In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong evokes the myth of the hero to call each of us to our best selves, to set before each of us a task to which we are equal but which will require of us everything we have:
“Joseph Campbell has shown that every single culture developed its own myth of the hero, an outstanding individual who transformed the life of his people at immense cost to himself. The story always takes the same basic form so must express a universal insight. In all these tales, the hero begins by looking around his society and finding that something is missing. Perhaps there is spiritual malaise; perhaps traditional ideas no longer speak to his contemporaries; perhaps they are facing some unusual danger. He can find no ready-made solution, so he decides to leave home, turn his back on everything safe and familiar, and find a different answer. His quest is heroic because it demands self-sacrifice: the hero will experience pain, rejection, isolation, danger, and even death. But he is willing to undertake this journey out of love for his people–a devotion that does not consist of wordy declarations but of practically expressed altruism. The purpose of this myth is to help us to unleash our own heroic potential, to show us what we must do if we want to create a better world and how best to meet the challenges of our time.
“Many of the biographies of the great religious leaders follow this pattern…Many of the more recent heroes of compassion have undergone the same process. When he returned to India from South Africa, for example, Gandhi left the city elites behind and traveled all over the country, carefully observing the plight of the ordinary people, before deciding on a course of action.
“So…we should take ourselves mentally to the summit of a high mountain, where we can stand back and see things from a different perspective…it might be helpful to think in terms of Confucian concentric circles of compassion, starting with your family, moving out to your friends and community, and finally to the country in which you live. Many of the things we have long taken for granted–our financial institutions and our political policies, both at home and abroad–seem suddenly inadequate. We are unable to deal with the massive problems of hunger and poverty; we know that our environmental policies are unsustainable, and yet we cannot seem to find a viable way of dealing with them. We look around us and realize that something needs to be done, yet find no immediate solutions. But we should not approach our task with the harsh zeal of a reformer; there should be no anger, frustration, or impatience in our survey. We must look at our community with compassion, estimate its strengths as well as its weaknesses, and assess its potential for change.” (p. 66-68)
You have a vision and skills no one else has. We are incomplete without you. Give the gift you carry.
Every one of us.