Living With the Hero Within

Who is your favorite hero? That is, when you think of him/her, or watch him on TV or a movie or a ball game, with whom do you feel the ‘juice’, that rush of admiration? Whomever he is, keep him/her in mind as you read on.

The fact is, “hero” means different things to different people. And this we find in keeping with Jungian psychology, for there is a hero archetype in all of us. Each of us “absorbs” the hero archetypal energy from the common source, along with other archetypal energies that “color” the emerging hero archetype, for each of us a different “color” or archetypal flavor.

There are many different kinds of heroes. There are sports heroes, political heroes, moral heroes, spiritual heroes (generally not the same as arbitragehero  moral heroes; moral heroes hold the moral ‘high ground’, whereas spiritual heroes maintain their sense of self, purpose and mission in the face of overwhelming adversity), and everyday life heroes. For most of us, we enter our hero archetype only vicariously, identifying with someone else’s heroism. News, sports and movies give us ample opportunity to do so; this to the point that all too often we discourage one another from being heroic. (“Don’t be a hero!”)

Like all archetypes, the hero archetype has an opposite or “dark” side. The opposite is whatever is an opposite for each person. Why should this be? Jungian psychology holds that the psyche is always striving to maintain a balance, and so when the exercise or ‘living in’ any archetype causes us to stretch, or reach, in some particular way or direction; the psyche tries to balance by reaching in the opposite direction, attracting whatever archetypal energies embody that opposite direction.

In philosophy, MYTHICALISM holds that all actions and personal events in one’s life are the acting out, in modern settings, of stories from the mythologies of the various cultures of the world, including our own. Each culture has its own set of stories, peopled with characters that are its own combination of archetypes. The hero archetype is present in all of them. Even as each culture has its differences and its uniqueness, so the hero archetype is different in each. And likewise the opposite or ‘dark’ side of the hero archetype is different.

To briefly illustrate with heroes from Japanese mythology: There is Yamato-takeru, the warrior hero, who was brave and resourceful against overwhelming odds; but at other times was a squalid murderer and a cunning cheat. There is Yorimitsu; smart, crafty, cunning against a slow-witted enemy; but at times ruthless in the vanquishing of that enemy, although sometimes rewarded in his ruthlessness by the discovery of justifying evidence. There is Momotaro, the ‘peach boy’, who is initially weak and of humble beginnings, but grows to command respect magically, and courageously seeks justice for innocents. In describing its mythological characters and especially its heroes, a culture reveals its sense of itself. It does so also in defining its ‘bad guys’; in Japanese mythology one example is the ONI or demon; typically shown beautifully muscled and quite hirsute, but morally bankrupt with no compassion, no mercy and vision only for his own gain. It is evident that the difference shown between Momotaro and the ONI exaggerate the real difference between Japanese and the Ainu, the Caucasoid people who once occupied most of Japan but today live only in a small area in the north. Racism is occasionally the dark side of the hero archetype.

Japanese mythology is chosen here only arbitrarily as an example. In other cultures, heroes in their distinctive differences also show the culture’s sense of itself.

Even as it is with different cultures in their different hero archetypes and their opposites, so it is with individuals in what heroes are important and what we identify with – and the opposite parts of ourselves. It is easy when we live the hero only vicariously,for the book can always be closed, the TV turned off, and the story always has an end of some sort: and more often than not the story itself will reveal the hero’s dark side. But when life puts us in the ‘hero seat’ there is no switch to turn off and generally not even a book to read, much less close the cover of. We either know ourselves to know what our dark side is, or we may find out – the hard way.

Finding our hero and its dark side

For most of us, finding our hero within is easy. We need only to look at what heroes all around us, in movies, sports, politics – we resonate with, where we really ‘feel the juice’. This is vicariously honoring the hero within. Finding our internal hero’s dark side may not be so easy, but there are ways. It shows up in what we intensely dislike, our ‘pet peeves’. When we find ourselves especially sensitive to them after having enjoyed – vicariously honored – our heroes, we can be quite sure that for us, this is the hero’s dark side.

For those of us whom destiny has put into the ‘hero’s seat’, the challenge is to identify what that dark side is, and honor it by finding some place for it in our lives, before it overpoweringly dominates us. In mythology oftentimes the hero is undone and comes to an inglorious end. This is one reason why in mythology so many hero stories come in the form of “cycles”. It can happen that way in real life too; examples abound. Indeed, because they do, it is all too easy to become cynical to heroes and heroism. But it is better to remember that we all have opposite parts of ourselves, hero that we may be or not. It is the psyche’s way of maintaining a balance. We would not so likely be cynical about our sense of balance.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dave Smart

Dave Smart, the lead coach for Transcendence Coaching and Mentoring, has had extensive education and experience in co-active coaching and in Jungian psychology. He has often worked with the hero archetype in clients. If you find yourself drawing away from heroism in coping with a situation, yet strangely drawn or tempted to be active in it, coaching is for you. Check out TCM’s website:



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