Having spent my life in Lebanon with only the occasional travel for leisure or business, I have grown accustomed to the never-ending national insecurity in the country and the political mayhem creeping into our routines from the surrounding borders. We always had to deal with one emergency at a time: one war, one revolution, a single armed battle or a coup d’état. But recently, and for the first time since I can remember, I have found myself petrified with anxiety and panic. Too many events and worldwide aberrations were taking place in different parts of the planet, hitting a perfect 10 on a universal pain assessment scale. Information about Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine and Nigeria were pouring into our news feeds without our consent, stimulating our senses until they were overloaded, leaving us drained, angry and panting for air.
The worst part was that technically, I could not do anything about it, except watch the broadcasted horror stories or simply ignore them and retire into a protective bubble. Admittedly, I opted for the latter.
In the meantime, I went on a quest to understand violence and the reasons that would drive a person to act as atrociously, as we had been witnessing virtually for the past few months; from the dehumanization of populations, to the butchering of particular sects and confessions, to kidnapping little girls and punishing them into obedience by marrying or selling them.
That’s when I stumbled upon a quote online that read, “The opposite of a hero is not a villain. It’s a bystander.” That was my Eureka moment. Thanks to the era of communication, I got in touch with the author of that sentence and the creator of The Hero Construction Company, M. Matt Langdon, who graciously shared the secrets of becoming a hero.
Matt started his heroic adventure as a consultant at a summer camp in Michigan. A single summer turned to twelve years of work with children between the ages of 8 and 13. That is where he found his calling: to help budding generations develop their character and become new-age heroes that give back to their communities. He believes that his own path was drawn as Joseph Campbell described in the Hero’s Journey or Monomyth in 1949: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
In other words, a Monomyth is a pattern of actions that is found in most stories from around the world and consists of three stages: it starts with the departure of the hero from his normal life, leaving behind his comfort zone. In the initiation phase, he goes through trials that test his bravery until his return to the real world, where he is fully enlightened and ready to bestow his knowledge upon mankind.
Using the Monomyth with the children as an introduction, Matt asks them a very simple question: “Have you ever seen something that is wrong but haven’t done anything about it?”
Heroes can be found around us, and not exclusively in comic books. Their antagonists, or villains (here, what we call the “bystanders”) are also present. Both characters are in the same crowd; the main difference between the two is that the hero takes action in a moment of emergency, while the bystander watches the events unfold from afar or walks away.
What is a Hero?
In modern times, Western cultures suggest that a hero is simply a good role model, which tends to misguide and diminish the courageous action’s impact. An example of misuse of the term “hero” and one of Matt’s personal pet peeves: every year CNN crowns a Hero on national television: 2013’s was Chad Pregracke from Illinois, who dedicated his career to cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways.
There are three main components to a hero:
A hero takes action.
A hero does it for the good of others or a specific person in a particular situation without expecting a reward.
The hero puts him/herself at risk.
The first two parameters make you a good person, but the hero emerges from personal sacrificing. Sacrifice depends on the deed itself (e.g. a millionaire donating $1,000 is not considered a sacrifice).
Why Does the Bystander Effect Occur?
Many people refrain themselves from acting heroically in a given event for number of reasons:
Diffusion of responsibility: The larger the crowd, the bigger the diffusion of responsibility. We often assume that someone is bound to step up and do something during the given crisis. But rarely anyone does.
Fear of embarrassment: performing on a stage in front of people is nerve wrecking, so imagine if the setup was even more stressful or an instance of life or death.
We’re afraid of not being the right person to help, or we convince ourselves that there must be someone more skilled than us in the crowd to “save the day” – such as police officers or a doctor.
How to Become a Hero?
If you want to become a hero, you should first develop a sense of empathy by creating a distance between you and your “self”. Instead, make connections with others across cultural barriers.
The second step is to practice risk-taking: people decide to have safe lives. They go to the same job that they will be working at until they retire because they are afraid to fail. Hence, Matt Langdon’s decision to work with kids and teach them that failing is part of the process. Children are happy to learn because they’re still flexible, unlike adults who don’t question past decisions.
Take initiative, the others will follow.
Learn about the bystander effect. Knowing about it helps you fight it: Knowledge is key.
Get used to standing out of the crowd. In the 1950s, American social psychologist Solomon Asch created the conformity experiments to demonstrate how much a person can be pressured against their better judgment to answer inline with the majority’s opinion, even if the majority is wrong. 75% of the time, the individual would give a different answer than when asked alone, away from the group’s heavy presence.
The Hero Complex
“The perception of heroism,” explained Langdon, “is experienced differently in various cultures of the world.”
USA: The idea of being a hero ties in with the American citizen’s image of himself, a way for self-improvement.
UK: The British are more reluctant to raise people on a pedestal. The “have-a-go hero” is the average English person who does something heroic like John Smeaton the baggage handler who kicked the terrorists during the 2007 Glascow International Airport attack.
Australia: The tall poppy syndrome (TPS) is a term taken from Aborigine stories to illustrate how the tall flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all others; hence the total absence of heroism in Australia since honorable actions will be criticized and resented.
Germany: The idea of venerating Hitler during World War II backfired on the Germans; they are bearing the consequences of their leader to this day.
Budapest: Hungarians’ pessimistic nature is world-renowned. There’s no room for heroes in their communities, since they believe that life has been terrible to them and will keep getting worse for all eternity.
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!
While growing up, our heroes had super powers: they fired laser beams from their eyes, ran as fast as bullets and were as tough as rocks. But times are changing, and you’re as much a hero as the next guy defrauding his associates or his country in order to pile up all the money he can get his hands on for his gray days under the sun.
Today we have individuals like Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden, that give us back our lost faith in the world – new age heroes that sacrifice their own well-being and drastically change the course of their existence to serve a higher purpose: Humanity.
Daniel Ellsberg has been called the most dangerous man in America: in 1971, he released 7000 pages of classified documents that later became known as the Pentagon Papers to expose the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. More than a dozen of newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post published the top-secret military study prepared by the Pentagon, which lead directly to Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam War.
Edward Snowden is infamous as the whistle blower who disclosed detailed reports he had gathered while working at the National Security Agency (NSA), and revealed them to the world in June 2013. The documents proved that America, in cooperation with international partners and telecommunications giants, was spying on foreign diplomats, governments and even their own citizens.
This is a call to action:
In these instances of worldwide political conjunction, imagine how difficult it is to be a Hero; leaving familiar grounds and swimming upstream against the current for the greater good.
There are no anti-heroes, no spell-casting wicked witches of the east or imaginary creatures demolishing your home and trampling on your city’s skyscrapers.
There’s just you: you can either save the day/the moment, or you can stand in the sidelines, looking and contemplating the events as they unfold.Featured image via Flickr