Help for When you Don’t Feel Heroic: Three Lessons from Literary Heroes

What do you do when admitting a door has closed makes you feel very distinctly unheroic? When you finally admit something you’ve worked at for years is not really for you, it can be more a downer than anything else. 

It doesn’t feel like freedom at all, initially. It’s more like Belle in Beauty and the Beast facing life imprisonment at the hands of a terrifying beast. 

If you look at most of our own fictional heroes the same thing happens. There is always a moment in their journey where they feel like they have failed.

The so-called “Great Resignation” of the past year where millions of people from all walks of life finally decided to do as Joseph Campbell suggested and be the hero of their own stories may not all be a bed of roses for some. Particularly if your self-talk is not up to par.

Charting your own path, or at least the decision to do so can itself feel like losing especially if you’ve spent so many years in a particular industry only to find yourself increasingly unhappy, forced out, or burnt out. In these moments, it’s hard to see what feels like failure as the beginning of something much better. 

This past year may seem like that for many. Whether you were brutally terminated, laid-off, or voluntarily left, there is a gut-punch feeling of failure when you decide to change the path you are on. 

For myself, the past year especially has been a year of rejection.

Rejection from a company I bled and sweat for. Rejection in the dozens of interviews with dozens of companies who ghosted me. Rejection in the discovery that I really didn’t want to do the sort of work I’d been doing successfully for several years. 

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For anyone suffering burnout from the past two years, the words, “extraordinary,” “unprecedented,” “changing,” or “historic” to describe our time sounds about as trite as “we’re all in this together” when we’re clearly more divided than ever. 

Except on one point: nearly everyone is sick and tired of being sick and tired. Everyone is tired of fighting what seems like a losing battle. 

Yet, most of the great tales are full of what seem like losing battles.

Sir Gawain doubts he will ever find the Chapel Green. Frodo finally admits the burden the ring presents and admits that he will more than likely die. Beowulf allows for the possibility of his failure when he first presents his proposal to Hrothgar. Rand al’Thor suffers not only know he’s the Dragon Reborn, but the consequences which come with it. Geralt of Rivia faces the increasingly stark reality of a world where the monsters he’s supposed to hunt are disappearing and the monsters hiding among mankind are not only coming for him, but for his young charge, Ciri.

What do any of these characters do when faced with doubt? 

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  1. Heroes remember their own heroes. 

Frodo and Aragorn especially remember their own heroes. J.R.R. Tolkien was especially fond of history, so this is not that big of a surprise. He was well aware of both the triumphs and consequences of history, particularly since he lived through worse times that we are going through right now. 

In Middle Earth, the stories and tales serve as a reminder of the struggles and sorrows of previous generations. Not just because they were worth remembering, but because they were encouraging. 

Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it- and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of that light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still!

Samwise Gamgee, The Two Towers

For us in the modern world, we are far too obsessed with a never-ending present. Everything that is old must be “updated,” “recontextualized,” or “revised” to meet our own present-day standards. Which, as we have seen in the past two years, can change from one day to the next. All it takes is one tweet, one post, one video, or one tiny virus and the who world upends itself. 

The lesson here is that instead of being dismissive of the past, we should be inspired by it—even if the people themselves were deeply flawed human beings. We are, as Samwise points out, in the same story after all. 

2. Heroes seek guidance

Sir Gawain, like other knights in the tales from the medieval era, ask for help (and directions, please note!). Whether they ask for guidance from God, from saints, from hermits, from passersby, or from Merlin himself. They ask for help when they are lost. 

Beowulf takes counsel from Hrothgar before he faces Grendel, he still makes his own decisions, but he seeks Hrothgar’s advice and permission before he does so. 

Rand al’Thor takes guidance not only from Lan and Morraine, but from other sources too. From Thom Merrilyn, from Lolial, and from his own foster-father. 

Even Geralt of Rivia seeks help from time to time. In the first two books of the series, the chapters titled “The Voice of Reason” detail him asking for help, for guidance. Which he is given in a fashion which would do any Southern Momma proud.

So, when you are lost. Don’t be afraid of asking for help. Or directions. Chances are, someone else has been down your road too and they are more than happy to point the way. 

3. Heroes take action. 

Heroes are not idle. When the people around them are either too hesitant, too afraid, or too cowardly, they make things happen. When all the wise at the Counsel of Elrond are lost in their own thoughts, Frodo is the one who volunteers to take the ring. 

While Wiglaf—King Hrothgar’s own kinsman–does nothing to face Grendel, Beowulf—an outlander—does. 

This is not to say there is no deliberation. Recklessness in a hero is a more modern invention since the modern world is bent on tearing down what which is raises up and that just as quickly. 

Most heroes take time to consider their actions through, of course, asking for help as we’ve already discussed. 

But they move forward eventually. Sir Gawain sets out from Camelot and finally reaches the Chapel Green. Frodo, after spending most of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers taking counsel finally crosses into Mordor and the end of his journey. The feast Hrothgar throws Beowulf ends and he must face the night and Grendel alone. Rand al’Thor must determine his course and move on from his hesitation and his own fears. 

Chances are, if you look back at any of your own heroes, I very much expect you will find the same thing. 

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One final thought, if none of this does anything to comfort you:

Everything is mutable—everything is changeable and changing. We do not live in a static, sterile universe.

If quantum physics has taught us anything, it has shown us the universe itself expands and contracts like any living organism. 

The way we survive in life, as in anything, is not to dig in our heels and refusing to change. That is the coward’s way, the bureaucrat’s way, or the politician’s. All such people thrive on things not changing. 

So while you don’t feel particularly heroic after admitting defeat, or after being brutally rejected, that too will change. The question becomes is whether you are going to use that time wisely to change yourself for the better? 

Even if you don’t feel heroic, be the hero. Don’t give up, even if you feel like it. Don’t allow yourself to wallow in failure when you are on the verge of winning. 

Be like the heroes you like to watch and read: remember the struggles of your own personal heroes, take counsel and ask for directions, then take action. 

Your purpose is waiting for you!

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