Of Pain and Heroism

We grew up on fiction of all types. Books, television, movies, video games – story after unrealistic story. We have each lived hundreds of vicarious lives through our media of choice. We have looked through the hero’s eyes as they fought their way up from their humble beginnings, developed the power to overcome evil, and triumphed in the end. We know that these are only stories. We know that they are not real. But so much of our lives is spent imagining that it is real that when we encounter a truly heroic struggle in our real lives, we do not recognize it as such.

We turn to these stories as an escape from reality. Because reality is hard. It hurts, and bad stuff happens. Bad stuff happens in books, too, but there’s always a reason. It always leads to something. It’s always temporary.

When we immerse ourselves in a story, especially something interactive like a game, we attach ourselves to the character. We empathize with them. Their suffering affects us… But only in our imagination.

Those of us who have spent our whole lives immersed in these fantasy worlds unconsciously begin comparing reality with them. We’ve all said “it’s just like a movie” when we see something unlikely happen in the real world. That level of existence, the level of the fictional, imaginary world, has become our baseline. Reality is compared to fiction, rather than the other way around.

And no matter how much we empathize with those fictional characters, their imagined pain is nothing compared to the pain of real life. So when we experience real pain, it seems like it’s too much. It seems out of proportion. It’s not fair, we think. It shouldn’t be this bad.

The hero of the story follows a more or less set path. There are traditions, templates, and tropes that guide these stories. Reality does not follow these guidelines. We face adversity without comic relief, without a break, and without any hope of it letting up. We have no guarantee that our enemies will get what they have coming in the end. Often, the enemy isn’t even a person you can point to and say, “that’s the bad guy.” It’s the bank, or the government, or the economy, or just plain, blind, dumb luck. The pain can be unbearable. When it ends, at long last, we may feel accomplished – but more and more, these days, we find ourselves feeling bitter, instead.

It was unfair that we had to go through that. Someone should be punished for it. We should hire a lawyer and sue. We should call the press and get our story of suffering in the media. We should start a Facebook petition to stop people from doing what they did.

And sometimes, these are rational reactions. Sometimes a person, or a group of people, is victimized in such a way that they truly need, and deserve, outside assistance. The problem is that this has become our standard reaction to every uncomfortable situation.

Sometimes life is just not fair. Sometimes shit happens, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes we hurt. Sometimes we have to go through difficult situations, and there’s no way out, no one to save us, no way to escape.

I don’t agree with the statement that what doesn’t kill us always makes us stronger. Those are the words of someone who has never been victimized or traumatized. There are plenty of things that can hurt us without making us stronger.

But there is some truth to be found in those words. Struggling can, and often does, make us stronger – or, at least, we cannot get stronger without a struggle. But all too often, we don’t realize it. We’re too busy feeling sorry for ourselves and losing ourselves in the latest video game or TV series, living vicariously through the heroic characters we wish we were.

We forget that those characters, if they were real, would be facing far more pain and suffering than we are in our own lives. That cut from the sword would hurt more than any pain you have ever felt in your life, and there wouldn’t be a cell phone nearby that you could use to call an ambulance for help. Sleeping on the ground leaves you with a sore back and neck all the next day, and that’s if you only have to do it once. And have you ever actually had someone chasing after you with the intent to kill you? Most people haven’t. It’s not exhilarating. It’s not exciting. It’s nightmarish. And it doesn’t feel heroic.

Fictional heroes gain their strength by surviving horrific situations and extreme pain and suffering. It’s not glamorous. We romanticize it, we cut to the good parts. We make a montage. We never have to feel it. We can’t even imagine it.

But when we face pain and suffering in our own lives, we get stronger, too. If we spend less energy complaining about how unfair it is, and more fighting, refusing to give up, we become heroic.

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