A few weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of getting to listen to Donald Miller speak on the title of this blog post: Three Qualities of a Hero. Might sound a bit cheesy, but it was no reflection on the substance that Don had to offer his listeners. (If you want to listen to the whole talk, check it out here– it will be even better than just reading about it!)
While Donald Miller is typically most well-known for being an author, he also runs a business that studies the art of stories and helps people and companies learn how to tell (and live) their stories well. The three qualities that he shared with us were based on his study, and were found to be underlying any good story that involves a hero.
As an introduction to his first quality, he highlighted the fact that both the hero and the villain in a story have a backstory of pain. If the hero isn’t struggling with something, or have gone through a painful experience in the past, then we simply won’t be able to relate to the hero; the hero needs some kind of challenge in order for the story to make sense. Likewise, the villain also has to have some reason as to why they are so bitter/angry and are taking it out on the world, causing others to suffer.
The difference between the hero and the villain with regards to their backstory is how they deal with their pain, what they do with it. What ultimately sets them apart is that the hero chooses to redeem their suffering and turn it into empathy and serving the world, rather than using it as a fuel for vengeance to be taken out on the world. Donald says that it’s really an attitude that distinguishes them: One is humble- “I really didn’t deserve a great life in the first place, but I’m thankful for what I’ve got.” And the other one is a bit arrogant- “I deserved a great life, I didn’t get it, so I’m going to go take it.”
It’s a choice that we have to make. We can either self-identify as victims and remain stuck there, or take that victim-hood and redeem it, turning it into something that is powerful and positive. (To elaborate, that’s not to say that you haven’t been victimized in life, just that you don’t take on the self-identification of ‘victim.’) Donald encourages people to “Identify your pain, the hard things you’ve been through, circle it, and figure out how that pain can qualify you to serve the world. In other words, use your pain. Not choosing to be a victim, but choosing to do something with it. We exist to change the world, and victims do not change the world. Your pain, your mistakes, qualify you to be a leader.”
Because “What if God chooses the people of the world who intuitively feel that they are disqualified for leadership? What if what he’s doing doesn’t require you to be what is defined as the ‘textbook leader’? What if all those self-doubts actually qualify you? Those of us with these heavy backstories are the people who are the right characters to do something really powerful.”
The second quality is that a hero takes action, rather than being reactionary. So easily people fall into the trap of ‘learned helplessness,’ where people begin to believe that they can only respond to life as it comes to them, instead of taking the initiative to create and do good things in life. The truth is that God gave us not only the gift of life, but the gift of agency, to go about our lives filled with purpose.
Donald challenged his listeners to think about our lives as if they were a movie, and if someone were to turn over the back of the DVD case (back when those were more of a thing!) and read the summary, would people be able to answer the question, “Joe wants this ___”? What is important to you? What do you want to accomplish with your life? If people can’t answer that question, then there might be some adjustments we need to make in our lives. If we merely react to our lives, we will not be transformed, and a hero always transforms throughout a story- whether they are fearful at the beginning and are courageous at the end, choose to face their problems instead of running from them, etc.
And lastly, a hero has to be submissive and leaning on a character that comes into the story- “the guide.” This character helps the hero along the way, but most significantly comes into the story when the hero is so deep into trouble they can’t get out of it and can’t do it on their own. The idea that a hero is independent is false; heroes need guides for wisdom, strength, someone to help show us the way. The main difference between the hero and the guide is that the hero always goes through a character arc where something in their character is transformed for the better, whereas the guide doesn’t change- at least in the story with the hero. Life is about you transforming.
Donald concludes by saying, “Now isn’t this comforting? In order to be heroic you’ve got to have a painful backstory and struggle with self-doubt, right. You’ve got to want something good for the world, and you’ve got to not know what you’re doing and depend on a guide. Just like God has no interest in making any of the people in the Bible look perfect- he just exposes them- it doesn’t take perfection to be on a heroic journey. The hero role is not the glory role; it’s the role that transforms.”
He challenged us to think about: What if our sense of meaningless comes from the story that we’re living? How can we write a different story with the life that God has given us? And that if we choose to do so, we may yet find ourselves reading Scripture differently, as we go to it finding that we need it- we need a guide, or we’re not getting out of this. And then what if that story is the story that you tell- and after watching the ‘story reel’ of your life, people sit there for another ten minutes because they have this sense of gratitude that maybe life can be different than they ever thought it could be…
Maybe this is what it means to live a ‘heroic’ life.
To choosing the higher road,