Our world does not want us to be heroes. Heroes make folks nervous. They challenge us by standing out. While society shows us what we can buy, heroes show us what we are not. And that display makes folks profoundly uncomfortable. As a result, I believe, most people shortchange their potential and smother the hero within.
First, let’s clarify what “hero” means. It does not mean “nice person.” The Greek root haeros means “to sing of,” and while the Greek heroes were so “sung of” that we remember them 2500 years later, they were not “nice people.” Quite the contrary: Theseus was a rapist, Odysseus a liar, Herakles, a hot-tempered murderer, and Achilles a psychopath. Not a Boy Scout in the bunch! The gods may smile on the meek, but they don’t remember them.
Heroes, by definition, are memorable.
I got to thinking about this a few years ago. Channel-surfing past the E! Network, I’d stopped to watch a few minutes of the “E! Hot 10.” Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton! “Why?!?,” I bellowed. She isn’t especially good-looking, has no talent, displays no brains to speak of, and has contributed nothing to the human condition except gossip and waste. So why were so many people fascinated with the Barbie Mark-5 Paris Hilton Unit?
Then I noticed her body language: angular, exaggerated, direct and unspeakably arrogant. Her matchstick frame and little-girl voice may indicate fragility, but there’s nothing fragile about her stance. It says “I am who I am. You love me for it, and if you choose not to love me, fuck off — I don’t care.”(*1) Y’know, I thought, she’s right. Insufferable, arrogant, obnoxious, and 100% correct… if only because she says so. Paris and the rest of her E! Network celebricult peers are the living embodiments of Billy Idol’s old boast “I can be an idol just because I call myself one.”
These days, Lady Gaga provides a far better example of this principle. Not only does she display far more brains, talent, and inherent decency than the Hilton Barbiebot, but her staggering success – a “fame monster” (*2) crafted almost entirely from Stefani Germanotta’s determination to succeed artistically – comes from the artist’s understanding of fame itself. Unlike Paris, Gaga is an actual artist, mirroring the human condition through potent, focused creativity. We respond so powerfully to her – pro or con – because she knows exactly what she’s doing and refuses to apologize for doing it. (Besides, anyone who considers Lady Gaga to be just another brain-dead pop diva with nothing significant to say isn’t really paying attention to her work.)
Does this make them “heroes”? Well, not in the “does great things for humanity” sense, but they certainly are sung of, if only for the moment (*3). There’s a disposability about their fame that would be heartbreaking if it weren’t so amusing — but even in that amusement factor, they still have our attention. We slammed Paris Hilton out of envy. We watch the inevitable flameouts of Tom Cruise or Britney spears with derision because such people dare to be so bloody arrogant… and even then, we’ll still be watching the next one down the line. Why? Because such people TELL us they’re worth watching.
That, my friends, is called “claiming your power.” And society hates it — we hate it! — when someone claims their power so fully. Because to claim your power is to stride outside the mainstream, stake claim on your personal island, bask in the sun and get rewarded for doing so. We call this “arrogance,” and it is. But to be a hero, to be sung of, demands a certain amount of arrogance. And most of us are too afraid of being disliked to truly assume our power.
Now, by “claiming power” I don’t mean taking dominion over others. I’m referring to dominion over yourself — although, as most confident people can attest, those who have dominion over themselves are often given dominion over others, too. (This has certainly been my experience.) Sadly, a lot of folks assert their “power” by abusing other people, animals, or worst of all children. Perversely, such people show how little power they truly possess. Violence (emotional or physical) against an unthreatening target is an admission of weakness, not a display of power. Aggression comes from a need to prove one’s self; a truly powerful person doesn’t have anything to prove. (*4)
Even so, the dominating nature of power, combined with the submissive behavior of those who give their power away, means that most people have a love/ hate relationship with confidence. On one hand, they’re drawn to the person who lives his/ her life on his/ her own terms; on the other hand, they feel threatened by that person, too. As I said, most people don’t really want heroes sitting in their living rooms. If nothing else, such a person points out the powerlessness of others simply by existing. Think about it: would you be truly comfortable inviting Paris Hilton over for dinner? Or would her presence, even if she were remarkably nice to you, turn you into a blabbering idiot?
The power principle can be seen starkly dramatized in the film American Beauty. Kevin Spacey’s character Lester Burnham begins as a pathetic schlub until, inspired by Wes Bentley’s character Ricky Fitts, he takes command of his life and starts speaking up for himself. Both Lester and Ricky shake up everyone in their vicinity by refusing to play the game by society’s rules. Both wind up punished for their “heroism” but it’s okay, really… because both of them also realize that their refusal to play by those rules has put them in a better place than they would have occupied had they remained “good.”
(My old friend Brenda once said “Arrogance is what the weak call confidence.” Her “attitude” got Brenda fired from work not long after, but although Brenda’s sentiment didn’t endear her to our management, she wasn’t exactly wrong. The fact that she got a better job afterward sort of proved her point.)
I myself have an uneasy relationship with power. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve been a celebrity — not Paris Hilton-level, certainly, but I am. Many of you wouldn’t be reading this if I weren’t; there would have been no Deliria, no Mage: The Ascension, no Satyros blog or readers for anything I wrote if I had remained a shoe salesman in the early 1990s. And so yes, I seize my power on occasion. But to this day, I have an uneasy relationship with that. I hate being thought of as arrogant. I want to be liked. I want to be nice. (*5) I don’t usually want to make other people uncomfortable. And so I occasionally defer, and pull back, and deny myself opportunities because someone might think I’m arrogant. I might think I’m arrogant, and that may be the worst sin of all. In that way, I’ve often sabotaged my own potential. Then I’ve recognized what I’m doing and knocked it the hell off!
