We’re Now Contributors to Psychology Today

Some good news – we’ve been invited to contribute our insights about heroism at Psychology Today’s online magazine.  Over 13 million people visit Psychology Today’s website each month, and we welcome you to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Our first two blog posts on heroism have already been published by Psychology Today. The first is called, Do Heroes Make Us Smarter? In this article, we describe how heroes are our greatest teachers. Heroes model virtue, clarify complex and paradoxical life truths, equip us with emotional intelligence, and reveal how their journey can be our journey, too.

Our second blog post is called, 5 Surprising Ways That Heroes Improve Our Lives. In this article, we discuss five non-obvious benefits of heroic action. Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.

Although we’ll be contributing to Psychology Today, we’ll still be posting essays regularly at this blog and at our Reel Heroes movie blog. Thanks to all of you for following our work, and please do continue to give us your valuable feedback.

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Hannah Taylor: The Hero with a Heart

“If we never give up, and care enough for each other, we can do anything.”

-Hannah Taylor, 2006

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By Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rachel DeRosa

Often, the road to  heroism begins with a powerful personal experience. Such was the case with inspirational Canadian teenager Hannah Taylor. As a 5-year-old, Hannah witnessed a homeless man eating from a garbage can in the cold of winter in Winnipeg, Canada. Deeply confused and saddened by this image, Hannah began inundating her mother with questions about what she saw. She wanted to know how and why this could happen.

With the clear-minded innocence of a 5-year-old, she asked her mother, “If everyone shared what they had, could that cure homelessness?” For about a year following this event, Hannah’s curiosity and sadness did not cease. She continued asking various family members about homelessness, a concept she simply could not begin to wrap her mind around.

One day Hannah’s mother suggested that perhaps Hannah should do something about this issue so that her “heart would not feel so sad.” The next day, Hannah approached her first grade teacher and asked if she could speak to her class about homelessness, what she had learned about the issue, and make possible suggestions for what they could do as a class to help. Hannah and her classmates proceeded to organize a bake sale and clothing drive from which proceeds would benefit local homeless shelters.

Upon seeing the success of this event, Hannah decided that her contributions would not stop there. In 2004, 8-year-old Hannah founded The Ladybug Foundation, a registered charity with the mission to end homelessness and alleviate the stigma associated with homeless people. She wanted others to understand that homeless people are not to be feared but are simply “great people wrapped in old clothes, with sad hearts.”

She selected the ladybug as her foundation’s mascot, as it is said to represent good luck. Hannah felt that good luck was not only crucial in her mission to help the homeless, but that this luck is also greatly needed by those in poverty. The foundation raises money to assist reputable charities throughout Canada which meet many of the needs of people who are homeless. As stated by 8-year-old Hannah at the time of the foundation’s creation, the goals of The Ladybug Foundation are as follows:

1. “To teach people that people who are homeless are just like you and me. They just need us to love them and care for them.”

2. “To teach everyone to treat people who are homeless like family because if you do that you will love them in all the right ways and care for them in all the right ways.”

3. “To teach people that no one should ever eat from a garbage can or live without a bed or a home and let them know that there are people that have to because they have no choice.”

4. “To ask every person that will listen to help however they can to make life for people who are homeless better.”

5. “To teach people that everyone can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Since 2004, Hannah has spoken to over 175 schools and organizations. She has traveled throughout Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Singapore, striving to educate the general public and bring dignity to the homeless population. She has also hosted a series of luncheons with various top business executives and community leaders across Canada to gain fundraising support. In 2007 Hannah published a children’s book called Ruby’s Hope, which further emphasizes the importance of helping those in need. Through her efforts,  Hannah has raised over $2 million toward providing shelter, food, and safety for homeless people.

Hannah’s humanitarian efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2007 she was awarded the Brick Award by the DoSomething! Foundation, which is presented to people under the age of 25 who have made a significant contribution to the lives of others. In that same year, Hannah also became the youngest person ever to receive Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award. In honor of her great accomplishments, an emergency shelter has been named after her in Winnipeg, known as “Hannah’s Place.”

Hannah’s mission to help others continues to this day. She has founded a separate charity, called The Ladybug Foundation Education Program, implemented in various schools throughout Canada. This foundation provides resources to empower youth to discover what they are passionate about, get involved, and make a positive change.

Hannah’s story is inspiring and heroic, as it displays that with motivation and perseverance anyone can make a meaningful difference in the world, no matter how old you are. All you have to do care.

