Ordinary heroes

Myths often tell of miraculous feats or spectacular failures, but their true power comes from showing the successes of ordinary mortals.

Ordinary heroes
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The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and hundreds of analogous tales throughout the world, suggest, as does this ancient legend of the farthest East, that in spite of the failure recorded, a possibility exists of a return of the lover with his lost love from beyond the terrible threshold. It is always some little fault, some slight yet critical symptom of human frailty, that makes impossible the open interrelationship between the worlds; so that one is tempted to believe, almost, that if the small, marring accident could be avoided, all would be well. In the Polynesian versions of the romance, however, where the fleeing couple usually escape, and in the Greek satyr-play of Alcestis, where we also have a happy return, the effect is not reassuring, but only superhuman. The myths of failure touch us with the tragedy of life, but those of success only with their own incredibility. And yet, if the monomyth is to fulfill its promise, not human failure or superhuman success but human success is what we shall have to be shown.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘You have only so much time on this earth, and you don’t know how much. The question “Are you going to live, knowing you will die?” is not fundamentally different than these questions: “Are you going to love, knowing you will be hurt?” Or, “Are you going to commit to living a valued life knowing you will sometimes not meet your commitments?” Or, “Will you reach for success knowing you will sometimes fail?” The potential for pain and the sense of vitality you gain from these experiences go together. If your life is truly going to be about something, it helps to look at it from the perspective of what you would want the path your life leaves behind to mean.’

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan and the perils of success

It can be useful to have goals in life, but there are three big problems with focussing too much on achieving your goals and ambitions.

Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan and the perils of success
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And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter – professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space – was treated with the greatest significance, and everything that did matter – pleasure, joy, friendship, loved – was deemed somehow peripheral.”

Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

“When you hear ‘She is very successful’ or ‘He’s made a success of himself’, what does that conjure up for you? Our society generally defines success in terms of achieving goals: fame, wealth, status and respect; a big house, a luxury car, a prestigious job, a huge salary. When people achieve these things, our society tends to label them as ‘successful’. But if we buy into this popular notion of success, we set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering.

How so? Well, this view of success inevitably pulls us into the ‘goal-focused life’, where we are always striving to achieve the next goal. We may strive for more money, a larger house, a better neighbourhood, smarter clothes, a slimmer body, bigger muscles, more status, more fame, more respect and so on. We may strive to win this game or tournament, or make that sale, or get that promotion, or win that contract, or find a more attractive partner, or buy that smart car, or get that qualification, or earn that university degree. And the illusion is, ‘When I achieve this goal, then I will be successful.’

There are at least three big problems associated with going through life this way. First, there’s no guarantee you will achieve those goals, or they may be a long way off – which leads to chronic frustration and disappointment. Second, even if you do achieve them, they will not give you lasting happiness; usually they give you a brief moment of pleasure, satisfaction or joy – and then you start to focus on the next goal. Third, if you buy into this notion of success, it will put you under tremendous pressure – because you have to keep on achieving and achieving to maintain it.’

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.