If a man wishes to become a hero, then the serpent must first become a dragon: otherwise he lacks his proper enemy.

I often tell my wife that many of our nation’s problems stem from life being too easy for most people. Nearly everyone struggles with something, though, and it may often feel anything but easy in the moment. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Whatever these individual struggles may be, they generally don’t arise to the level of existential. You and I, and our way of life, is not likely to be snuffed out if the struggle doesn’t go our way. The simple truth is that we’ve arrived to a point in modern society where there are so few problems to solve that we actively create more of them just to have something to complain about.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that such an environment is bad for us.

I recently came across this video from the Academy of Ideas channel on YouTube, and I thought it was worth sharing. It’s only about 10 minutes long, and well worth your time.

Living Well Requires Danger

I recall a study done on the mental health of London’s citizens during WWII. Germany’s bombing campaign was expected to cause mass panic. This prediction, arguably, was never borne out.

But the worst-case projections did not come to pass. People generally did not lose their mind. Few called for surrender, and only a handful criticized the government. Social solidarity was not shredded—it was enhanced. During the months of the bombings, war production actually increased.

Government censors found that morale was actually highest in the most badly hit places. When you read through diaries and letters from during the Blitz, you do come across some passages that describe raw terror—but mostly they are filled with descriptions of surreal circumstances, rendered in a quotidian, unemotional, and matter-of-fact tone.

People felt they were achieving moral victory merely by staying alive. “Finding we can take it is a great relief to most of us,” one woman wrote. “I think that each one of us was secretly afraid that he wouldn’t be able to, that he would rush shrieking to shelter, that his nerve would give, that he would in some way collapse, so that this has been a pleasant surprise.” A man wrote, “I would not be anywhere in the world but here, for a fortune.”

David Brooks, in The Atlantic March 2020

It seems to me that we are biologically hardwired to respond to times of danger. Some people crumble under that stress, for sure, but many more adapt to it and form tight bonds with our fellow tribe members. 

This behavior exists right down into the DNA of the stories we tell and share.

The Hero’s Journey

Have you ever noticed that the most cherished and long-standing stories all have a similar structure to them? George Lucas was obsessed with the historical structure of stories and legends, and he drew on that deep knowledge when he wrote the original Star Wars movies

So what do you expect in these stories? Typically you’ll have the hero’s everyday life, then an incitement to adventure, a mentor figure, and then a series of tests, allies, and enemies along the way.

Looming in the background is always, the shadow. The shadow ultimately stands between the hero and achievement of their goal. This shadow is always more powerful, more intelligent, and simply better than the hero. 

The journey of the hero to reach their quest must always include improving themselves so that they may conquer the shadow. This the climax of the story, where the hero passes the final test and brings back the trinket, knowledge, or whatever.

Sound familiar? Whether it’s Star Wars, Beowulf, King Arthur, Gilgamesh, or Aladdin- the elements are all there.

A statue of Perseus, one of the greatest Greek heroes after slaying Medusa

The Need for Danger

The reason I bring up the Hero’s Journey is that there wouldn’t be such an attachment to these stories throughout history if we didn’t have some deep-seated relationship to them. We need villains, existential struggles, and the threat of death.

Without these items to keep us sharp, we falter into weakness and frailty.

The desire for Safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.

Life isn’t about risk elimination, it’s about risk management. Some rewards are worth the risk, and we instinctually know that.

When as society values safety over everything else, then it inevitably turns towards “strong figures” that promise to provide that safety. This begins a downward cultural spiral of giving up righteous liberties for incrementally more safety. Freedom as a primary value is supplanted by safety.

This environment is ripe for those “strong figures” to become tyrants. The people themselves become ever more fragile and unable to stand in the face of danger or hardship, and therefore become ever less willing or capable of resisting.

Live On Your Edge

Your growth relies on stress. Like muscles that must be challenged through load and speed before they grow and improve, so goes your mind and spirit’s need to be challenged by danger.

Do not seek the easy and safe life. That’s not to say you should be reckless, far from it. Rather, we should all seek to understand our current limits, and endeavor to push beyond them even if only by a little bit.

Fear is not a virtue. It is merely a tool for letting us know we’ve reached our edge. What you do with that fear is the question.

Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.
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Paul
Paul
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Right on Matt!

America’s great strength stems from independence and self-reliance of it’s people. The current deficit of these qualities will be it’s undoing.

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