Why do dragons continue to capture the human imagination?
Let’s see … we have:
- Harry Potter’s bout with the Hungarian Horntail.
- Malificent changes into a particularly creepy one at the end of Cinderella.
- the Red Dragon in the book of Revelation, about to devour a child.
- dragons that existed deep within the earth until we drilled too far down, according to an under-appreciated film, Reign of Fire, with Matthew McConaughey.
- Bilbo and Smaug
- Eragon (never saw it, but I can see the cover of the book in my head right now) and Beowulf
- Daenerys Targaryen riding the back of a sheep roaster throughout the Seven Kingdoms.
- Dragons that talk like philosophers in Skyrim, complete with British accents, only to be slayed for a really cool helm or magic staff.
- …and the one you’re thinking of right now.
It appears we can’t decide if dragons are the worst possible enemy or the coolest possible transportation. We are unified, however, in the fact that the dragon represents something primal and untamed – the embodiment of a conscious, destructive force of nature. It stands alone as the one thing more terrifying than the most terrifying thing you can think of.
Tales of dragons are most often paired with the story of a warrior. It’s a familiar tale: The warrior must embark on some quest fraught with danger yet crucial for the survival of a people (or person, should the quest involve a princess or child). Along the way, he/she must survive a series of mental and physical challenges, each with its own brand of sinister danger, in order to have the ‘honor’ of facing the chief tormentor … the dragon.
The story is, perhaps, a way to instill the virtues of courage and resilience to the younger generation. The dragon motif instructs the young person, ‘there will be a great hurdle in your future; but you have the strength and fortitude to overcome it. Be brave.’ It hearkens to a day when an honor code existed; knights were expected to live a life that reflected such virtues, at great personal risk. By developing a system of honor and courage, new generations would take on the mantle of battle in order to receive some sort of society-bestowed glory.
Bravery is certainly something I, as a parent, want to see fostered in my sons and daughter, but if our world proceeds down its current path, opportunity for such bravery may be fleeting. Could it be that by retreating to safe, buffered worlds – such as those afforded to us by our digital devices – we have made it impossible for our children to be men and women of courage?
Here’s where I upset the apple cart.
Bravery is a quintessentially embodied experience.
Courage is courage when it encounters actual people in actual situations with actual risk.
Our day-to-day digital interactions , our social media upkeep, even our blogging efforts are not exercises in courage, folks. Sure, somebody might be nervous how a particular post, re-post, or share might go over, but the act of doing such is layered in the warm blanket of buffers. In other words, none of us can witness first-hand the reactions of those who read our work – and therefore, we disassociate ourselves from the real emotions that our blog/pic/text/tweet may have caused. Hence, I am protected from having to deal with your emotional reaction.
If we allow every little act to be proclaimed as ‘courageous,’ then the word loses its meaning altogether. It requires a small measure of fortitude to make a statement on your Facebook page that outs you as a Democrat in a world of Republicans, or vice versa. But you know it’s not a particularly courageous act when you’d only do it on the Net and not in real life.
Risk is linking arms in Selma. True courage is walking into the WTC when everyone was running out. Bravery accepts the fact that you’ll have scars after an experience, but you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. Engaging the world in physically present ways forces us to confront a world that actually reacts. Embodiment necessitates that we take responsibility for each action, knowing that the world actually reacts.
I am a gamer, but I am self-reflective as well. I know that the more I exist in virtual worlds, the less I will be called into scenarios that require the best virtues I have to offer. There is no grit required to hit the triangle button on a PS4 controller.
“Embodiment necessitates that we take responsibility for each action, knowing that the world actually reacts.“
Conversely, it takes great courage to sit down in a face-to-face interview, where no middle-man exists between you and the interviewer. It takes courage to defend someone with words in front of their accusers, knowing that you cannot hide behind an anonymous name on a comment thread. It takes courage to tell your boyfriend or girlfriend to their face that you won’t be doing anything under the sheets until the pastor says, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife.’ Small dragons, perhaps, but dragons nonetheless.
The virtual world only offers virtual opportunities for courage, strength, and fortitude. That shouldn’t be good enough for us. Instead, I will teach my daughter that standing up for herself may mean that she’ll see the hatred in another person’s eyes, not an emoji. I’ll teach my son that bravery includes the responsibility to protect the weak in their most dire moment. And, in these precious moments, I believe we’ll see that responsibility is what emerges, because responsibility is the accepting and bearing of a burden regardless of extenuating circumstances.
Our boys, in particular, are losing the skills to be dragonslayers. I earnestly believe that they retain the desire to see if they have what it takes, to hope that their lives will include an impressive achievement against all odds. But, by drowning them in cubicles and virtual worlds, we are stripping them of the necessary embodied experiences that put them face-to-face with fears—even if that fear is something as ‘simple’ as public speaking. The world of the device has proclaimed a new normal: buffers, practice texts, friend requests (to shape their personal chorus) and the ever-present out in case you are in the company of strangers. And this ‘normal’ will slowly, but surely, kill the heart of courage by eliminating that which makes a young man strong, namely, formidable resistance. A blade without forging is a weak metal stick.
Big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton once said that in the times of the year when big waves are scarce, he regularly falls into deep depression. His attitude with his family would suffer and he’d sulk around the house. He remarked, ‘It’s like being a dragon slayer and there are no more dragons to kill.’ Confronting fear head-on can take many shapes. I suggest that the best examples of this are found in embodied experiences – face-to-face and removed from the world of our devices. No, I’m not going to tell my daughter that she’s only brave if she launches herself into the moving water mountains of Pipeline or Jaws, but I will remind her that an apology via text isn’t the same thing as walking up to a friend and saying with trepidation in your voice and a tear in your eye, ‘I’m sorry.’ I will remind my son that testing yourself among your peers is a good thing, one that will sharpen your spiritual senses of wisdom and empathy … and this testing is best accomplished in another person’s company.
A steady diet of these embodied experiences will create a young man or woman who stands tall, looking for the next dragon to slay.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.