There is a unique place where myth intersects reality, where the transcendent hero we love to read about in books or watch in movies walks the mundane world in real time, routinely overlooked.
It is a place occupied by those who serve in our military, a place known to the veterans we honor on Friday, Veterans Day.
The late mythology professor Joseph Campbell – brought into American homes via the 1988 PBS documentary series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” – zealously preached that our myths – from Aphrodite to Zeus, from Superman to Star Wars – help us connect to something deeper inside us, beyond daily life.
He also urged people to view part of their own lives as heroic journeys.
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path,” he once said. “Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
While it is true that military service is, in one sense, very much a matter of having your path laid out before you – it is no coincidence that one can live a “regimented life” while assigned to an army “regiment” – there is arguably no profession outside of the military where the path can be less certain, particularly in battle.
Make no mistake, those individuals in the military, present and past, are mere mortals, with different motives for enlisting and different reactions after discharge. And it is rare to find a veteran embrace the title of “hero.” Quite the contrary, even when reaping awards for stunning bravery, they routinely insist they merely did what had to be done, what anyone would do.
But of course, that’s not true, particularly in the post-conscription age. During World War II, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population served. Now, with an all-volunteer force, it’s less than 1 percent. What they “do” is something nearly 99.5 percent of us quite consciously opt to avoid.
Yet what they do changes us, in very real if unobserved ways. And it’s not simply, as politicians everywhere will utter today, by “protecting our freedom.”
Campbell argued passionately that “the happy ending” of a myth might not change our daily lives or things around us, but it changes how we live: “The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.”
As we honor veterans today, as you thank those you know and meet for their service, keep this in mind. This world, this country and your own life are reshaped for the better by their service.
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” Campbell wrote. “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
Thank you, veterans, for this most vital of services.