Heroes stand up for others. Heroes take action when no one else will.
These are things you can do.
You can spend all day defining heroism. You can argue which historic figures count and which don't. You can ask whether the heroes of myth were really as great as they're made out to be. You can praise your grandpa or single moms or veterans as heroes.
Personal definitions aside, these two things are essential. Heroes stand up for others. Heroes take action when no one else will.
These are not gods-given qualities. Achilles was invincible except for his heel; heroes don't need that. Batman has a few million dollars in tech; heroes don't need that.
The majority of real heroes are normal people. A WWII Japanese diplomat who kept authorizing Jewish passports out of Germany after he was ordered to stop. A handful of women who lost their jobs blowing the whistle on sexual harassment in a major corporation. An employee who stays aboard a sinking cruise ship to help people after the captain has left.
These people could not rip through walls with their bare hands. They couldn't singlehandedly hold off the combined armies of Ireland. And believe it or not, they had no special protection or invulnerability.
I'll go so far as to say they were scared. Scared of being executed, penniless, drowned.
Every bit as scared as you ever will be when you see a problem.
And they had something to lose. People with families can be heroes. People with careers, homes, savings account can be heroes. Often it means a risk of losing what they hold dearest. Heroism is not an act of desperation, it is a conscious choice.
And there will be a villain. Oh yes, a villain.
This villain will not wear a black cloak and a spooky helmet. This villain will not speak like a snake, will not beat small animals, will not laugh like a demon.
This villain is called Someone Else Will Do It.
When you see a car accident, you will think someone called 911 by now. When you see a man screaming at his girlfriend, you will think someone else will say something. Maybe someone stronger than you, or someone who knows them, or a police officer.
But usually, no one else will do anything. Because they too serve the villain: Someone Else Will Do It.
In each of our lives, we will witness things that aren't right. If we are the only one witnessing them, we will have a sense of obligation, a responsibility to do something. But more likely, others will witness them too, and we will all be too afraid to be the one to step forward and intervene. This is called the "bystander effect."
Psychologists have shown that the more bystanders there are watching a crime, the less likely any one of them is to do anything.
There's a fear that comes with being the first to act. I felt it in New Orleans. In the middle of a street party of hundreds of people, a boyfriend violently grabbed his girlfriend and dragged her toward a vehicle she didn't want to get into. I looked around: why isn't anyone doing anything?
The fear to step forward is a social fear. If no one else is acting, do you really want to break from the herd?
Well, do you?
You won't, in the moment. You won't want to. It will be overwhelming. But you can force yourself to act anyway.
And you can train. You can make yourself ready to overcome the bystander effect.
This is the dirty little secret of heroes. They're not special, not chosen by prophesy, not irradiated or born with powers. They work at it. It takes a willingness to challenge yourself, and a heroic imagination. You can cultivate these traits:
- Challenging yourself. In their work studying heroism, Dr. Zeno Franco and Dr. Philip Zimbardo have noted that many (not all) people who do heroic things are thrill-seekers. This does not necessarily represent a natural urge to go snow boarding and rafting. It means these people have experience taking action even when they are scared. I have no interest in going bungee-jumping, but I do try to face my fears on a weekly basis. Whenever I have an opportunity to do something that scares me, I try to take it. The result is that I have gotten better at acting when I'm terrified. You can learn this too. Start with small things. Go to the restaurant you've never heard of instead of your regular favorite. Volunteer for something even though you're busy. Learn a skill you think you'll be bad at (web design? Guitar? Speaking Chinese?). Go camping. In any way you can, challenge yourself to do things that are beyond your current skill set. The result is that you will become accustomed to overcoming fear. You might never feel brave, but you'll have "functional bravery."