This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Plough Quarterly: Building Justice.

I have a storytelling problem. One late summer afternoon – it must have been in the 1990s, I was still in high school – I sat on the riverbank looking out at the water. With me were a friend of mine and the girl of my dreams. She told a story, I forget it now, but I remember her next words: “Now you guys tell a story. Just anything, whatever comes to mind.”

My throat clamps shut. I hear my friend good-naturedly stringing words together, knowing I’m next. The moment comes, and I can’t even mouth one syllable. The sight of the river lying heavy in front of me, yellowish brown under the perpetually gray sky, the Elbe River in Hamburg.

Why don’t I just say something, anything? Why is it that to this day, whenever I’m asked to tell a story I go blank?

My father also never told stories. Perhaps that’s because his own father was a story, one that is in the history books: a story we remember with pride and in silence, day in day out, a story that is unspeakably painful, in my father’s case of course far more so even than in mine.

Once in high school a teacher asked me to tell my grandfather’s story. I got as far as two or three sentences, and then I couldn’t stop crying.

No, stories and I don’t get along. But here’s the thing: nowadays if you can’t tell stories, you’re a loser.

Modern advertising clips don’t show us products – they tell us narratives about people and smartphones, people and cars, people and beer brands.

Campaign strategists work to position politicians so that a story takes hold in the heads of the voters – for instance, the story of the cool-headed expert who saves the country with his superior knowledge.

Senior citizens pay professional biographers handsomely to record their life experiences, recasting the commonplace as a saga. And younger people write the chronicle of their lives in Facebook posts, chronicles that grow vaster and more boundless with every passing day.

Column of the Goddess in Lille, France

Stories, stories everywhere, capturing revenue, securing power, conferring status.

I’m a journalist, so storytelling should come easy. But something in me resists.

That’s why I’m sitting here in this seminar room of Cologne’s RTL School of Journalism together with six women and two men, staring at a flat screen that flickers with the slogan: Stories mean success. In front sits Uwe Walter, age forty-eight, stocky, cheerful eyes, a nose that’s anything but bashful, chest out, his whole person seeming to be one single motion forward. Walter is a consultant for practically all the radio and television broadcasters in Germany as well as for many scriptwriters, newspaper editors, advertising agencies, and public-relations firms. He calls himself a “storytelling coach.”

Walter believes that he’s found the recipe for a good story. He’s willing to let us in on it.

As we set out on our quest for what makes a good story, Walter says, we could start with the Bible, with its exciting stories about Noah, Solomon, and Moses. Or we could start with the story of the Babylonian king Gilgamesh, or with the equally ancient story from India of Arjuna, who fights a heroic battle against an enemy clan.

These centuries-old myths, says Walter, were written down at different times and in different cultures and places. Yet amazingly, their narrative structure is similar. Each revolves around a main character that changes and develops through facing defeats and disappointments. At the end, this main character is transformed into what had been dormant within him all along: a hero.

Buddha, Noah, Moses, Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Jesus of Nazareth: human beings clearly are drawn by a certain kind of story, Walter says. The reason why these narratives took shape in precisely this form and became so influential is that they meet a core human need.

What if heroes are actually a thing of the past? Do we live in a “post-heroic age”?

The room becomes quiet, and Uwe Walter tells us about a man who claimed to have deciphered the DNA of myths – all myths. He was an American called Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949. According to Campbell, there is a pattern that all hero narratives (approximately) follow: the hero receives a call to adventure, departs, meets a mentor, finds comrades, undergoes trials, fights a decisive battle, and then returns, having gained an appropriate reward. Thus, says Campbell, Buddha finds enlightenment, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and Gilgamesh learns that only great deeds will guarantee him immortality. In all cases, the hero’s journey remains fundamentally the same.

Campbell’s model is so simple it’s contagious. It can help us not only to understand old stories, but also to create new ones – stories that infiltrate people’s brains and stay there, regardless of whether it’s the story of a new Mercedes model, or the story of the first black presidential candidate.

Campbell’s book is still selling well in Hollywood today.

Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings – all hero journeys, all stories that describe a transformation. They fascinate us because in actuality each of us wants to be changed, to venture forth from our tired daily grind. Everyone wants to be a hero. According to Walter.

And now it’s our turn. Marlys, Ariana, Yanina, Martina, Lisa, Philip, Catherine, Daniel – and me.

