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Pop Mythology’s April hero of the month: Helena Kirk

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Our April hero, cancer survivor Helena Kirk (courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk)

“You say you’re not special because the world doesn’t know about you, but that’s an insult to me.  I know about you.”

—John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Ingrained in many people is the belief that they have to seek far and wide for their most meaningful experiences.

For instance, in the realm of human relationships, it’s a common fantasy to go away to someplace new and meet a perfect circle of friends and acquaintances with whom you’ll have that perfect connection, who will inspire you to reach greater heights and whom you’ll love forever.

The problem with this kind of fantasy is that it blinds us to the beauty and majesty of the people immediately around us, for if you are willing to look closer, deeper, to ask the right questions and to listen, then the stories of those around you will often surprise, amaze and inspire you. I’m not saying this will happen with everyone  around you, and in some cases it’s genuinely true that you need to get out of an emotionally toxic environment. But generally speaking, the more effort you’re willing to make, the more you might find yourself pleasantly surprised and inspired by the range of heroes who walk amongst you right now.

My April Hero of the Month is someone I did not have to look very far at all to find. I just had to be willing to listen and pay attention. She is the daughter of one of my very own writers here on Pop Mythology, “Captain” John K. Kirk, who I consider more than just a colleague. I consider him my friend.

As for my hero, her name is Helena Kirk. She is eight years old. And she is a cancer survivor.

Help those who fight the same monsters you fought

I’ve chosen April to make Helena my Hero of the Month because April marks five years of being cancer-free for her. That’s right, the story has a happy ending, and the details of how her cancer was discovered, treated and eventually defeated can be seen in this video or read in articles like this one and this one.

Rather than repeat all the details of her battle with cancer here, I want to use Helena’s story as a launch pad to talk about two key principles for all aspiring heroes.

The first is that we should try to help others who struggle with the same things that we have struggled with in the past and overcome.

What’s wonderful about Helena is that after emerging victorious from her fight she has continued to regularly participate in functions, giving speeches and often serving as an ambassador and proverbial poster child for charity events and organizations like SickKids (the hospital where she was treated), StarlightCamp Trillium and business like Cineplex which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for SickKids. The same goes for her dedicated and grateful parents, John and Sarah.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also engage with causes that we’re less familiar with. There are many valuable experiences to be had from doing that as well. It just means that we understand what others like us are going through in a way that no one else, no matter how sensitive or empathetic, can ever truly understand, not even the people closest to them. You are therefore qualified to be a source of support for others that even their family and friends don’t know how to be. And that is a tremendous power and responsibility indeed.

Invoking the Child archetype, part a: simplicity

The second principle is that witnessing the courage and optimism of a child facing adversity can lend you not only extra courage to face your own monsters, but the motivation to find and drink from that wellspring of joy they so effortlessly seem to draw from. For if a child fighting cancer can smile and laugh then surely so can we no matter what our problems are. Even adults cringe and squirm at the idea of frightening medical procedures like spinal taps, chemotherapy and asparaginase injections (you should hear some of these stories I’ve heard). Imagine having to get these done regularly as a three-year-old and your own problems start to take on a new, welcome glow.

To borrow from Jungian terminology, let us call this ability that so many children seem to naturally have the Child archetype.

For my purposes here, the two key qualities of the Child archetype that I want to highlight, both of which Helena has so inspiringly demonstrated, are simplicity and playfulness.

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Helena with her bravery beads. She collected 500 over the course of 841 days of chemotherapy. (courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk).

First, simplicity.

It’s true that when it comes to certain things—especially imaginative fantasies like ghosts, monsters and the like—kids obviously tend to get scared more easily than adults. But it’s very interesting in that as a general rule, when it comes to the scariest thing of all, Life itself, human beings become more frightened as they get older, not the other way around, because they burden themselves with so many mental constructs and value judgments of every little thing that happens. By contrast, kids like Helena demonstrate a zen-like capacity to take each scary or unpleasant moment as it comes rather than amplify the suffering with endless, extraneous thoughts the way adults do. The scary moment comes, they cry or whatever they need to do to get through it, and then the moment is over and they’re happy again.

The adult tendency to overthink and overcomplicate everything is not a natural virtue of being grown up. Our intellect becomes more developed and sophisticated as we mature, yes, and this has its important uses. But half of the time that higher intellect is used improperly and neurotically. It is used for obsessing over, exacerbating and even creating problems rather than what it was meant for: the creative solving of problems.

