The Importance of Heroes

I’m currently in the process of painting (yet another) portrait of Cleopatra, and it really got me thinking about how important heroes are in our lives. Children love to surround themselves with idols and role-models. They have posters of their favorite bands, movies, and athletes. They read about them, follow their careers, and aspire to be them. But what do our heroes have to say about us and the way we choose to live? Has any band formed without idolizing another, I wonder? My guess is no.

In addition to the Power Rangers, Ace of Base, and Carmen Sandiego (don’t judge, I was a 90s kid) decorating my childhood walls, I also idolized the famous Queen Cleopatra. She, more than any other childhood hero, has shaped my life in more ways than I can count. It would be impossible to know just how much.

For those who don’t know the backstory: I found my passion for ancient history around second grade, several years before I was captivated by Cleopatra. I knew of her, but I had always thought of her as a traitor and an unskilled ruler. After all, she was the last queen of Egypt… so she lost Egypt’s independence to the Romans, right? (In retrospect, I realize that many children’s history books do not mention her beyond that single fact). One day, my mom rented the Elizabeth Taylor “Cleopatra” for us to watch together. She knew I would appreciate it, being obsessed with anything Egyptian by that point. But the movie was not at all what I expected. I still remember asking her whether Cleopatra was “good or bad” at the end of the film. I had expected to see an irresponsible villain, but instead saw simply a woman. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I began to read more about her and the more I learned, the more I grew to appreciate her.

And the rest, you may say, is history.

But how, exactly, have I been shaped by my childhood hero? For starters, I immediately began learning Greek. I had made up my mind that I wanted to study history when I got to college. I began reading everything I could find about Cleopatra, which drastically increased my vocabulary, writing proficiency, etc. I didn’t like many pieces of art depicting her, which were inspired by ancient slurs, and began painting my own depictions. The list goes on and on.

I still have a deeply rooted love of languages. I grew up bilingual, but learning Greek was the first time I learned a language strictly for fun. I did, indeed, study history in college. Not only did it affect my major, but my entire professional life thereafter. I still enjoy academic pursuits, and while one may argue that those are character traits more than influences by childhood heroes, the subject matter is certainly influenced. And as I stated at the beginning of this post, I do still paint. In fact, Cleopatra was the subject of my very first painting.

It’s likely that a lot of these interests may have manifested themselves through another means, but the results would certainly have been different. People we admire have the power to inspire us, and inspiration is what drives us in our creative pursuits.

And Cleopatra was just one of my childhood heroes, though the only one that I have retained into adulthood. I can’t imagine how different of a person I may have been without them all.

I know a lot of people with children. And while many of their  kids’ interests are fleeting and trivial, some are not. Some will plant seeds within them that won’t mature for many years to come. I only wish that more kids looked up to those who have helped shape the world in positive ways. Scientists, authors, etc. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be fans of others. But being a fan is not the same thing as idolizing. Those who inspire us are the ones who will shape our lives.

Who are your heroes and how have they shaped your life?

Visionary Fiction

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Visionary fiction is a relatively new genre in the literary world. To be completely honest, I did not even know about it until very recently. My publisher and Amazon both classified The Island of Echoes as a work of visionary fiction (in addition to science fiction and adventure), but that was the first time I had ever heard the term. Nevertheless, I am so glad I did, as it’s a wonderful genre with a beautiful message at its heart.

According to that lifeblood of human knowledge, Wikipedia, visionary fiction developed as a separate genre around the year 2000. It’s defined as “the literary form that illustrates and demonstrates the process of growth in human consciousness.”

A number of authors have since joined together to form the Visionary Fiction Alliance so that the genre can be further developed and its many works, old and new, properly defined. And there are many of them, as eclectic as the authors who wrote them!

I have been busy learning more about the genre and discovering its many wonderful facets. Not surprisingly, it’s right up my alley. Although The Island of Echoes is more of an adventure story in setting and concept, the underlying messages of the book perfectly reflect the tenets of visionary fiction. I hope you’ll join me in exploring this wonderful new genre (and I hope you have just as much fun doing it!). If you stumble across any books worth checking out, please pass them along!

Spiritual Atheism

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Something that I have always struggled to convey to people, even those who know me well, is my attitude toward spirituality and atheism (more precisely, the combination of the two). It seems that the vast majority of individuals believe that they are incompatible. And I can understand why. On paper, atheism is a lack of belief while spirituality is having belief. But the world is never so black and white, and this is one gray area that I truly enjoy embracing. As such, it’s one of the primary philosophies in my book.

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, one of my favorite quotes from Island of Echoes states that “the organization of something as immaterial as spirituality is bound to fail.” But that does not mean that I frown upon concepts of spirituality. I simply don’t believe that organized religion has any real value in the world. In fact, as Richard Dawkins points out in his documentary, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, organized religion does a lot more harm to a person’s psychology than atheism.

I enjoyed the documentary and agreed with much of its content, but it annoyed me how often umbrella terms describing all atheists were used. Unlike Dawkins’ other films, this one was particularly aimed at discrediting ideas of sin, the afterlife, and the soul. People who believe in ideas beyond the tangible were ridiculed in no uncertain terms. I wish it was an isolated incident, but sadly I see the trend across many organizations, including humanistic ones. It saddens me to see atheism being portrayed as an “all or nothing” club.

A closed mind is a very unhealthy thing. It leads to radicalism and ignorance, two things that almost always end up with disaster. Now that our world is becoming more atheistic, and with more people discarding the tenets of organized religion, should we begin a dialogue about keeping an open mind from the other side of the coin?

Auras are a perfect example. For millennia, people have believed that our bodies give off a tangible field which is felt by others and which demonstrates our feelings. It was a ridiculed concept by scientists… until it wasn’t. What changed? Electricity. With the knowledge of electrical currents came the discovery that our bodies do produce a tangible electrical field, one that indeed does change in intensity and size depending on our emotions. Does that mean that science books now list auras as proven concept? No. But does it mean the ancients were completely wrong? Also no.

While it’s true that I do not believe in a deity of any kind, why should that discredit the idea of a soul or an afterlife? I’m not saying that I do, but I also don’t see why the concepts need to be tied together. At one point in Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, Richard Dawkins discusses how energy never truly disappears. It simply transforms into something else. That’s a scientific fact. Our bodies produce energy. That is also a scientific fact. So why is it so far-fetched to say that the energy our bodies produce will transform into something else upon death?

Our universe is a wonderful place. I hate seeing religious people telling others what to believe, but it also bothers me when non-religious people tell others what they shouldn’t believe. So long as violence, hate, and oppression are not promoted, there’s no harm in belief beyond the tangible. There’s too much left for us to discover and explore to set the rigid boundaries which people have a tendency to do. I think it serves us well to keep an open mind about spiritual concepts and I’d love to see other atheists feel the same. At the end of the day, kindness and respect will do a lot more than forcing your viewpoint on someone else. There are many uncertainties out there… let’s embrace them together.