Who are the heroes of our modern society?
Beyond the supermans and wonder women of the world, we see firefighters rescuing our children from burning buildings, police officers caring for our safety, and soldiers defending our country. But is a heroic life exclusively available to those select few? Not at all; heroism is not specifically related to any profession or supernatural ability.
Heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds.
Think about the Christians who helped Jews during World War II. They risked their lives and their family’s safety to protect innocent people. Try to remember that kid who had the courage to defend the victim from the bully back in your elementary school. Think about the woman who reported corruption in her office. Imagine the person who rushes in when he sees that a husband is hitting his wife or the first person who approaches the passed-out man lying on the street and calls the ambulance.
These are all examples of heroism. Do any of these people have some unique strength or training? No, they are regular people, just like you.
According to social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo and Heroic Imagination Project, heroism is a behavior or action taken on behalf of other person or for a moral cause.
Heroism has four key elements:
- it is voluntary,
- it is done in service of individuals or communities in need,
- it involves risk (physical, social or regarding the quality of life),
- and it is done without the need for recompense or material gain (1).
This video is a good source of further information on the author's views on heroism.
Professors Scott Alison and George Goethals did research and discovered that heroes tend to have eight distinctive traits; they are caring, charismatic, inspiring, reliable, resilient, selfless, smart and strong. Most heroes don’t have all of these traits, but they have the majority of them.
When we know who heroes are and what makes them outstanding, we start to wonder if they were born that way or if they learned to be heroic through life experience.
Can anyone be a hero?
The truth is no one is born a hero; there are no embryos predestined to become heroes because of some gene combination.
We are all born with the immense potential to be anything in life. However, this potential is shaped by circumstances and the environment we live in – our family, friends, culture, politics, social beliefs about right and wrong and so on.
This means heroism can be cultivated. It all starts by building empathy. Being able to look at the world from other person's perspective and to imagine how they feel in a certain situation. This is a solid base for being willing to help anyone, including perfect strangers.
Becoming a hero takes practice, it consists of making a continuous effort to help another person feel better. (2)
Are you a potential hero?
In his research, Zimbardo differentiates three groups of people. There is a small percent of individuals who do evil, and there is the equally small percent of people who openly act heroically. The third, largest group consists of the general population who does nothing. This group is called “reluctant heroes“ they stand by and watch, they refuse the call to action and by doing so, implicitly support previously mentioned “group of evil doers”.
Where do you belong?
If you haven’t done anything heroic yet it doesn’t mean you necessarily belong to the reluctant group or the ones who do evil. Maybe you just haven’t had an opportunity to be a hero. More people are in need in urban areas, which is where most heroic acts occur, living a peaceful life in the suburbs will hardly provoke you to do something heroic. Circumstances matter, too. (3)
If that’s your case, read about these characteristics, you may realize that there is a heroic life destined for you if you dare to live it.
1. You are altruistic.
Altruism is usually seen as the light version of heroism because it doesn’t necessarily include taking any kind of risk. Psychologists define altruism as helping behavior that is motivated by a selfless concern for the welfare of another person.(4)
The most important part of it is selflessness. This means you are willing to help people without expecting any reward, compensation or favor. It means doing something nice for someone without bragging about it afterward. This behavior should be completely separated from any selfish motivation.
If you are connected to other people, able to see yourself in others, encourage collaboration and emphasize shared goals; if you feel grateful for your life and opportunities if you are determined to fight inequity and build supportive community – there is a good chance you are truly altruistic.
People who engage in altruistic acts are more likely to act heroically. It is not a certainty because taking a risk plays a great role, but it is surely a great start. (5)
2. You have a sense of duty.
As you have previously seen, heroism includes helping individuals or communities in need. This can’t be done if you don’t feel the duty towards society or a group you belong to. People who have this kind of awareness are concerned for the wellbeing of others.
This includes empathy and compassion. If you genuinely care about people around you, not only your loved ones but for the whole community you live in, and if you are skillful in recognizing other people’s needs there is a fair chance you would act heroically.
This is not about making grand gestures in order to save others. It is about appreciating other people for what they are and what they do every day. You can work on this skill by noticing what makes every person special, what are they good at and what are their needs.
Start by simply paying compliments to people around you. Make them feel recognized and worthy. This way you’ll develop your ability to determine when is the right time to help or stand up for someone.
3. You take responsibility.
Have you ever heard of the by-stander effect? It is a psychological phenomenon where the presence of others leads to divided responsibility and discourages an individual from intervening or helping in emergency situations.
People often think that something awful happening in the neighborhood is not their concern.
Yes, my neighbor does beat his wife and children but someone surely reported his by now. I can’t do anything about it anyhow. There are many people in this building someone will react, it doesn’t have to be me, and so on.
If you are someone who takes responsibility for your actions, for what you did and what you didn’t do – it is less likely you’ll get caught up in the bystander effect. Your level of committed responsibility will forbid you to be a mere spectator of someone’s suffering and will enable you to get involved.
Having the courage to stand out and speak up when no one else is reacting is an important part of the heroism. Caring enough to single yourself out from the “mass” means you have a real chance in doing something brave when the times require it.
4. You stand out.
There is a little social experiment Zimbardo proposes in his previously mentioned TED talk. He invites you to put a black dot on your forehead if you are white or a white dot if your skin is black. Go to your school or to your work like that and see what happens. People will try to convince you to wash it off. People want you to be just like them, just what they desire you to be regardless of what you truly are. Be persistent in wearing your dot whole day, resist their pressure.
If you succeed, it is likely you would be able to succeed some other kinds of negative group pressure. Be a “positive deviant.” If you are not afraid of being different, of not fitting into given standards, not adapting – you won’t be scared of acting when everybody else is just staring. This provides you with a great chance for a heroic life.
5. Your heroic life matters.
If you recognized yourself in these or at least some of these characteristics, you still have a chance to become a hero.
The most important thing to remember is that heroes are not born, but cultivated. It’s never too late to teach yourself how to care.
The world could use one extra hero.
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