Take a moment to recall great heroes in both old and modern myth who embody the Child archetype: AlicePeter Pan, the Little PrinceOliver TwistForrest Gump and so many others. What is the common trait that helps them to survive or stay sane amidst the madness and chaos of the worlds that surround them? Simplicity. The film Cube  is one of my favorite modern parables that illustrates how the ability to be simple can be a mode of survival (and even, eventually, liberation) while everyone else drives themselves mad or gets themselves killed.

Simplicity, however, is often mistaken as being an inborn trait, an ephemeral quality of childhood or, worse, a lack of intelligence. Iconic characters like Forrest Gump sometimes perpetuate that image, but it’s important to remember that in myth nothing is ever literal. There are a number of ways to interpret the movie Forrest Gump, but in my preferred mythical way, his mental disability is not to be taken literally.

One of the best examples from pop culture that encourages a proper understanding of simplicity is Yoda because he illustrates that simplicity is a mode of being, an intentional choice, not a lack of intellectual ability. When Luke first meets Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the sage Jedi master is in full Child archetype mode which, of course, fools Luke into thinking he is some stupid, annoying creature and not possibly the great master he is seeking. But it is precisely because Yoda is a learned master that he can enter Child archetype mode when it suits himself and the situation at hand.

yoda
(20th Century Fox)

The fact that this ability exists as a psychological and mythical archetype means that we are not doomed to romanticize childhood as a golden period of innocence that is lost to us forever. It is possible as an adult to retain the experiential wisdom and maturity that age brings while retaining or reawakening the child’s ability to create a little joy, love and wonder even in the face of horror. Call it the “inner child” if you wish, though I personally don’t like that term (which has its roots in 70s pop psychology) because it conjures up images of childhood trauma or emotional self-indulgence, which is not the way that I mean it.

I myself am a case in point. When I was younger I was an extraordinarily complicated creature. It’s astonishing to think that I could have ever taken that as some perverse point of pride and yet back then I did, even though the only notable thing it accomplished was to make myself and others around me unhappy. I am a much simpler animal now. And the result? I am a lot happier. The people around me are a lot happier. Yet my simplicity has made me no less intelligent or creative. If anything, it has exponentially improved my ability to think clearly and to address problems efficaciously. And, most importantly, it helps me endure in the face of persistent difficulty.

There is a reason why so many of the world’s great spiritual traditions use childhood as a metaphor, why the Child archetype is often portrayed in myth as being one of the highest and noblest. It is why Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” In my opinion, he didn’t mean this in the literal sense. He was imploring adults  to not hinder the Child archetype within them from naturally and spontaneously tapping into the sense of wonder, divinity and playfulness in life.

Doing this, however, is a colossal feat that requires deconditioning yourself from years, decades, of socialization and acculturation. It is beyond the scope of this single post to discuss all the ways how to do this, though I have alluded to some of them in previous posts (like this one and this one) and will continue to do so.

Helena and her mother, Sarah Kirk Calderwood, in a visit to Niagara Falls while Helena was receiving chemotherapy (courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk).
Helena and her mother, Sarah Kirk Calderwood, in a visit to Niagara Falls while Helena was receiving chemotherapy (courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk).

Invoking the Child archetype, part b: playfulness

The next quality of the Child archetype that Helena exemplifies is playfulness.

If we pay close enough attention, kids like Helena are spiritual teachers showing us the way to face our own fears not just with courage but with genuine joy and even a spirit of playfulness. The miracle of playfulness is that it not only makes a period of hardship more endurable, it will in and of itself help to transform the hardship into something better. There are many real-life examples of this in different situations. A classic one is the story of Norman Cousins recovering from his illness using daily sessions of  laughter, as recounted in his book Anatomy of an Illness.

Think of the dwarves from The Hobbit  films, if you’ve seen them. Though on a perilous and very important quest, they nevertheless take the time to stop and sing, to play and to live. In the same way, consciously try to find ways to create mirth and laughter even as you fight your dragons, even as those dragons may threaten your very lives. Exactly how you do this will be up to each individual, and the precise form of the play doesn’t matter so much as long as it doesn’t hurt other people and it brings you joy, makes you smile or laugh and it feels  like playing. But you must make this a part of your regular routine, the way the children of SickKids routinely play in the Starlight room, otherwise your problems and the harried nature of the modern world will make you forget to do so.

