“Few movies are ever made about sick people courageously taking a doctor’s advice.”
— Roger Ebert, from Life Itself: A Memoir
When I heard that quote, I suddenly realized a contradiction…
Though we celebrate individual heroism in story and song…
…we actually reward obedience more often.
Well, obedience is essential to our survival.
From the time we leapt down from the trees, our survival has demanded that we work together in groups. Family groups, community groups, business groups, religious groups, national groups. And now: world group.
Thus, from birth, every individual is taught obedience.
And yet, as we’re learning, we’re also told of individual initiative. We’re told the story of the Little Engine That Could—not of the Little Engine that faithfully followed the Big Engine.
Then later, as adults. we cheer the one-man rebellion of Rambo…
…while in our own lives, we play the role of Buck Privates.
We applaud the defiant couple in Lorenzo’s Oil, as they fight the medical establishment…
…yet kowtow to our own doctors.
Yes, there’s a contradiction. But this contradiction makes perfect sense to me. We don’t need stories about obedience—we already know how to be obedient!
On the other hand, for the health of our community, we need to be reminded that sometimes we must buck the system.
To this purpose, we use stories. We use stories to show ourselves when and how to be disobedient.
We use stories to tell ourselves that going against the status quo is very difficult, but worth the effort.
However, I think a little more honesty would be helpful here.
In the movies, the hero who bucks the system usually wins.
True, our real-life whistleblowers do win sometimes….
…and like our movie heroes, they must sacrifice for their victories. Often they sacrifice career, reputation, money, and physical and mental health, in a long battle against the powers that be.
But often, they don’t win, or even if they do, they don’t receive accolades. The victory may not even seem like much of a victory. Sometimes the victory is short-lived. Sometimes, even when they win, these heroes are punished.
However, we do have stories that warn us of the dangers…
Prometheus brings fire down for us humans—and as a result, Zeus chains him to a rock.
Moses is disrespected, not only by the pharaoh, but by the very people he’s trying to lead. Yet for all his trouble, he’s barred from the Promise Land, while they get to enter.
But though these stories are a part of our culture, neither is the dominant storyline.
We’d rather hear of how the lone hero triumphed at the end…
…of how she was proven right, of how she gains respect, of how she is celebrated for her courage. Erin Brockovich does get to enter the Promise Land.
But in truth, those who oppose injustice, who stand up to the powers that be, are often steamrolled. Karen Silkwood fought the machine and ended up dead.
At least, she is remembered. Some who battle injustice not only lose, but are lost to history.
Don’t get me wrong—I prefer to hear of the hero’s triumph, not the hero’s defeat.
But I believe we need hero stories that tell the complete truth.
Our stories should warn us that being in the right doesn’t guarantee victory. The guy on the white horse sometimes loses miserably.
Do I mean to discourage our potential heroes?
No, I want to encourage them when they’re feeling discouraged…
I want stories that will tell them: don’t think in terms of winning and losing; think in terms of right action. But not only that—think in terms of being alive.
Doesn’t that feeling underlie all our hero stories?—we’re doing something, we’re going beyond who we usually are—we’re alive; we’ve become fully activated thinking/feeling human beings.
What is failure? In my experience, it’s not losing, it’s failing to act on my convictions. That’s when I feel measly.
We don’t help ourselves by saying “you can get it if you really want it”. Because we may not get what we want—that’s realistic. And then, we may feel disillusioned. Beaten, broken.
We need stories that will help us arrive at some sense of gain, even in loss. If we feel completely defeated, we may give up. And the world will be the worst for it.
Yes, Prometheus was chained to a cliff. Yes, his liver was plucked out by an eagle each and every day…
But was he ever broken?
© 2012, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry