The other day I told my students that life is like playing Super Mario Bros. Day to day events are comparable to making your way through Bowser’s castle, and eventually you reach Bowser himself. When you enter ”the boss level,” you have a decision to make: fight, or get thrown into lava by a ginormous turtle.
In literature, “the boss level” is used to test a hero’s arête. The Greek word arête means “excellence of any kind,” or “moral virtue.” It’s a concept that we still value today as a virtue in our society. Unfortunately, when we are tested on this quality in our own lives, it can be tempting to view this as the universe personally attacking us and not as an opportunity to prove ourselves, learn, and grow.
All of this is coming out because I recently introduced my Mythology students to “the Waters of Life,” a Quest story that follows a son on a quest (surprise) to save his father’s life. The hero eventually does save his father, as well as marry a beautiful princess, but his success only comes after much struggle. He has to overcome a conniving dwarf, a pack of lions, win three wars (THREE), and race against time.
As disconnected from real life as this all sounds, my students were immediately able to connect the dots and relate “the Waters of Life” to their real lives. We all go on journeys, whether physically or mentally, that challenge us and push us to our limits. It’s easy to read a story about a knight in shining armor and predict the outcome. It can be a lot more frightening to look at our present situations and wonder if we will come out successful, or, worse even, wonder if we’ll fail. Sometimes our journeys take us down roads that we are unprepared for, which is why the quest goes deeper than the struggle.
Quests have very specific requirements. One such requirement is the role of a Hero. This element to a quest is incredibly important for my students to hear: each quest can only have one Hero. For my students, this means that you are the only one who can achieve your goals. You cannot live someone else’s life, no matter how much you may want you. You are the Hero of your life; you are meant to conquer it. That doesn’t mean we’re in this alone.
Quests also include Helpers, without whom the Hero could not succeed. As a teacher, it breaks my heart when a student approaches me after receiving a poor grade and says “I didn’t understand the assignment,” or “I wasn’t sure what you wanted.” So much of our problems are caused by our fear of asking for help. But every Hero understands that all the strength, brains, and bravery are worth very little if we are not willing to ask for help when we need it.
That’s why teaching things like the Hero’s Quest to my students is so impactful. It teaches them that it’s okay to set big goals and have big dreams, that it’s okay to ask for help to achieve them, and that it’s okay to fail as long as they learn from it. It’s important for them to know that they are the only person who is in charge of the outcome of their quest, whether it’s a math exam or finding the cure for cancer.
A hero’s quest is filled with trouble, adventure, battles, and glory. Although life rarely feels that glamorous and compelling, we can all learn a little something from the stories of our ancestors, even if it’s just to remember to ask for help when we need it.