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Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rache DeRosa are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Welles Crowther: The Self-Sacrificing Hero

By Hayden Stults, Amelia Knight, and Abby Goethals

Self-sacrifice is one of the principal defining features of heroism. No one embodied this principal better than Welles Crowther, a 24 year-old investment banker who sacrificed himself on September 11, 2001 in order to save the lives of at least 12 people inside the South Tower.

Welles was a very smart and ambitious young man, and on the morning of September 11, 2001 he had every reason to fight for his own life, which was tracking toward great success. Fortunately for South Tower employee Judy Wein, along with dozens of others, Welles took it upon himself to change the outcome of a situation that would have meant certain death without his intervention.

Welles looked up to his father from a very early age, which is what led him to follow in his footsteps and become a junior volunteer firefighter at age 16. Although Welles did receive training as a volunteer firefighter, many people would still have considered him a kid, or at least a young adult, at age 24.

From the perspective of Judy Wein, one of the direct recipients of Welles’ aid, “people can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did.” The difference between Welles and most of the people in the Trade Center Towers on that horrific day is that Welles dismissed the fear of his own death and made it his sole mission to help as many people escape as possible.

After United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, Welles made his way down to the 78th floor sky lobby, where he found a group of dazed and confused survivors huddled near the elevators. According to witnesses, he was already carrying a young woman on his back when he took control of the disgruntled group and directed them in a “strong, authoritative voice” to the stairway, where he led them down fifteen flights of stairs to safety.

Rather than escape the building with the first group of survivors, Welles turned around and ran back up the fifteen flights of stairs, where he found a second group of distressed survivors. He helped put out fires surrounding the group, administered first aid to those in immediate need, and led the group downstairs. Welles repeated this process several times, and was last seen entering the chaos with firefighters before the South Tower collapsed.

We consider Welles to be a hero because he exhibited extraordinary bravery and selflessness in the face of grave danger. He disregarded his own safety in a situation in which the majority of people would put themselves first, and by doing so he saved the lives of more than a dozen people, many of whom have said individually that they believe they would not have made it without his help and guidance.

Welles not only directly helped those individuals, he also inspired other survivors in the South Tower to help the get the injured to safety. Welles did not know that his story would be told, and he was not acting in order to gain fame or respect. He simply felt that it was his responsibility to do everything in his power to help every person that he could.

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Hayden Stults, Amelia Knight, and Abby Goethals are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class. Abby is the niece of George Goethals, one of the co-founders of this blog.

Carl Fredricksen: Old Man on a Mission

By Robby Schranze and Brian Guay

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, though not usually in the form of a short old man with a cane.

In Disney Pixar’s 2009 animated film, Up, Carl Fredricksen becomes a hero after he begrudgingly discovers an unwanted passenger aboard his escape to paradise, and gradually sacrifices his life’s goal for this young boy’s happiness.  

After the loss of his wife, Carl lives his life as a recluse.  He sits beside his late wife’s empty chair in their house surrounded by objects and memories as a city grows around him.  Rather than move to a retirement home or give up his house, Carl releases thousands of balloons that lift the house away into the sky.  Though Carl escapes a changing outside world, he brings his inner world (i.e., his house and belongings) with him, not willing to part with this connection to his wife.

Carl crosses a threshold from a journey to his unexpected journey when, floating at 10 thousand feet, a terrified boy knocks on his door and asks to come inside to safety.  In an instant, Carl’s solitude is disrupted and his life is flipped upside down. Yes, grumpy old Carl initially refuses to let Russell inside!

With the 8-year old now at his side, Carl encounters a long dirt road of trials and tribulations that weaves through the deep South American wilderness.  The pair get caught between a rare exotic bird named Kevin, who is trying to find her children, and an evil explorer seeking to capture the bird.  Carl’s selfish nature surfaces one last time when he abandons the bird, alienates Russell, and returns to his beloved house.

However, Carl undergoes a transformation and is called to action once more, though this time not by the selfish, reclusive motives that originally sent he and his house into the sky.  In order to lift the house back into the air to save Russell and Kevin, Carl destroys his precious belongings.  This pure sacrifice of his inner-life for others is a significant turning point in his life and establishes him as a hero.  He later risks his life and nearly falls to his death to save Russell, cementing his new role as Russell’s and the audience’s hero.

