We “modern” people of the technological age tend to think of mythology as something from the past, but myth is still very much alive today, and it is in some ways just as pervasive as ever precisely because we are less wary of a thing we believe no longer exists for us. Whereas the ancients often accepted myths because many people unthinkingly believed them true, many contemporary thinkers accept myths because they unthinkingly believe that they couldn’t possibly believe anything that is a myth.
It takes great strength of mind, developed through much practice, to resist the pull of myths. And my contemporaries often believe that they couldn’t possibly believe in myths precisely because they believe in the contemporary myth of the strong person. Specifically, they often believe that they are the sort of person who has the strength of mind and will to not be subject to many normal human failings.
So what’s a myth, and what’s the myth of the strong person? According to the grand dictionary of dictionaries, it is:
“a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.“
So as a baseline, the myth of the strong person would be a story that may or may not have a factual basis, but would seek to explain some observable phenomenon of nature by appeal to some superhuman entity.
I could point to examples in popular culture, like the recent Die Hard films in which John McClane can endure an absurd amount of collisions and contusions in his 50s and shoot himself in order to shoot the villain. Or the Bond films in which James manages to survive unlikely and/or impossible situations routinely and endure torture without breaking. There are numerous examples of superhuman characters like this, and not just in action films either. There are many television shows and movies in which a strong person (often male but increasingly female as well) with martial arts training can solve any crime, rescue any kidnapping victim, hunt down any shadowy villain, see through any lies and misinformation, etc. And inevitably, they manage all this with a stoic disposition and minimal emotional engagement.
This cultural trope of the strong person is so ubiquitous that is has become a cultural myth present in our everyday lives. We reassure our friends when they are faced with grave circumstances that they will be able to endure it because they are a strong person. We may even reassure ourselves that we are a strong person, and that we won’t break down under the many pressures of life.
So what phenomenon of nature do we explain by appealing to the idea of a strong person? We explain our ability to keep living under difficult circumstances which is a natural result of the evolutionary pressures of millions of years which have shaped our species’ minds and behaviors. It’s difficult for us to imagine a process of natural selection over millions of years in which people who broke down completely under pressure quite frequently died brutally and were thus less likely to reproduce. It’s easier to think that there’s some hideous strength above and beyond the normal human strength residing inside of us, allowing us to avoid having any beliefs for which there is no good evidence or explanation.
The myth of the strong person is a narrative for explaining the willingness to endure horrifying discomfort and pain which most of us have as a natural result of biological evolution. It is an easy way to understand our own strength without having to admit that this strength is not generally an accomplishment of ours at all.
As a bonus, it also explains our inflated sense of our competence when we believe that we could totally fight a professional Thai kickboxer and win; it does so in a much more pleasant way than the Dunning-Kruger Effect, telling us the wild falsehood that the reason we perceive ourselves as extremely strong is because we are in fact a strong person, able to endure anything stoically. We dare not tell ourselves the plain truth that we are only as strong as our genetics and hours of training allow, that pain and injury can and do push us beyond our current limits of endurance.
We don’t actually need to be a stereotypical strong person. We need to be willing to become a stronger person, to reach out in love when before we did not have the courage to be compassionate. We need to learn our weaknesses so that we can develop our strengths and lift others up more effectively.