In case anyone missed the Twitter memo (and I’m sure some of you did), I will not longer be posting an entry here on The Cat’s Cradle every week. Life has just gotten too insane for me to keep up that kind of pace. At least, not and maintain some quality control. So, from now on, I’ll be posting every other week, roughly 2 entries per month. I hope that you’ll all stick around and continue to enjoy them!
With things in my own life fluctuating madly, I thought it rather relevant to say that we live in an increasingly uncertain world. As Don Henley says, “The more I know, the less I understand.” Nihilism and existentialism isn’t new, but I personally feel it encroaching further and further into the human psyche.
What do we have to believe in?
If you watch the news, not much. Every day there appears to be more death, destruction, and wanton waste of life. Corruption and exploitation run rampant. Ignorance and idiocy walk hand in hand as common sense becomes more precious than gold or diamonds. The honest and the honorable are pushed to the sidelines, trampled on, or ridiculed. And in an increasingly secular world, faith doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.
So, what can we believe in? Who can be role models? What can inspire us to become more than we are, better than we are? Or to at least help us make some kind of sense of this insane world of ours?
I believe that the answer lies in stories.
Humans have a deep need for stories. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the cave paintings of ancient man. Some are historical or documentary while others are sheer fantasy, but they are all stories. And as mankind grew and developed, so did their stories. Early myths were used to make sense out of an insane, harsh, and completely arbitrary world. What made the rains come, the thunder crash, the sun shine, the tides turn? What forces governed life, death, and the harvest? To answer these questions, humans made up stories and thus the first gods were born.
But humans needed more than just powerful deities. They needed people in their stories to relate to and aspire to. So the first heroes began to appear, people who were often half-gods themselves or possessed powers or abilities beyond that of normal mortals…but they were still born and lived and loved and often died, just like the rest of us. Their powers made them impossible for one to become, but they gave hope that mortals can, sometimes, stand a chance against forces beyond their control.
This kind of mythology and almost-human heroes continues to this day. Even with the rise of monotheism (which seems to be on a decline these days), there is still a need for a pantheon of heroes. Why? I think because we know that, as mortals, we cannot hope to stand alone against adversity and win. There is a great respect, especially in America, for the lone wolf hero, but a wolf cannot bring down large game on its own. It needs a pack. It might not like it, but it will have to learn to work with others of its kind or starve. You see this all the time in comic books. A lot of the heroes start out as lone wolves fighting the good fight, but eventually they reach a point and face a threat that requires more than one person. And I do think that comic book heroes have become the pantheon of the new gods. As new incarnations of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s superheroes make them grittier and more relatable as people, they become more accessible and gain more followers. Believe me, the debates over comic book doctrine can be as heated as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses or a gathering of the Council of Nicaea. Sometimes they even become Crusades. And the mythologies woven today are as detailed and fantastical as the origins of Perseus or the exploits of Hercules. Some modern heroes, like the Thor comics, adapt material from existing Norse myths, creating a new revival of an old god.
What I really like about these new gods is that there is something for everybody and they lead by example rather than through threats. We know that these new gods are not real. They’re just characters in stories that we made up. But because we drew on ourselves in their creation and invest ourselves in their stories, they become more real than previous gods. At least, they do for me. I am much more likely to alter my behavior and emulate a character I like and admire than I am by a church sermon. That’s part of the reason I stopped attending church and picked up comic books instead. But my heroes aren’t limited to comic books. I started reading Greek mythology when I was four and have sought out those large-than-life heroes in fiction ever since. They don’t all have to have magical powers, but they always have to be or have something above average. They need to be stronger or more moral or more honorable or more clever. I don’t like it when heroes are too much like me or other average folk because then I don’t see anything to aspire to.
I think the defining characteristic of this age of heroes is the belief that heroes need internal faults as well as external challenges to overcome. If you notice, in previous mythologies, heroes and gods only had things to fight. Monsters, demons, nature, each other…all external threats with a definite way to win. These days our lives are not as subject to the whims of nature as they once were. Life is not as physically dangerous to us anymore, thanks to prosperity. But the internal threats of fear, doubt, laziness, immorality…those remain. And I think those kinds of internal battles will always be present. It’s good to have your heroes face the same kind of struggles and overcome them because it gives the human race its most powerful weapon: hope.
That’s what stories give. Hope for a better life, a better future, a better person, a better world. And our modern pantheon gives us the hope and inspiration to take the steps needed to change.