After Carl and Russell save Kevin, they return home on a magical flight, crossing the threshold back from their adventure and bringing with them new identities.  Carl fills in as Russell’s father figure at his boy scout ceremony and gives Russell a gift that once belonged to his wife.  This gift marks Carl’s immense transformation from a grumpy, secluded old man to a caregiver, friend, and father figure.  With this change, Carl is able to prove that he is a master of two worlds; he followed his childhood dream to explore the world, and he is able to love and care for someone after the loss of his wife.

Just as not all heroes carry a cane, not all heroes are without challenges and faults.  Faced with immense grief and a selfish attitude, Carl demonstrates the timeless act of transformation, self-sacrifice, and renewal that inspires us all.

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Robby Schranze and Brian Guay are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Harriet Tubman: The Hero Who Fought Slavery

By Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow

In 1820, Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was born into a family of slaves in Maryland. Several of her siblings were sold by their owners and she never saw them again. Harriet spent countless hours laboring for others. Along with doing manual work for her owners, she had to put up with numerous beatings, one in particular that split her skull open and never healed, causing severe brain damage. She never received any medical attention and the trauma resulted in epileptic seizures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Her resentment and anger at her circumstances steadily grew, particularly after she was threatened with being sold, fueling her passion to escape and bring others along with her.

Harriet was called to be a freedom hero. In 1849, Harriet became ill once again as a result of her head injury. Her value as a slave was diminishing and her owners were attempting to sell her. Soon afterward, one of her owners died and it became likely that her family would be split up and sold to different owners to settle his estate. Harriet decided she would not be sold again so she fled to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. She successfully avoided slave catchers by traveling at night and seeking the protection of abolitionists.

She had not been in free territory for long when she heard that her niece was going to be sold. Tubman decided to go back to slave territory to save her niece and her children. She selflessly wanted to help others and she would risk her life in doing so.

In December of 1850, Tubman made the bold and dangerous decision to return south. Risking her own re-enslavement, she courageously embarked on the first of many journeys to set her people free. On her first trip she brought her niece and family to the north by the same route she escaped by.

A few months later she returned for her own brother and was well on her way to earning the nickname “the Moses” of her people. In over a decade she made 19 trips to the south and back, rescuing over 300 slaves. Slave owners in the south never knew there was one person behind the escape of so many slaves, but other abolitionists did.

She worked with many abolitionists like Thomas Garrett, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.  Douglass and Brown both counted Tubman among the bravest and most important anti-slavery heroes of the day. Tubman successfully led slaves to freedom for nearly a decade without ever being discovered or losing a single passenger on her “underground railroad.” She was a valued activist and spoke publicly to abolitionists while taking care of her relatives and fighting her illness.

When the Civil War began Harriet first served as a nurse before adopting a more active role by helping map terrain for the Union Army and even leading armed assaults. When slaves were liberated from captured Confederate Territory she helped to recruit them to the Union Army.

Despite her incredible work and dedication to the Union, Harriet was never compensated and the U.S. government did not properly recognize her service until nearly 40 years later. The fact that she never received compensation combined with her role as caretaker for her family and rescued slaves meant that she was in a perpetual state of poverty. Despite the constant difficulties she faced with her health, her finances and the total lack of recognition, Harriet never stopped working to help other people.

Harriet Tubman showed great heroism during her journey from slavery to freedom to liberator. Her life was not easy and her experience of belittlement and hardship persisted even into the 20th century. Even though she was oppressed herself in being a disabled, uneducated, black, former slave woman, she navigated physical, social and political danger for the sake of freedom. She received some recognition for all of her many achievements, including her work in the suffragette movement.  She pursued her vision unswervingly and by the end of her life, Tubman was widely known and finally received the respect she deserved. After her death she has become widely recognized as one of the most important American heroes and activists for the end of slavery and civil rights for former slaves, African-Americans, and women.

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Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

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Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

My Sister, the Quiet Hero

By Scott T. Allison

This past December 27th, my sister Sheree passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 57.

On the surface, Sheree was no different from many people. She had a husband and two children, lived in suburbia, owned some pets, played the guitar, and loved to tinker with her home decor and yard.

But for those who knew Sheree and loved her, there was much more below the surface. She was a hero in her own quiet way.

Heroism is tough to define, but most people would agree that heroism involves improving the lives of others in significant ways. It is love and compassion put into action. Here’s one story that shows how, even at a very young age, my sister Sheree had great heroic instincts.

Back in the 1960s, we lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The houses in this neighborhood were packed very close together. The five of us – my father, mother, brother, Sheree, and me – lived in a small 800 square-foot home. Literally within an arm’s reach of our porch was the home of our neighbor, a woman named Irene.

