With some of my clients, when it seems likely that their present difficulties have a lot to do with childhood influences, I’ll have them fill out a handout called a “Life Script”. The Life Script helps clarify how the client perceives him or herself, as well as others. For example, the client is asked to describe what each parent was like during the client’s childhood. The descriptions often yield information about how the client perceives men and women (since how we see men and women is so influenced by our fathers and mothers, respectively), as well as people in general. There are also questions regarding what one sees as one’s best and worst points; nicknames and one’s response to them; “What would be heaven on earth for you?”; and other more or less open-ended questions.
One question has two parts to it: “Who was your childhood hero/heroine?” and “Who is your hero/heroine now?” It’s a revealing one. Almost all of my clients recall at least one childhood hero. If not, this often reflects a barren, if not abusive, childhood environment: one with few positives, not much affection or warmth, and especially, little or no encouragement to be creative, use one’s imagination, dream, and play.
To lack an adult hero or heroine is more common: not quite as troubling, but still a cause for concern. I believe that it’s foundational to a happy, full, well-directed, fruitful life to have heroes – really, the more, the better. Some of our heroes may embody almost all of the qualities we strive to have; others may typify one or two qualities that we find very important. Who our heroes are, almost beyond anything else, points to who we really are; who we strive to be; what our passions are; what we most value; what we believe life is all about.
St. Francis of Assisi, for example, has been a longtime hero for me. I love his joy; his humility; his delight in nature, in people, in the Lord, in life. I love that he did nothing by halves: if he gave away his possessions, it was to the point of literally stripping himself naked; if he was moved by the fact that Jesus, Love Incarnate, “was unloved”, he wept until he actually almost went blind. To overcome his horror of lepers, he didn’t just force himself to spend time with them – he kissed one (very surprised!) leper on the lips. I also love St. Francis’s heart for reconciliation: during the Crusades, rather than slaughtering the “enemy”, he went to Saladin, the Muslim chief, to speak to him about the love of Christ. This was a surefire recipe for martyrdom, yet St. Francis so impressed Saladin that he let Francis go unharmed.
St. Joan of Arc is another hero: I marvel at her courage, her devoutness, her absolute obedience to the Lord, as His will was expressed through the saints who spoke to her. These were in the face of ridicule, fantastic odds, and ultimately betrayal by the Dauphin whom she loved and championed. Mark Twain, who wrote a novel about her, literally believed that she was the only good person who ever lived!
One wonderful history of St. Joan poetically chronicled her heroic death, moving me even as a child. Joan always wore a ring with the name of Jesus on it. She was burned at the stake for heresy by an English Catholic church court – a supreme irony – wholly politically motivated. “As the flames enveloped her, she cried out the name on her lips, the name on her ring, the name in her heart: ‘JESUS!’ And with that, she died. One of the soldiers watching said, ‘We have killed a saint.’” Amazing.
It’s foundational to a happy, full, well-directed, fruitful life to have heroes – really, the more, the better.
Some of our heroes may embody almost all of the qualities we strive to have;
others may typify one or two qualities that we find very important.
Who our heroes are, almost beyond anything else, points to who we really are;
who we strive to be; what our passions are; what we most value; what we believe life is all about.
Interestingly, it seems that the Lord spoke to my heart at one point about my worries (I was young and foolish) that maybe I could never be exactly like St. Francis: “Sean, I don’t want you to be another St. Francis. I already have one of those! I want you to be you: that’s why I made you.” So any heroes, including the saints, are not to be copied as such. They are to be pointers: inspirations to free us to aspire to levels of heroism, virtue, fullness of life, and sanctity that we would otherwise be afraid even to dream of. Even Jesus is not, precisely, to be copied slavishly: we already have the gospels, based on His life. Our vocation is to allow Him to live out His life in and through us, creating a whole new life, a whole new living of the Gospel: so when people look at me, yes, they see Jesus: but Jesus refracted through the unique, unrepeatable prism of my personality.
I can’t help but comment on how amazingly surrender to Jesus – making Jesus my prime Hero – brings out levels of uniqueness that I’ve seen nowhere else. For example, at the men’s Bible study at our parish that I co-facilitate, I am constantly amazed how, with each man present, “God broke the mold”. How can we all read the same passage and draw such radically different life lessons from it? The way each man communicates, listens, jokes, acts, reacts: a more motley crew (I say that affectionately, and include myself) could scarcely have been assembled. Yet it works! Of course it does: it’s a microcosm of the Body of Christ. But I think it’s good to have other “sub-heroes”, not “just” Jesus. He embodies all heroic and good qualities: we need more “specific” heroes, too, that particularly speak to our unique calling.
The absence of heroes is cause for concern when it emerges during the Life Script. It very often goes with a lack of life direction or passion, or a difficulty with identifying one’s unique gifts, or a general sense of something missing. It often includes some cynicism or trust issues: the client may have been let down by significant people, or had his or her own dreams and goals dismissed; might have learned not to trust in or hope for too much from anyone. When I encounter this, I invariably encourage the client to “find a hero”. Sometimes, as we go deeper, the client is able to identify possible heroes: people with at least some qualities he or she admires and wants to emulate. That is a hopeful sign.
In our world-weary, tired, sophisticated society, the mission of many appears to be to demolish heroes: to expose the seamy underside of admired public figures; to dig up scandal; to cut extraordinary people down to size. “He/she is just like all the rest.” It is democracy gone bad: a fatal distortion of “all men are created equal”. Maybe the glory or beauty that shines forth from heroic lives exposes our drabness; maybe we’re afraid to hope that we are made for glory; that our lives matter; that we can make a difference. We are afraid to trust, to hope, to care too deeply. We’ve lost childhood, where we literally and figuratively “looked up to” so many people. In G.K. Chesterton’s poignant words, “We are children no more: we have sinned and grown old.” So clearly, we need to grow young. We need to “change, and become like children.”
Folks, we need heroes. If you don’t have one, get one! At the same time, choose wisely, as I’m sure you will. Heroes are our North Stars, guiding us in a particular direction, through particular waters, to particular lands. They form us and our perceptions. They reveal ourselves and our hearts to us. They are the royal road to becoming heroes ourselves.
* Painting Graphic: Joan Of Arc At Coronation Of Charles VII – By: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
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