Uwe Walter asks us to introduce ourselves, not with dry biographical facts but with anecdotes that apply what we’ve learned. His special challenge to us: we shouldn’t shy away from mentioning problems, if we’re OK with that, even including – if only symbolically – death, which after all makes the best stories.

We take a dive into nine lives.

As they tell, my fellow participants are relaxed and self-confident. Apparently they have thought of a topic immediately. The fact that their stories are highly personal doesn’t seem to bother them.

Marlys, a media researcher, tells about her divorced and frequently remarried parents, and how she herself married her childhood boyfriend – but only after she had first located a wedding venue where her estranged parents could all celebrate without having to cross paths.

Ariana, a public-relations executive for a firm stuck in negative headlines, tells how she took the stage to speak at an industry event – and the whole audience erupted in catcalls and boos.

Yanina, also in public relations, tells how for two years she got up at 4:30 every morning to work on her novel – and how she suffered a collapse.

Lisa tells of growing up as the daughter of a preacher in a strict religious family and being awestruck by the lead actress in a hairspray commercial who disembarks from a Concorde perfectly coiffed – and how she herself became a society reporter.

Later Walter will tell us that all these stories are hero journeys. In each, two questions are always central: Will I find the right man or woman for me? And will I find the calling that fulfills me? In addition, he will say, another question lurks in the background: Do I run my life, or is it controlled by others? Do I make my own decisions, or do I just accept whatever comes my way?

I’m next. I don’t say a word about my grandfather or his death. Instead, I recount how I’m embarrassed to still be living in Hamburg, since despite wanting to move to Rome with my wife and children I still haven’t yet dared to do so, even though all I’d need to do is sign the house rental agreement that’s lying at home on my desk. “Rome or death!” I say, quoting Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi.

The word “hero” seems ever more ridiculous.

What if heroes are actually a thing of the past? Do we live in a “post-heroic age”? That’s the term used by sociologists and political scientists to describe societies like ours that combine affluence with low birth rates. Members of a post-heroic society, so the argument runs, have too much to lose, ensconced as they are in their prosperity. Rather than surrendering themselves to a great cause like heroes of old, they prefer to pursue their own well-being. Even Angelina Jolie, hailed not long ago as a hero for undergoing a mastectomy to prevent breast cancer, took radical action only as a means of saving herself.

No, we aren’t surrounded by heroes today, but rather by a set narrative. We could call it “pop heroism” – heroism without a true hero, heroism conceived as a metaphor for self-actualization. Pop heroism teaches us to take whatever we can get – without reminding us that the true hero is always the one who gives. Hemingway still knew this when he wrote, “Winner take nothing.” To be a true hero is a gift that often takes the form of a sacrifice. Historian Johan Huizinga defines heroism as “the heightened awareness of being personally called to participate in the realization of a task for the common good, dedicating all one’s energies up to and including the sacrifice of oneself.”

What is left of this definition when the word hero is applied, for example, to athletes competing for titles and trophies? Does the tennis star Sabine Lisicki participate in a task for the common good when she vies to dominate the turf in Wimbledon?

Doesn’t this kind of “hero journey” really just hijack a noble word as a way of legitimizing ultimately trivial strivings for personal success? Isn’t it a sweet poison that intoxicates us so that we forget the things that really matter?

Uwe Walter is convinced of the opposite. He believes in the healing power of hero stories. He believes that if we want to make the most of our humanity, then we should all live according to the recipe of Campbell’s fundamental myth.

Why did Sabine Lisicki lose in Wimbledon? According to Campbell, the answer is: because she was not inwardly ready. Perhaps she is repressing something that still needs to be processed. But this defeat will, according to the doctrine of the hero journey, prove to be a necessary stage for Lisicki. From it she will learn to use her heroic potential fully and completely. And the day will come when she will triumph.

Pop heroism teaches us to take whatever we can get – without reminding us that the true hero is always the one who gives.

Campbell’s gospel of salvation also offers good news to the participants in the seminar. Ariana, the PR executive who was booed off stage, will one day be honored for her company magazine; Yanina, the stymied author, will win the Bachmann Prize; and I will assuredly one day live in Rome.

With these happy prospects in view, we end the day of the seminar in a dignified, somewhat dimly lit restaurant overlooking the Rhine. Walter continues to bubble forth, his energy apparently inexhaustible.

It occurs to me that it’s not by chance that the hero idea is so popular just now. In a Europe where social safety nets are being cut, one can always say to those being pushed into the void, “You are heroes, you’ll make out fine.”