Irene was a cranky, middle-aged widow with red hair and a terrible singing voice. We knew about the bad voice because she lived alone and entertained herself with loud singing. On warm summer evenings, with all the windows open in the hopes of catching an occasional breeze, we’d also catch that unmistakable singing. And to call it singing was generous. It was more like the screeching of a wounded owl.

The crankiness of Irene would be on full display any time the three of us kids ventured onto her property. We were very young kids who liked to play ball and go exploring, and so needless to say we’d stray into her yard now and then either out of carelessness or to retrieve a lost ball. When Irene saw us violating her space, she’d yell at us to get out. And much to my mother’s horror, her shouts would include a few choice swear words to boot.

None of us liked Irene, and we did our best to steer clear of her. But there were many times when we’d be shouted at, and the only comfort we took was that at least it momentarily stopped her from singing.

One day after one of Irene’s tirades, Sheree did something extraordinary. She was only five years old at the time, a sweet thing with blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and an endearing smile. She also had the instincts of a saint.

Sheree had just been on the receiving end of one of Irene’s outbursts. She ran home to escape our neighbor’s rant. But rather than stay home, she decided to go outside and pick as many wildflowers as she could. She gathered them into a beautiful bouquet and then walked up to Irene’s front door and knocked. When Irene opened the door, Sheree handed her the flowers and apologized.

And Irene was forever changed.

Obviously touched by Sheree’s kindness, Irene never yelled at us again. In fact, she became a friend to the family.  Sheree’s simple act of reaching out with love and generosity had transformed Irene into a kind, neighborly soul.

Irene’s loud and horrid singing continued, however.

Sheree’s kind gesture to Irene pretty much sums up the way she lived her life. She always went out of her way to show kindness to others, including me. Last September, after she had surgery to remove her stomach, she was very weak and in the hospital for almost a month. Yet she still found time to mail me a birthday card with her shaky handwriting wishing me well. I’ve kept the card and will always treasure it.

She died just two days after this past Christmas. Despite being in pain and obviously in a terribly weakened state, she still mailed me a Christmas gift just days before her passing.

There are other aspects to Sheree’s heroism, too many to describe here. She was an Art Docent in her local elementary school, teaching kids about art and famous artists, as well as tutoring and leading or participating in after-school reading programs. She took in stray animals. She reached out to people, and touched them with her smile, her heart, and her contagious laugh.

Irene was one of many whose heart was forever changed by Sheree. I count myself among this group, too.

Thank you, dear sister. I love you and miss you.

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John F. Kennedy: The Peace President?

By George R. Goethals

Over the past several weeks, a great deal has been written and spoken about the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago on November 22, 1963. That anniversary fell on a Friday, as did Kennedy’s murder in Dallas.  While nobody who was sentient at the time is likely to misremember Kennedy’s assassination – or the funeral that followed it, or the killing of his assassin on national television – recollections of Kennedy’s presidency are not so pure.  Human memory is imperfect in many ways.  At best, it is selective.  Much worse, memory is prey to numerous biases, errors and distortions.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony said at Caesar’s funeral, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  One wonders whether the opposite is true in Kennedy’s case.  People are generally aware of both good and bad aspects of the Kennedy years, but memory of the good seems to win out.  On the positive side are his charismatic persona, inspirational rhetoric and ambitious agendas.  The negatives include philandering, passivity on some crucial issues and deception about his health.  All of these and numerous other aspects of his administration are debated endlessly.

But there is one aspect of JFK’s presidency that has received too little attention.  Kennedy felt that the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, signed in August and ratified in September of 1963 outlawing nuclear tests in the atmosphere, was one of the most far-reaching accomplishments of his administration.  In a commencement address at American University in June of that summer, sometimes called the “Strategy of Peace” speech, Kennedy outlined the possibility of a completely new relationship with Russians, moving beyond the Cold War and its tensions and standoffs.

That speech and the test ban treaty were part of his evolving reexamination of super power relations.  As a result, the word “détente” entered the American political vocabulary during the last weeks of the Kennedy administration, although it did not become widely used until the Nixon and Ford eras in the 1970s.  Kennedy’s initiatives suggested what was possible for other willing presidents to achieve by way of reducing tensions with our Communist adversaries.

