Does the Hero Need a Villain?

Written By: Shudeep Chandrasekhar

The climax of any superhero movie is invariably the fight between the hero and the villain. We’ve seen it in hundreds of movies, read it in thousands of books, and we’ve come to expect that as the major highlight of any story. But why does a hero need a villain in the first place? That’s a very interesting rabbit hole to jump into because it addresses one of the earliest beliefs of humankind. Perhaps the oldest story of all – good versus evil and light versus darkness – is so ingrained in us that we don’t even question it; we naturally assume that just because there is ‘good’ in the world, there must also be a ‘bad’ to balance it out.


These arguments are so compelling that we simply accept them as truths without really thinking about it for ourselves, in the context of our own lives. In fact, we even take it to the extent of attributing the quality of villainy to many of the adversities that we face in life. More importantly, we invariably identify ourselves as the hero (or antihero, as you will see)  of our story.


Now, there are two common approaches we adopt when facing adversity :


  1. We have the urge to blame someone or something for things that happen to us, especially the bad stuff, and
  2. We take the blame for the adversary but many times in a way that is actually making us a victim of our past or present circumstances.


Let’s address the first of these human tendencies: the need to lay the blame on others.


Most of us do it all the time. Think about all the times you blamed your friend or your boss or the weather or just about anything else for the negative things that happened to you. It seems to be a universal human trait. In many cases, if we cannot identify a person or a thing to blame our troubles on, we tend to blame fate or destiny.


At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who always tend to put the blame on themselves when something goes wrong. That is not a healthy way of thinking, either. According to Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D. in Psychology Today:


“There is an important difference between accepting self-blame when the circumstances support it and keeping it time-limited versus situations when the self-blame does not seem rational or justifiable, or the individual reflexively defaults to self-blame whenever things go wrong. Researchers suggest that there are several groups of individuals who may maladaptively engage in self-blame for negative events.”


Both these types of thinking are often more destructive rather than constructive because they don’t help improve the situation in any way. They polarize the issue, thereby creating conflict.


Assigning blame to something or someone else allows us to play the hero in the story. According to Harley Therapy, a renowned psychotherapy institute in the UK:


“In a way, blaming is (a) form of social comparison that is status-seeking. If you blame someone, it puts you in the superior seat, making you feel more important and the ‘good’ person as opposed to their ‘bad’.”


In other words, if we can elevate ourselves to the position of hero or, in the same way, demote ourselves to being a victim, we get more sympathy. If I can blame my money troubles on how my parents managed their finances and how they felt about money, as beautifully explained in Robert Kiyosaki’s best-seller, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, I don’t have to feel that bad about it. It was their fault and I am the innocent victim. Case closed. The problem is, once again, that divides the world into heroes and villains, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.


So, instead of looking at the situation from a hero-villain viewpoint, it might be refreshing to consider the concept of acceptance. In this context, acceptance does not mean that you’re okay with the actual adversity; it just means that you are willing to emotionally accept that it is there, thus creating a more objective view of it. You can still deal with the problem or situation, but your perspective is one of acceptance and even curiosity about the eventual outcome and how to tackle it. Who knows? That outcome might be the best one possible. 


The purpose of looking at it that way is to free yourself from the guilt of blame and shame. You no longer have to feel forced to be the hero or even the villain, and you also free the people that surround you from having to shoulder that responsibility. You can look at life with greater clarity, by embracing the fact rather than bracing for impact.


In summary, it’s clear that the need to have a villain for every hero seems to be deep-seated in our collective consciousness. Some of us blame other people, things, or events, while the rest of us blame ourselves; and the reason we do it is that we want to be the hero of our story.


When the dust settles, the reality is that there is no real hero and there is no real villain. This is merely a well-intentioned narrative put there to organize our emotional world. Maybe we can try to construct our own fresh narrative. When we finally let go of this ‘need to blame or take blame’ and ‘need to be the hero,’ our thinking becomes clearer, and we can look at life, even for just a short while, from a viewer’s perspective. Now, it is no longer a question of hero vs. villain but a question of how to observe and  deal with the situation with an element of compassion and curiosity as to the best possible outcome. We can live our lives with less stress and anxiety if we accept thinking this way. It’s a novel approach to living, indeed, but don’t you think it’s worth exploring for the sake of our own physical, mental, and spiritual well-being?

© 2020

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