In high school, my nemesis was Greg, a guy who apparently got whatever he wanted because he simply acted like he was entitled to it. He wasn’t a bad guy, really – didn’t really do anything wrong to me. Still, I hated his guts because he was arrogant enough to claim his power… and I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be like Greg… and yet I did. There’s a part of me that hated myself for that… and a part that gleefully embraced it. That ambivalence made me uncomfortable until I understood it, and sometimes it still does. This discomfort, however, doesn’t usually stop me when I get a notion in my head. And so, yeah — like Greg, I can be an arrogant bastard sometimes. I don’t often like that part of myself, but without it I wouldn’t be who I am. When I claim my power, I choose to be heroic.
You can do it, too.
(Arrogant enough to post a picture of myself as an illustration of the point…)
The most essential part of claiming your power is believing that you are worthy of it. You can be a hero if you assert the right to be one. Doing so is an ongoing process, one that involves starting your day by looking in the mirror and saying “I am who I choose to be today, and I choose to be HEROIC.” Stretching out and breathing, warming up your body and reminding it what it can do, you take on your day head-on, looking people in the eye and considering opportunities whenever you see them. (*6) Not all opportunities should be accepted, of course (your girlfriend might not appreciate it if you took a co-worker up on her flirtations!), but by at least considering them, you begin to recognize that they exist. From there, be wary of your boundaries, and remember not to give away too much of your self for another person’s benefit. In small doses, giving way to others is consideration; done too often, though, it becomes subservience. And outside of a BDSM relationship, there’s no power in that!
These four steps — recognizing your self, your potential, your opportunities and your boundaries — break down the wall of hopelessness that we are conditioned to accept. Once that wall is weakened, opportunities to manifest your power appear… and your ability to see them and take advantage of them appears as well.
Will these steps turn you into Paris Hilton? Of course not. (And thank all the gods for THAT!) They will, however, bring you one step closer to being memorable. And if the moment comes when you must act in some heroic way — whether by commandeering a bus, jumping at that job you always wanted, or hauling a person out of a car wreck — you’ll be more able to act heroically because you believe that you can!
Claiming your power, however, will not often make you liked. Admired, perhaps, but not liked. Because, as I said earlier, society does not want you to be heroic. It wants distant pageants of heroism and villainy, but balks when someone actually tries to star in them. Y’see, religions want congregations; governments want citizens; businesses want consumers and contributors. None of these institutions has room for heroes. Heroes rock the boat. They don’t take orders or fit into neat little packages. Rock stars and sports legends look great on TV, but their lives are marked by combinations of worship and spite — often from the very same people! (*7)This often explains the quirks and addictions that plague so many powerful people. The achievements that make them who they are also isolate them from most of humanity.
Hey, nothing worthwhile is free, right?
We are conditioned for subservience, you know. Church, school, commercials and psychotherapy all reinforce the idea that we are dysfunctional. We’re too fat, too poor, too stupid, to sinful to be prosperous. To get ahead in life, they tell us, we must consume. They have the products that we need, and whether those products are clothes, cars, exercise programs, high test scores, drugs, or whatever brand of salvation the church prefers, you need them in order to be “healthy.” This is, of course, a self-serving program — it keeps those institutions in business. It’s pervasive, though. In a world where everything is for sale, the illusion of confidence belongs to those with enough cash (hello, Paris!) or talent (Hi, Gaga!) to claim it. That “power,” however, is an illusion. Reject it, and like some old Phantasmal Force spell, it all fades away. The only truth you can count on is the truth in the mirror. Accept that and nothing else truly matters.
There’s an old Japanese saying: The nail that stands out is the nail that gets hammered. Of course, the underlying irony of that sentiment is that without nails, there wouldn’t sheds for the hammers or houses for the hammerers. Heroes are a social necessity, if not always a welcome one. As one author — I think it was Robert Pirsig — wrote, “heroes move the world forward”… even when the world might not comfortable with that momentum!
So – are you a hammer or a nail? Both are essential in our world. Which do you choose to be?
As I wrote in my book Everyday Heroes: Adventures for the Rest of Us, every person has the potential to be a hero, but very few people actually become one.
It’s your choice, really.
These days, most of all, we need more real heroes.
So be one of them.
Claim your power, and have a heroic day.
BOLDLY HEROIC FOOTNOTES OF DOOM
*1 = The intentional vulgarity here makes my point precisely.
*2 = The Latin root of “monster,” incidentally, means “portent” or “warning,” and comes from the related term for “to reveal.” Thus, a monster portends events, warns us, and ultimately reveals a lot about us.
*3 = Again, I don’t consider Lady Gaga to be some disposable pop princess. I believe she’ll remain as enduring – for better and worse – in her accomplishments as her fellow media chameleons Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Madonna.
*4 = I’m not referring to violence in survival situations. The very fact that survival sometimes depends on violence, however, points out that no one is all-powerful all the time.
*5 = “You’re kind,” an old friend once told me, “not ‘nice‘.” I appreciate the distinction, and I suspect she’s right… even though she may very well disagree with that assessment these days.
*6 = No one is going to give you permission to be powerful. To assert control within your life, you must give yourself permission and then take yourself up on that offer. No one else can do it for you — nor will they! Confidence must come from within.
*7 = During my days as a line developer at White Wolf Game Studio, my friend and editor Ed Hall got promoted to the Wraith line developer position. Within days, he was being ripped apart on the White Wolf fan forums. “Why are they doing this?” he asked me. “I haven’t even done anything yet.” “Because,” I replied, “you’re doing it and they aren’t.” Many times, it’s that simple. We excoriate a Paris Hilton or Ed Hall because they have a power we only wish we could claim.