Most people associate The Power of Myth with the 1988 PBS television series with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, or with the accompanying book of that name. But it was John F. Kennedy who spoke of the power of myth with the greatest clarity and insight. The occasion was his 1962 Commencement Address to the graduates of Yale University.
As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality. For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Erroneous preconceptions are the dangerous downside of myths.
But heroes are their dangerous upside.
Larger than life, highly exaggerated and always positioned in the most favorable light, a hero is a beautiful lie.
We have historic heroes, folk heroes and comic book heroes. We have heroes in books and songs and movies and sport. We have heroes of morality, leadership, kindness and excellence. And nothing is so devastating to our sense of wellbeing as a badly fallen hero. Yes, heroes are dangerous things to have.
The only thing more dangerous is not to have them.
Heroes raise the bar we jump and hold high the standards we live by. They are ever-present tattoos on our psyche, the embodiment of all we’re striving to be.
We create our heroes from our hopes and dreams. And then they attempt to create us in their own image.
The saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was true as recently as 1937 when tiny England did, in fact, still have possessions in each of the world’s 24 time zones.
It’s widely known that the British explored, conquered and ruled much of the world for a number of years, but what isn’t widely known is what made them believe they could do it.
For the first 1000 years after Christ, Greece and Rome were the only nations telling stories of heroes and champions. England was just a dreary little island of rejects, castoffs and losers.
So who inspired tiny, foggy England to rise up and take over the world?
A simple Welsh monk named Geoffrey – hoping to instill in his countrymen a sense of pride – assembled a history of England that gave his people a grand and glorious pedigree. Published in 1136, Geoffrey’s “History of the Kings of Britain,” was a detailed, written account of the deeds of the English people for each of the 17 centuries prior to 689 AD… and not a single word of it was true. Yet in creating heroes like King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlyn and the Knights of the Round Table from the fabric of his imagination, Geoffrey of Monmouth convinced a sad little island of rejects, castoffs and losers to begin seeing themselves as a just and magnificent nation.
And not long after they began to see themselves that way in their minds, they began seeing themselves that way in the mirror.
Most people assume that stories of heroes are the byproducts of great civilizations, but I’m convinced they are the cause of them. Magnificent civilizations have always been the ones with stories of heroes; larger-than-life role models that inspired ordinary citizens to rise up and do the impossible.
I love imaginary heroes like King Arthur and Don Quixote.
I love civilian heroes like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.
I love political heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
But what happens when your hero is a fool?
I pray we never find out.
Roy H. Williams