I love stories. I always have.
There is something about a grand journey, an epic struggle, or a wild adventure that just enthralls me. I love the intricate worlds that words can build, and I love the intrigue and excitement of a well constructed plot.
But there is one thing that has always made me absolutely crazy about stories:
As a kid, I imagined myself into a thousand different worlds. The books I read, the movies I watched, the games I played, all of these were ways to shrug off my mundane existence as a relatively mediocre student, sub-par athlete, and member of an unhappy family. I immersed myself in the lives of epic heroes and brave heroines because frankly, my life didn’t seem like a very good story at all.
I think the idea of The Hero was so enticing to me because there is something inside each of us that aches for purpose. We all want to be an agent of influence in some grand plot. We want to be an important part of something spectacular.
So why doesn’t my life look like any of the stories I love?
What is a Hero?
The Heroes we envy fall into various different archetypes, each with specific goals and motivations. There are Superheroes, Everyman Heroes, Tragic Heroes, Antiheroes, et al. Yet while we understand that Batman, Frodo, and Hamlet are very different characters, there is something in each of them that we want. So what is it this defining aspect of The Hero that we long for?
I believe that it isn’t what a character does that makes them a Hero, but rather the influence they have on the world around them. Even villains can play the role of The Hero. Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones depicts a villainous Hero; her motivations are centered almost completely in her own self interests, but her decisions impact the overarching story immensely.
As humans this is what we envy in Heroes. Not goodness, nor fame, nor success, but rather the opportunity to impact the world around us. The rest is incidental–a byproduct of our personal efficacy. We have an unsubstantiated measure of self confidence that, given enough power, we could individually make decisions to change our world for the better. We envy Hamlet not because we want to be in his situation, but because we believe that if we were the Hero of his story, we could have changed the outcome.
None of us wants to be a background character. We don’t want to be forgotten when we die. We want our choices to impact more than just our own life. We want adversity, but also a happy ending. We long for a world where great sacrifice is rewarded, where effort produces satisfaction.
We want to be able to look back on our lives and say “Look what I have done,” rather than “Is this really it?”
So why is it that we need to look to stories to fill our desire for agency?
Who is The Hero?
The problem with this desire for agency is simple: We are not Heroes.
When we read about Heroes, we see them struggle against grand adversity. Thousands of lives hinge on their decisions; massive success or failure is at their fingertips. Yet when the adversity we face in our lives is compared to this grand adversity, it seems both washed out and immutable. Our great adversity is the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship, and the struggle to find a satisfying career. None of these inspire an epic story, and worse yet these adversities all too often feel completely out of our control.
Also, stories about Heroes ultimately result in satisfaction, or at the very least closure. Not every story has a happy ending, but The Hero always has some impact on the world. Yet when I think forward to the end of my life I can’t imagine looking back and being satisfied with all I have done, even if I achieve everything I dream of now: a successful engineering career, a happy family, traveling the world, meeting someone I truly love. It will never be enough. I have no goal that once fulfilled will allow me to just live happily for the rest of my life.
There will always be a void, because the things we really want to change aren’t things we have any influence on. On a global level peace, joy, and love are out of our reach because pain, sadness, and hate are unshakable aspects of human nature. Somehow The Hero always triumphs over evil, yet how can we triumph when this evil is at our very core?
The contrast between our lives and the lives of our Heroes is clear. We simply do not live up to the characters we long to be like. Yet that isn’t the end of our story. Despite our inability to be Heroes we are a part of a grand plot, just not our own.
The Gospel is everything we love about stories and more. There is no greater tragedy than Adam and Eve choosing death over obedience. There is no greater love story than the Son of God dying in our place. There is no greater war than that between perfection and depravity.
Despite all of that evil that we cannot change–the brokenness and imperfection in our society–there is Someone who offers salvation. His story is one that makes all others seem insignificant in comparison.
There is a Hero, and his name is Jesus.
I fail more often than I succeed. I feel like I have no control over my own life, let alone impact on the lives of others. I have spent years in school preparing for a job that will never be as satisfying as I want it to be. I know I won’t find a a fairy-tale relationship. My life is not a very good story.
And honestly, I would have much rather faced a great villain than watch helplessly as my mother lost a battle with cancer. I would be much happier dying a martyr to save thousands than living as an engineer who is just vaguely satisfied by his job. I would prefer succeeding as a lonely vigilante to just existing as part of a dysfunctional family.
I want to be The Hero of my own story, but honestly I know that I’m not. I have finally figured out that, despite my best efforts, the events of my life won’t ever be told around a campfire in hushed tones. I will live, then I will die, and the world will still be much the same as it was before I entered it. The stories I love first made me desire control, and then made me realize how little I had.
But there is a Hero, and it is this dreadful longing for agency that points me to him. I know I can’t find fulfillment in my own achievement, but I still have the chance to be a part of a plot grander than any other.
So with what agency I have, I choose to follow Him whose story is so much more magnificent than my own.