I’m no hero.
As proof, I offer my reaction to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake:
It’s a sweltering summer night. (Keep this in mind — it’s important later.)
We’ve put the kids, ages three and one, to bed.
Turned off the air conditioning to avoid a $500 electricity bill. (Remember this — it, too, is a key detail.)
Headed to bed, where despite fans, it’s still too hot to sleep.
We finally doze off…
BAM — the quake hits, hard and long, like a train derailing car-by-car in our driveway.
Daniel, as always, sensed it coming and is already out of bed.
I, with my 900/20 vision, stumble, trip, fall, down two flights of stairs.
Scared out of my gourd.
Only as my hand turns the front door knob do I recognize what I am doing.
I would love — love, love, LOVE — to report that what happens next is that I recognize:
I am leaving my babies behind.
That what stops me from fleeing my home in the middle of the night is the recognition:
I am abandoning my children in the midst of danger.
That hearing Annemarie and Jonathon’s sleepy cries, as Daniel holds them in an upstairs doorjam, snaps me out of panic, brings me back to business, and invokes my Mama Bear instinct.
But what halts me in my tracks is nothing noble.
What happens in my brain is that one fear — bodily harm — is outgunned by another.
My fear of embarrassment.
(Those details I told you to remember? This is where you connect the dots…)
Since no one was injured, it’s been easy to laugh this one off.
“The Night Mom Nearly Ran Out of the House Stark Raving Naked” has been a staple story in our family for years.
What I see in hindsight, however, is that I wasn’t just a failure as a hero that night.
I was a villain in the making.
Heroes vs. Villains
In the classic “Hero’s Journey” paradigm, heroism and villainy involve the same two core elements:
sacrifice and salvation
- A hero sacrifices herself to save others.
- A villain sacrifices others to save herself.
“But Cheri,” you protest, “aren’t you making too big a deal out of a single small incident? One mistake does not a villain make!”
But that night wasn’t the first time — or the last — that I sacrified my children to save myself.
Parents Serve as Guides
As a mother, my primary role in my child’s life is that of guide.
A guide must have a balance of authority and empathy.
- Too much empathy and the guide becomes a feckless “friend.”
- Too much authority and the guide becomes a demanding dictator.
Both extremes are classic villains.
But the most important quality of a good guide is that she is a static, rather than dynamic, character.
- The guide is a mature facilitator for the hero’s character transformation.
- The child undergoes dramatic change; the parent does not.
If a parent is still in the midst of her own hero’s journey, the two story arcs must stay separate for her to be an effective guide.
A safe guide.
For when a parent’s story arc becomes entangled with a child’s story arc, villainy looms large.
The Quest for the Holy Grail
The Hero’s Journey is often a quest for the “Holy Grail.” And Holy Grails come in many forms. I’m most familiar with the Holy Grails of
The Holy Grail represents what the hero must do or get in order to receive The Blessing.
- My Holy Grail has been performance. All my striving to look good and do good has been part of my quest to finally earn my mother’s approval.
- Daniel’s Holy Grail has been intelligence. All his arguing and defending has been part of his quest to finally earn his father’s approval.
Can you see what a total set-up this is for villainy?
All it takes is a son or daughter to suggest, in word or deed, that our Holy Grails actually aren’t holy, and we sacrifice our child on the alter of our own unmet needs.
We interpret their actions as villainy —
- How dare she violate the revered rules?
- How dare he question the sacred beliefs?
- How dare they do what must not be done and say what should not be said?
— even as we fail to see our own.
We also fail to see that Holy Grails can not bestow Blessings.
No matter how hard we try or how smart we are,
- I will never hear, “I’m so glad you’re my daughter!” from my mother
- Daniel never hear, “You are my beloved son!” from his father.
Our relentless quests for (and, for that matter, diligent protection of) Holy Grails keep us from giving our children what they most need from us.
Holding Out for a Hero
I’m tired of villainy.
Tired of sacrificing those I’m supposed to love in order to save … to save what? Rules? Rules aren’t worth pursuing or saving. People are worth pursuing. People are worth saving.
Which requires the one thing our children most need.
Which requires risk.
I’ve been refusing to risk at all precisely when I need to risk it all.
As in every great epic, it all comes down to surrender.
The choice to:
- live like a villain, sacrificing others to save myself.
- surrender to the one true Hero – the One who sacrificed himself to save me,
- quit chasing Holy Grails,
- hear (from the One who heard from his own Father, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”) “I’m so glad you’re my daughter!”
- receive His Blessing…