This post was written by Luke Beckstrand, a Humanities Center student fellow.
When David faces Goliath. When Aeneas loses Dido. When Frodo is lost and alone, facing the darkness of Cirith Ungol. In every hero’s journey, there are many moments that challenge them, but there are occasional moments that I have come to call Dark Moments of the Soul. The crowning crisis, where all aid and resources have been spent, when they are already past the point of no return. It is in the midst of this crucible that the hero is forced to make the most important decision of their journey: whether they are going to give up or persevere. This Dark Moment of the Soul is the “make-it or break-it” event. This is when they give into despair and fail, or they become heroes.
College can be crazy, and harder than many people want to admit. We as university students face dragons of isolation, ogres of the imposter-syndrome, and demons of self-doubt and despair. We have to climb mountains of expectations and homework while still somehow meeting the necessities of life. And on top of all this climbing action, we also have to face the climaxes of worldwide pandemics, economic downturns, political unrest, crises of identity, and our own bouts of mental health challenges. So what can we do to find strength as we tackle our own Dark Moments of the Soul?
As a student in the College of Humanities, I have had the opportunity to study many great heroes, either onscreen or on the page. Scouring the liberating landscape of literature, I have walked alongside Macbeth as he fell into madness, I have watched Achilles take an arrow to the heel, I have held Gilgamesh’s hand as he wept for Enkidu. Through the powerful presentations of cinema I have celebrated Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope and the victories of Harry Potter. Whether reading, watching, or listening to stories, I have been blessed with the ability to watch the rise and fall of countless heroes, to dissect their journeys, and to learn both from them and with them. These lessons, taken from the journeys of men and women throughout numberless stories, have been a guiding force for me as I face obstacles and challenges in my own life. For me, I have narrowed down these lessons to the most important three: Escape, Example, Excellence.
The first and most blatant advantage of delving into stories is the escape that it offers us. As I have mentioned, life can be taxing, and sometimes we need a respite. Through the eyes of valiant heroes and exciting stories, we are able to slip out of reality and enjoy a world of dazzling fantasy, educational history, whimsical adventure, or sometimes all of them at once. This much needed break can give us an opportunity to rejuvenate and revitalize. Upon finishing a good tale, whether short or long, we can be better prepared to tackle our next challenge and continue our lives with a renewed perspective, knowing all the while that, when our energy begins waning again, we can always escape back into the world of storytelling.
But stories do much more than offer an escape. The examples set by the characters can be inspiring. Who hasn’t felt moved to forgive after reading I Am Malala? Or had their optimism revived by the experiences of Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place? Who doesn’t feel ready to fight their greatest battles after listening to Aragorn’s speech before the Black Gates of Mordor? The examples of these heroes who face challenges often (hopefully) more dramatic than our own, can be a source of much-needed inspiration in our Dark Moments of the Soul. The heroes of these stories show us that good can prevail, that hope is never foolish, and that size doesn’t matter when it comes to bravery. These stories can help us believe that we, too, can be victorious. That we, too, can be heroes.
This brings me to the last, possibly most important, lesson that I have taken from my time exploring the world of storytelling: excellence. Excellence is often the key difference between the hero and the villain in the story. Let me explain. Villains frequently have tragic backstories, awful events that led them to being jaded and hateful. But there are many heroes with equally tragic backstories! Take a moment with me to compare two characters: Batman and Darth Vader.
Both of these characters suffered awful tragedy and lost those that they loved. They both faced the same decision: how to react? Darth Vader turned inward, becoming selfish and hateful. He went on to become a villain, destroying lives and crushing joy everywhere he went. Contrast that with Batman—our beloved Bruce Wayne took the opposite route, the route that I am calling the path of Excellence. He decided that because he had experienced tragedy, he wanted to help others avoid feeling the same. He wanted to protect the world from evil so that no one else needed to experience the misery that he had.
Stories such as these force me to ask myself poignant questions. How would I react to absolute tragedy? How have I reacted to difficulties? Unfairness? Misery? Do I lash out? Do I become angry, selfish, jaded? Do I blame others, and seek revenge in the name of justice? Or do I turn outward? Do I seek to serve others? To minimize hate instead of inflaming it? These questions, as important as they are, often go unasked unless prompted. Delving into good stories is what it took to prompt me to face these questions within myself, and to decide to strive for excellence in my own life.
This is the power of storytelling. These are the lessons I have learned that have helped me persevere through the challenges of my life. I need the escape. I learn from the examples of heroes. Their stories inspire me to strive for excellence. I want to thank the College of Humanities for filling my life with these beautiful, wonderful stories.
I shall end with one of the most powerful moments of literature that I have ever experienced. This moment represents why the lessons I just described can be so powerful, as well as how the characters themselves can learn from literature.
In The Two Towers, the second cinematic installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee gives a speech that has inspired the tears of many who have watched it. As the world collapses around them into war and darkness, as they face a Dark Moment of the Soul, Frodo Baggins asks a significant, and startlingly valid, question: “What are we holding on to, Sam?” Why press on? Why persevere? Why keep trying when it is so hard? Sam’s response is powerful.
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer! Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
And comes Frodo’s question: “What are we holding on to, Sam?”
Sam’s reply: “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for!”