Will the hero please stand up?

Photo by Andrew Magill, Flickr

Photo by Andrew Magill, Flickr

Every major disaster or a terrorist attack like the one at the Boston Marathon this past month brings about stories of heroism – people who selflessly run into the face of danger to save a fellow human being. In October 2011, acts of heroism were seen, here at home, when several people risked their own lives to pull passengers out of a burning plane that crashed on a Richmond highway. These acts of altruism are certainly worthy of profound praise and gratitude, but it’s hard not to wonder where they come from.

It seems fitting to start with the words of Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, in his article What Makes a Hero. He says “simply put…the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need – a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.”

Local views on heroes

“In the pure sense of the word, a true hero should be doing something for no other reason than it is the right thing to do, but he is not necessarily gaining anything from it,” says Gus Senna, a Vancouver based videographer who agrees with Zimbardo’s definition of heroism.

Kamylli Mendive, an American university student visiting Vancouver sees a hero as “somebody who makes a decision or acts in a way that is selfless,” while her fellow student and American visitor Julia Powanda asserts that “a hero is someone who gives someone else hope.”

Fauzia Rafique, a Surrey author, views those fighting for social justice as heroes: “I really respect activists who are working at the grassroots…working with people who are at an underprivileged level of society,” says Rafique. In particular, she admires the Vancouver immigrant rights activist Harsha Walia, as well as the Idle No More movement that champions Aboriginal rights.

In a piece published on the Psychology Today website, psychologist Frank Farley makes a distinction between what he calls “big H” heroism, and “small h” heroism. Farley defines big H heroism as something that “involves significant risk” like death or injury, while small h heroism “is everyday heroism, helping others, doing good deeds.”

When asked if they thought whether big H heroism was more important than small h heroism, both Senna and Rafique mention that they don’t think the two can, nor should, be compared – that each is meaningful within its own range of impact. Senna mentions that he considers David Suzuki to be a big H Canadian hero because of his environmental work, but equally admires smaller h heroes such as his Vancouver acquaintance that adopted and raised 18 foster children.

Nature vs. nurture

Like many other issues, heroism doesn’t escape the nature versus nurture debate of whether the capacity to act heroically is innate, or teachable. Founded by Zimbardo, the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) claims that heroism can be learned. Its mission is to provide “insights and tools that individuals can use in their everyday lives to transform negative situations and create positive change,” and includes structured workshops that are designed to awaken the inner hero.

Allison Ross, an administrative assistant living in Vancouver disagrees with HIP’s entire premise. She believes that, like humility, heroism can’t be taught: “You either have it, or you don’t,” she says.

Rafique is also critical of the project’s premise: “I really reject this academic attitude…who does what in any situation is solely determined by their socio-economic situation, and the interests they have to follow.” Rafique also points out that projects such as HIP seem to assume that heroism is an objective and universally shared value. She however believes that what we see as heroic is determined by one’s political and ideological leanings.

“For example, I will never call American soldiers who are bombing Afghanistan heroes, but this system will call them heroes, because it is being fed by their work…they are pumping money back into the war industry in Europe and America,” says Rafique, emphasizing that many others hold a very different view on that same issue.

Senna also believes that a one size fits all approach to teaching heroism is problematic, but is even more concerned with the way in which we sometimes idolize our heroes. “When you turn a real person into an icon, things get out of control…it becomes almost like a tool for exploitation,” he says, saying that nations, for example, often elevate famous athletes to hero status in order to boost the country’s international status. Senna believes that this mechanism not only distorts the very concept, but also leads to the inaccurate association of heroism with celebrity.

Celebrating heroism

Protecting the Future: Serving the Present, artwork found in Surrey's Holland Park

Protecting the Future: Serving the Present, artwork found in Surrey’s Holland Park

Mendive thinks that relegating the capacity for heroism to someone who is a celebrity, or is perceived to have a special aptitude for courage, can be dangerous because it can promote the bystander effect, the tendency to absolve personal responsibility while those we believe to be more capable than us are left to handle the problem at hand. “People don’t believe that doing small acts is worth anything…I think it’s important to emphasize that large scale things aren’t the most important kind of selfless thing you can do,” she acknowledges.

One of the most glaring characteristics of hero centered dialogue is the question of whether heroes are needed as unifying emblems of any national identity.

“I don’t think it’s necessary that we all have one common hero that we celebrate…there are different pillars of different communities, I think it’s just nice to celebrate everybody,” says Ross.

On the other hand, Rafique feels that there is no reason why Canadians shouldn’t inaugurate and celebrate national heroes like Terry Fox, but points out that “if people are really interested in representing the heroes of this country, they need to go to the source – the Aboriginal and immigrant heroes who built it – and project that source to the public.”

Louise Uwacu, another Surrey based author, isn’t afraid of internalizing heroism: “I come from Rwanda, a place where so few have survived…I can not afford to have anyone other than me as my hero.”

Perhaps that’s one of the most fundamental things any of us can do on our path to exploring heroism – be brave enough to believe that no one else is more up to the task than us, right here, right now.