The Shadow Side of Being a Hero

“We each hold the ability within us to be a hero.  But doing this requires us to face the shadows.  It’s not all glory, standing ovations, and victorious celebrations for heroes.  To live a heroic life, one must be able to push through the shadow side.”

When’s the last time you witnessed heroic action? 

It could be an extraordinary feat like a firefighter risking their life to save others or a police officer running toward danger as the rest of us run away from it.  It could be an everyday choice to live fully present as a teacher committed to inspiring their students or a leader who bravely mentors a culture change within their organization day-after-day. 
We know that heroes come in all shapes and sizes and don’t wear capes. 
Webster describes a Hero as being a person admired for achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage.
Everyone wants to be a hero, right?  We see this innate desire in our young children.  Pretending to save the world with capes and weapons of choice as they right wrongs, save damsels in distress and confront villains.  It’s deep in our human DNA. 
When my children were young, I watched my son heroically fight for his sister as she froze in terror staring at a huge spider scurrying across our living room floor.  Seeing the horror on her face (it was a rather large spider), he sprang into action grabbing the nearest object—a laundry basket.  With all the courage he could muster and running on pure adrenaline, he smashed it repeatedly up and down on the poor little 8-legged creature, yelling some sort of warrior cry at the top of his lungs.  It was rather impressive to see him rise so courageously.  And all this happened within a split second—it was a 7-year-old coming to the rescue of his terrified big sister.  In a moment of quick decision, he acted heroically.  I was proud of his instinct to help even though he himself was scared of spiders.  It was courageous and it was noble.  Heroic. 
It is still a favorite story we share even now in their teenage years that highlight Luke’s initiative and care for those he loves.  I love this about him.  And I want him to remember always that this is in him.  Because it is this strength of spirit that will help him rise strong when he needs it.  Sadly, I know that it will also get challenged and even crushed by the broken world we live in. 
What happens along the way?  When do we lose that heroic spirit to come through for those we love?  For those we live and work with?  To respond with immediate confidence and optimism that we can conqueror whatever challenges are set before us? 
I want my son to hang onto what is true about him by preparing him for the challenge to come. 
Because all heroes are tested. 
As we grow up, things aren’t quite as simple.  Doing heroic actions can sometimes backfire.
Life happens, right?  And here’s the shadow side of what heroes (people who are committed to living courageously and nobly as they confront challenges) experience:

  • Loneliness – as they are the only one stepping out and taking the necessary risk.
  • Asynchrony – this means feeling out-of-sync with the majority of what others are doing.
  • Ridicule – as their perspective differs from the majority.
  • Being Misunderstood – as they attempt to explain or model a new type of thinking, behavior or action. 
  • Fear – of failing or making a fool of themselves.

 We are never guaranteed that it will end with cheering, clapping and people singing songs about us.  Heroic behavior requires something from us.  RISK.  More specifically risking as you face loneliness, asynchrony, fear, ridicule and being misunderstood.  And knowing that there is no guarantee of success.  It is an inner strength to face these hard emotions and still show up to do what you know you must. 
Perhaps it’s having the hard conversation with a colleague, perhaps it’s holding your team accountable even when you know they won’t like it, perhaps it’s telling your teenage son or daughter some hard truth they don’t want to hear.  It’s about having the courage to face the shadow side that comes with standing alone and stepping out.  Whether it is with one person or with a group.  It is embracing the uncomfortable feelings you experience as you risk trying something new.  Knowing this is the shadow side of heroism.  Enduring ridicule for thinking differently as you risk being misunderstood for venturing out.  And facing down your fears to do what you know you need to do.  What only you can do.  What you know deep down you are made to do.  This is heroic behavior.
As we mature, we still get to embrace opportunities that require nobility and courage.  We each hold the ability within us to be a hero.  But doing this requires us to face the shadows.  It’s not all glory, standing ovations, and victorious celebrations for heroes.  To live a heroic life, one must be able to push through the shadow side. 
I have found that having clarity on the shadow side of what it means to be a hero helps prepare you for the moment (and I promise you, this moment will come) when you have to decide how you will respond.  Will you be noble and courageous?   
So, the next time you’re feeling some of these uncomfortable emotions, ask yourself, “Am I trying to do something heroic?”  If the answer is yes, well done.  Keep pushing through knowing you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day proud of who you are choosing to become. 
Cheering on all the heroes I see and work with who are daring to live courageous, noble lives.
My heart is with you and for you,

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