistreatment suffered often settles the old score with a parent or an abuser and can return to life with renewed energy. The client shaken by a dream has met with an “inner” reality that can no longer be avoided. Further, the client who has some knowledge of the archetypal forces working on her or him can better understand and address current moods, impulses, and experiences.

As a child of our times, for several months I have been keeping up a faster pace than I really like. Many people with whom I talk have also felt similarly pressured. Maybe, I thought, I’m “just” getting old and can’t keep up like I used to. Then recently my wife and I watched the 1977 movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I almost got impatient at the end when what seemed like several minutes passed as we watched the leisurely approach of the spaceship. What a contrast to the velocity of current films! There appears to be some degree of objective reality to the difference between the pace in 1977 and the haste in 2018. Clearly, I (we all) need to slow down, intentionally make time to clear our busy minds so that we can become aware of “ guides along the way” that appear as dreams, synchronistic events, meaningful encounters with other people, and conversations in depth with dear and trusted friends.

Recently I notice that both my wife and I are more irritable, more impatient with each other. Our tempers flare faster than in the past, but the old irritants have no new additions. What’s going on? Finally, it occurred to me to check my astrological birth chart. What might be going on there? Am I experiencing a transit to something? Is my wife experiencing a transit to something?  

What I found in both her and my natal charts made sense. The planet Uranus—which, among other things, corresponds to an energy that volatilizes whatever it touches—was coming into relationship with the Mars, the planet corresponding to self-assertion, action, drive. Our Mars energy was getting supercharged by the Uranus contact. Knowing this bit of “astrological weather” made sense. We’re still short-tempered, but we don’t have to take it so personally as we might have without the astrological knowledge.

Individually we suffer to some degree. Similarly, our society or culture suffers. The Greatest Generation endured and mastered terrible times—the Great Depression and World War II—and discovered the power of shared ordeal and support of community. As a species we live in terrible times: climate change, massive species loss, and continuing population explosion endanger not only human life but all higher forms of life on this planet. Where is the collective grief? Where do we see the shared suffering that reminds us that we’re all in this together?

 “We the people” are in fact keeping a faster pace than we did in the 1970s. What has changed in the forty intervening years? We pay less attention to feelings, intuitions, physical signals (“symptoms”), dreams. That signifies a diminished conscious connection to those well-springs that invigorate life. Hence Pereira relates depression to an increase or inflation of ego-consciousness in the context of a civilization in transition. First, what does an inflation of ego-consciousness mean?

Intense experience worked through transforms. “Working through” means finding ways to come to terms with what has been experienced. Working through means integrating the content of the intense experience into ego-consciousness. Working through the “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude” (as Pincola-Estés wrote) reconnects ego-consciousness with something beyond ego-consciousness, sometimes even the Source.    

We are all children of the times in which we live—willingly cooperating with or bucking the system. In therapy and analysis, I see women and men—problems to themselves—who bring their experience of the world with them. Explicitly or implicitly for most of them, their ‘heroic’ attitude is weary.

Part of my task with clients consists in helping peel away layers of conditioning and accommodation in order to get to the vital core where the real hero awaits, the real hero who can face the challenges, the “false starts, and wrong turnings and blind alleys,” as Jung once wrote. We need the heroic attitude that is willing to face the perils, the dangers, the personal and cultural unknowns. As we work through the layers, both of us—client and analyst—must feel and experience what we are touching. That, too, is part of the heroic attitude. Otherwise, we’re on a head-trip that fails to transform and liberate.

There is a saying attributed to Gandhi: Be the change you want to see happen. This may not be accurate. In a column in the New York Times, “Falser Words Were Never Spoken,” Brian Morton (2011) writes:

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

One client and one analyst in one room for one hour a week—that seems so pathetically little in the face of the challenges we face as a species. Repeatedly I have to remind myself that change begins one person at a time; first with me, then through me, perhaps in others. Yes, there is any number of small acts; it is not the stuff of passivity, but the stuff of courage. As you reflect upon what the “mood of the times” means for you…how will/do you live and embrace the heroic attitude?

  • Henderson, J. (1964). Ancient myths and modern
  • Groff, S. (2012). Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift. Newcastle, Washington: Stream of Experience.

_____. (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. [Any and all of Stan Groff’s books are important.]

  • Jung, C. G. (1921). Psychological Types. Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton; Princeton University Press.
  • Morton, B. (2011). New York Times, August 29, 2011.
  • Pereira, H. C. (2018). The weariness of the hero: depression and the self in a civilization in transition. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2018, 63, 4, 420-439.
  • Pinicola-Estés, C. (1949/2004). Introduction to Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton Princeton University Press.
  • Tarnas, R. (2006). Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations f a New World View. New York: Viking. (There are a number of YouTube videos featuring lectures by or interviews with Rick Tarnas.]

Whitmont, E. C. (1969). The Symbolic Quest. Princeton: Princeton University Press.