I myself have been guilty of forgetting. I have harshly repressed the Child archetype’s natural, innate impulse to laugh and play over the past couple of years. Other archetypes (Survivor, Warrior, Creator, Healer) have been getting my full attention for it is supremely difficult for anyone to balance more than a handful of archetypes at once.

But what happens when, while preoccupied with the business of survival, you neglect the Child archetype for too long? Like Carl in The Walking Dead, you start to become increasingly angry, bitter and worn. And how did Carl eventually turn this downward spiral around? He did it partly by letting himself be a kid again in S4 E9 (“After”), even if only briefly. He went out exploring on his own like kids do, found and ate an entire can of chocolate pudding, scribbled a playful message on a door after barely surviving an encounter with a Walker (again, playfulness in the face of danger).

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The Child archetype teaches us how to create mirth in the face of threat (Walt Disney Pictures)

As I have listened to John talk about his daughter, as I’ve read the articles and watched the videos about her, it suddenly struck me that the Child archetype and its ability to create joy and play in the face of danger was the missing and utterly forgotten component that I needed to more effectively turn a difficult period of my life around.

And it’s working. My Warrior and Survivor archetypes have begun taking it a bit easier recently. They have relaxed their overbearing vigilance somewhat and stepped aside to let the Child come in and show this roomful of dour, somber archetypes how to relax and play a little. For I had nearly forgotten how to do so.

So thank you, Helena. Thank you, John and Sarah, for raising such a remarkable human being who will surely grow up to be… well, I can’t say “a hero” because she already is one. But, as I discuss in my post about Captain America, may she grow up to take on an outer form that conforms to her glorious inner form.

Also, John Kirk:  in you and your unabashed joy and enthusiasm for comics, games and pop culture, I see how the wisdom of the Child archetype runs strong in your family, how it is continually fed and nurtured so that even when Helena and her baby sister Hope grow up, I trust that they will not lose it.

And lastly, Helena, you might not understand everything I’ve written here, but I hope that someday when you are a little older you will read this again and understand the tremendous meaning and significance of the battle that you—and all the other kids like you—have fought and won.

A Conversation With Our April Hero

Helena, treatment for cancer can be very scary. How did you overcome that fear?

Helena: My parents stayed with me and kept telling me it was okay and kept the secret that cancer could kill you. I beat the fear of cancer by doing what the doctors told me and kept telling myself I was going to be fine.

Your dad tells me you like pop culture. He said that you like things like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Disney movies. Did these things help you when you were sick? How did they help you?

Helena: Yes. Because they entertained me and kept me away from the scary feelings of cancer. Since I was little I watched Ariel and things like that. My dad got me into Star Wars and it kept my brain off thinking I could be hurt by cancer. Oh, with needles, if I don’t look at them, they can’t hurt me. If I watch Ariel or Star Wars and stuff, they don’t hurt me.

helena-kirk-stormtrooper
(courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk)

You are now 8 years old and you have been healthy for 5 years. What would you say to kids who found out that they are sick and have to get treatment like chemotherapy now? They are probably very scared. What would you say to them?

Helena: “It’s okay. I have been through this also.  I have survived.  I would think that you will survive. Don’t think about cancer; think about the life you will have after cancer. You don’t have to worry. The doctors will help you and they are great because they saved me. Here’s a tip on needles: if you don’t look at the needle when they put it in. If you look away, you won’t feel it.”

You are a very strong girl. What is the secret for being strong like you?

Helena: Trust in your doctors. My parents kept telling me things how to not make it hurt. They entertained me. I’m strong now because of my doctors, my parents and I believed in myself.

What is your favorite thing to do?

Helena: Go to camp and have fun with all my cancer friends. It’s not weird. Have play dates with all my friends. See movies.

What is your favorite movie and book? Who is your favorite hero? And why?

Helena: My favorite movie is Frozen. My favorite books are the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series. My favorite heroes are Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl. Why? Because they are strong women who fight crime.

I heard you have a yellow belt in karate. That’s cool! Why do you like karate? 

Helena: I always wanted to do karate because my dad has done martial arts and I want to protect my mum and help my dad. I also want to protect my baby sister. It’s fun to do and I’m really good at it. My sensei teaches me what I need to know.

helena-kirk-karate
(courtesy of John and Sarah Kirk)
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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.