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💥Thought Shrapnel newsletter #447
'Restorying' your life, running slow, and aerial Jesuit priests
“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m going to dispense with the usual solo waffle this week and instead point you to a blog post detailing what I’ve been up to for the past couple of weeks (TL;DR moving house!)
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Despite moving a lot of boxes between properties, I’ve still managed to publish 15 posts, of which I’d like to recommend that you at the very least glance at the following three.
There are some people, perhaps most people, who do not expect setbacks and problems in life. They seem to think that it should all be smooth sailing, and that anything that interferes with this unarticulated plan is somehow annoying or unfair.
Perhaps because I spent my teenage years reading philosophy (which I studied at university) and then my adult life reading Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, this isn’t my view. Instead, I’m well aware that everyone has to deal with setbacks and, in fact, they make you stronger and more focused.
This article discusses the results of research based on interventions taking as its basis The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. He noticed that cultures around the world had foundational stories which were based on a similar structure. The researchers took this approach, updated it for modern life, and used the structure as an intervention to help individuals to tell better stories about their lives.
What do Beowulf, Batman and Barbie all have in common? Ancient legends, comic book sagas and blockbuster movies alike share a storytelling blueprint called “the hero’s journey.” This timeless narrative structure, first described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949, describes ancient epics, such as the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and modern favorites, including the Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series. Many hero’s journey stories have become cultural touchstones that influence how people think about their world and themselves.
Our research reveals that the hero’s journey is not just for legends and superheroes. In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we show that people who frame their own life as a hero’s journey find more meaning in it. This insight led us to develop a “restorying” intervention to enrich individuals’ sense of meaning and well-being. When people start to see their own lives as heroic quests, we discovered, they also report less depression and can cope better with life’s challenges.
To explore the connection between people’s life stories and the hero’s journey, we first had to simplify the storytelling arc from Campbell’s original formulation, which featured 17 steps. Some of the steps in the original set were very specific, such as undertaking a “magic flight” after completing a quest. Think of Dorothy, in the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, being carried by flying monkeys to the Emerald City after vanquishing the Wicked Witch of the West. Others are out of touch with contemporary culture, such as encountering “women as temptresses.” We abridged and condensed the 17 steps into seven elements that can be found both in legends and everyday life: a lead protagonist, a shift of circumstances, a quest, a challenge, allies, a personal transformation and a resulting legacy.
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo (the protagonist) leaves the Shire (a shift) to destroy the Ring (a quest). Sam and Gandalf (his allies) help him face Sauron’s forces (a challenge). He discovers unexpected inner strength (a transformation) and then returns home to help the friends he left behind (a legacy). In a parallel way in everyday life, a young woman (the protagonist) might move to Los Angeles (a shift), develop an idea for a new business (a quest), get support from her family and new friends (her allies), overcome self-doubt after initial failure (a challenge), grow into a confident and successful leader (a transformation) and then help her community (a legacy).
Anyone can frame their life as a hero’s journey—and we suspect that people can also benefit from taking small steps toward a more heroic life. You can see yourself as a heroic protagonist, for example, by identifying your values and keeping them top of mind in daily life. You can lean into friendships and new experiences. You can set goals much like those of classic quests to stay motivated—and challenge yourself to improve your skills. You can also take stock of lessons learned and ways that you might leave a positive legacy for your community or loved ones.
I’m not sure what’s more fascinating: the scale of the Roman army’s building (in this case, in Syria) or the French Jesuit priest who surveyed them by aeroplane.
Either way, the history geek in me loves this.
Back in the early days of aerial archaeology, a French Jesuit priest named Antoine Poidebard flew a biplane over the northern Fertile Crescent to conduct one of the first aerial surveys. He documented 116 ancient Roman forts spanning what is now western Syria to northwestern Iraq and concluded that they were constructed to secure the borders of the Roman Empire in that region.
Now, anthropologists from Dartmouth have analyzed declassified spy satellite imagery dating from the Cold War, identifying 396 Roman forts, according to a recent paper published in the journal Antiquity. And they have come to a different conclusion about the site distribution: the forts were constructed along trade routes to ensure the safe passage of people and goods.
The Dartmouth team analyzed CORONA and HEXAGON images covering some 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 square miles) in the northern Fertile Crescent, mapping 4,500 known archaeological sites and other features that seemed to be sites of interest. Some 10,000 previously undiscovered sites were added to their database. Poidebard’s forts have their own category in that database, based on their distinctive square shape and size, and the Dartmouth researchers found many more likely forts lurking in the spy satellite imagery.
The results confirmed Poidebard’s 1934 finding of a line of forts running along the strata Dioceltiana and also revealed several new forts along that route. But the survey also showed many new, previously undetected Roman forts running west-southwest between the Euphrates Valley and western Syria, as well as connecting the Tigris and Khabur rivers. That seems more suggestive of the forts supporting the movement of troops, supplies, or trade goods across the Fertile Crescent—cultural exchange sites rather than barriers. The authors date most of the forts to between the second and sixth centuries CE, after which there was widespread abandonment of the sites, although a few remained occupied into the medieval period.
There are books that have changed my life, but there are also podcast episodes. One example of this is Episode #787 of the Art of Manliness podcast, entitled Run Like a Pro (Even If You’re Slow). In it, Brett McKay talks with Matt Fitzgerald, a sports writer, a running coach, and the co-author of the book with the same name as the podcast episode.
The gist of the episode is that even shorter, slower runs help build fitness. And, in fact, this is what elite-level runners do. So these days I deliberately go for runs where my heart rate stays well below 140bpm. The upside for me is that it increases my ability to do my longer runs, faster.
This article in The New York Times backs this up with research showing the physiological and psychological benefits of runs of any length. See also this recent interview with Matt Fitzgerald.
Numerous long-term studies — some involving thousands of participants — have shown that running benefits people physically and mentally. Research has also found that runners tend to live longer and have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer than nonrunners.
One might assume that in order to reap the biggest rewards, you need to regularly run long distances, but there’s strong evidence linking even very short, occasional runs to significant health benefits, particularly when it comes to longevity and mental well-being.
The physiological benefits of running may be attributable to a group of molecules known as exerkines, so named because several of the body’s organ systems release them in response to exercise. While research on exerkines is relatively new, studies have linked them to reductions in harmful inflammation, the generation of new blood vessels and the regeneration of cellular mitochondria, said Dr. Lisa Chow, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who has published research on exerkines.
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Until next week!
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is published by Dr. Doug Belshaw. You can connect with him by replying to this email, or via LinkedIn or the Fediverse. He’s available to hire to untangle your organisational spaghetti through WAO or Dynamic Skillset.
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