The hero concept also has its cynical sides.

For if there really was equality of opportunity, if everyone really did have the ideal start in life, then we could freely affirm Joseph Campbell’s claim that whosoever seeks will find doors that open unexpectedly. But here in our society? Isn’t it rather true that Hollywood-style hero stories have the effect of kicking people who are down while delivering the spiteful sermon: you could have been heroes, but you aren’t and it’s all your fault.

In reality, the question that Walter never ceases to ask – “Do you make decisions, or do you simply accept what comes your way?” – ought to be asked not just individualistically, but collectively, as a movement. Then it would thunder through our hollowed-out democracy with a roar to make political and financial elites tremble. Do we make decisions? Or do we simply accept what is imposed on us, what is forced down our throats with the magic words “no alternative” and “objective necessity”? Could the rhetoric of the hero journey transform individualists into revolutionary actors?

Questions and more questions.

What does Walter say to all this? That I’m refusing to embark on my hero journey. That I won’t take the leap. That I’m a wimp, a brooder, a scaredy-cat. That my manhood is suspect. That I’m just chicken.

This is meant as provocation, of course. Walter is trying everything to coax the hero out of me.

It’s almost midnight and we leave the restaurant; Walter heads back to his room. I still haven’t told my story. It’s not mine anyway, but the story of my grandfather.

Back in high school, I told the story as far as when, on February 18, 1943 in Hitler’s Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl scattered the last packets of their subversive leaflets in the atrium of Munich University. I never told how the janitor discovered them, locked the outside doors to the building, and arrested them. How Hans, as he was being arrested, started shredding a piece of paper. The Gestapo later reassembled the pieces, which proved to be the handwritten draft of a leaflet penned by my grandfather, Christoph Probst, to protest the Nazis and their crimes. A few days later he was arrested in Innsbruck, transported to Munich, and brought to trial in expedited proceedings together with Hans and Sophie. For the sake of his family he fought for his life, and Hans and Sophie did all they could to protect him. To no avail. Roland Freisler, the Nazi regime’s highest judge for political crimes, convicted him together with the Scholls in a show trial and sentenced him to death. The sentence was carried out a few hours later. My grandfather was never able to say goodbye to his wife and his three small children. To his mother he managed to write: “Tell them that my death was easy and joyful.”

Christoph Probst (1918–1943) with his son Michael.

For me, this has always been the only true story. As for other stories, including my own: what significance do they have in comparison? Practically none. That’s why I object to using the word “hero” in an inflationary way. I’m unable to regard the rest of us, who supposedly are each somewhere on our hero journeys, as heroes. I cannot accept “heroes of the workplace” and “family heroes.” Heroism starts when we leave the realm of the personal, and yes, when we leave the realm of family.

Let no one think that this kind of hero is obsolete in our post-heroic age. Even if parliamentary democracy seems to legitimate our wish to pursue only our private happiness – with the excuse that our public responsibility begins and ends with casting a ballot – even so, let no one imagine that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Even in our post-heroic age, we’re confronted on all sides by systematic injustice: injustice that cannot be bureaucratically legislated away, injustice that requires each of us to take responsibility and to act, contrary to our own comfort and our slowness of heart. So long as this remains so, heroism will continue to make its claim on us, regardless of time and place. Heroism will always start when people turn away from their own persons and place themselves in the service of a cause, a cause that may often only affect them indirectly, a cause in the service of others, of the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed, the tortured, the murdered.

At this point I can already hear post-heroic objections being raised: Can we please get this just a size smaller? If our standards of measurement are so gigantic, won’t we relegate heroes to an exalted sphere where they are admired but not followed? Shouldn’t we rather learn to see heroes merely as products of their time, people no different from you and me?

As persuasive as that sounds, the exact opposite is true. The hankering to pull true heroes down from their pedestals seeks to comfort us with the false reassurance that we can remain as we are. Yet it’s only through realizing how much heroes differ from us by virtue of their heroic deeds that we gain the ability to grow through their example. As the Scottish author Thomas Carlyle wrote: “Ah, does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him?”

No, hardly any of us are heroes, certainly not me. Everything I’m writing seems completely unrelated to my own life when compared with what my grandfather did.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. We need heroes, but not each of us needs to be one. The greatest gift that heroes offer us, I believe, is that we can remember them – and through remembering, take up our mundane and daily task of living an upright life.