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The Hero and A Thousand Deaths

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By Dennis Sibley

Reproduced from Raft by kind permission of the Editor

In 1948 Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, published a ground-breaking book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces1. He suggested, convincingly, that life is a journey and that of the millions of people who take that journey, only a few emerge as heroes. They confront seemingly insurmountable odds, endure great suffering and eventually emerge victorious. And, as Joseph Campbell points out, even death holds no terror for if it did then the hero would not be a hero.

There is much here to inspire hope, confidence and re-assurance in these tales of derring-do. The image of the hero, who faces adversity in its numerous forms and manages to defeat apparently insurmountable odds is very appealing. We certainly need heroes.

But this is the stuff of legend. In reality, most of us are not really heroes at all, although sometimes ordinary people may find themselves involved in acts of heroism. Natural disasters, dangerous situations and unexpected crises occasionally provide opportunities for courage and heroism and its main focal point is almost always a confrontation with death in some form or other. And because of this, how people conduct themselves when facing death is often used as a measure of their character.

It is interesting to note that when well-known media personalities die from incurable illnesses they are often described in heroic-military terms. The illness was ‘bravely-born’ and when they eventually die, we are told that the ‘battle was sadly lost’. These descriptions may well be accurate reflections of the personalities themselves, but they also reinforce the view that death is something that must be attacked and (hopefully) defeated. If this is not possible then it must be faced with courage and dignity.

Even the much-quoted work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has this heroic quality to it. Before death can be “accepted” the dying person starts out on a heroic journey which involves confronting the fear of death first by fighting it with anger, then by attempting to bargain with it, then by facing the possibility of being overwhelmed by it, until finally robbing it of its power by looking it straight in the eye. What is this if not a hero’s journey?

But we cannot all be heroes. We cannot all face the reality of death with courage and determination. We may have to deal with the fact that dying can be painful and messy and that the dependency that accompanies it may rob us of our ability to take control of our lives. In such circumstances anger may be a legitimate response.

In a poem about his father’s death2 Dylan Thomas wrote those famous lines:

“Do not go gentle into that good night Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

But such an approach would be unwelcome in some places — such as hospices. Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with and it challenges the notion of the dignified death.

Another response which brings the validity of the heroic death into question is the request to be allowed to die. In our youth-worshipping, life-affirming, post-modern world this can seem like a kind of madness. Given the developments in palliative care and life-saving technology who in their right mind would opt for death? Only the insane or supporters of euthanasia perhaps? A decision to choose death over life can seem like nothing more than an act of selfishness. But is it? I don’t think so.

Facing death will be unique for each one of us. How we deal with it will depend upon a mixture of inner resources and outer circumstances. We may indeed see our life and death as a hero’s journey and draw great strength from it. Or we may not. We may choose life. We may choose death. We may fight it or we may accept it. What we can know for certain is that the journey we make from birth to death can only be our own.

  1. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Foundation, 1949
  2. Dylan Thomas, Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night

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