Kennedy had seen war himself and had seen men under his command die.  He also had seen the United States and the Soviet Union come far too close to nuclear annihilation.  He wanted very much to find ways to move beyond the Cold War and nuclear confrontation.  His hard-line National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy once quipped to an aide that there were only two pacifists in the White House, “You and Kennedy.”

But Kennedy was no pacifist.  He would have fully endorsed the Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush mantra that “peace through strength works.” But he was committed to building what would later be called a “new world order.”  In his last months he consulted with Russian diplomats about joint ventures in space.  He also came to believe that further American involvement in Viet Nam would never sustain the South Vietnamese regime.  He announced the redeployment of 1,000 military advisers from that country.

Although the question is one of those persistent unknowns, it seems most probable that the full-scale American war in Viet Nam would not have happened in a second Kennedy term.  More generally, it seems safe to imagine that the world would have been very different had Kennedy not been assassinated.  His intelligence and what psychologists call “openness,” that is, curiosity and broad interest in ideas and feelings, enabled him to grow and become ever more realistically flexible.  These are personal qualities that almost always serve leaders well.

In the decade after Kennedy’s assassination, some held that within a generation JFK largely would be forgotten, remembered, if at all, as a young and promising president who served for a short time with mixed results.  It was foreseen by few then that he would capture the country’s attention with unprecedented focus in the year 2013.  But memory, both individual and collective, works in unpredictable ways.

Images of Kennedy are pervasive and forever forged in our memories. We hear his voice, see him smile, listen to his banter with reporters and his speeches and comments on matters both large and small.  After five decades, it may be time to organize our own recollections and what we have learned as we grasp an unforgettable American original.

We might start with remembering what he said at American University:  “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.”

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Dr. George R. Goethals holds the Robins Professorship in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 3: How Hero Stories Energize Us

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain the human tendency to generate heroes, benefit from them, and even become them. For as long as humans have been able to communicate through spoken language, they have told stories to each other.  These stories, we suspect, were almost always about heroes.

In Part 2, we proposed that people are nourished by hero stories in at least two essential ways. These tales serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth.  In Part 2 we described the epistemic or wisdom benefits of hero tales. Now we turn to the energizing benefits.

As early humans sat around fire at the end of the day, they were in need of more than just physical comfort. Yes, there was disease and injury, but undoubtedly there was also fear and despair. We suspect that people longed for some understanding of their miseries, some meaning behind the suffering they saw all around them. Storytelling provided a salve for their psychological wounds.

Hero stories served at least three important energizing functions for early man — and for contemporary humans, too. Hero stories heal psychic wounds, inspire us to action, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at each of these functions.

1.   Hero Stories Heal Psychic Wounds

Hero stories serve a healing function in several ways. First and foremost, storytelling is community-building. For early humans, just the act of gathering around fires to hear the stories established social connections with others. This sense of family or community was, and is, central to human emotional well-being.

The content of hero stories also promotes a strong sense of social identity. If the hero is an effective one, he or she performs actions that exemplify the community’s most cherished values. The affirmation of a shared worldview, told vividly in storytelling, serves an important healing function.

Group storytelling is, in a sense, a form of group therapy. Many practicing psychologists believe that group therapy owes its effectiveness to group members’ willingness to share their own personal stories of hardship and triumph. When members share their success stories, hope is engendered. Many 12-step recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also promote healing through the open sharing of members’ stories.

2. Hero Stories Inspire Us

The classic mythic hero is often an underdog or ordinary person who is summoned on a journey full of extraordinary challenges. Our research on underdogs shows that we identify with them, root for them, and judge them to be highly inspiring when they triumph. Success on the hero journey requires courage and resilience, which are two of the most inspiring traits among the Great Eight characteristics of heroes.

According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories teach us that challenges and setbacks in life are to be embraced, not avoided. According to Campbell, obstacles help us learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

What Campbell means, of course, is that every human life mirrors the classic hero journey, and that this great adventure, even with its painful parts, can be a source of inspiration. The ups and downs of life are inter-connected, with the downs actually being necessary to produce the ups. This fact should encourage us all to trust that the main purpose of adversity is to transform our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine.

3. Hero Stories Promote Personal Growth

Psychiatrist Karl Stern once wrote that “the evolution of human growth is an evolution from an absolute need to be loved towards a full readiness to give love.” This developmental trend nicely summarizes the transformation that a mythic hero undergoes during the hero journey. At the outset of the journey, the hero is initially missing some important quality. It is often self-confidence, humility, or an accurate sense of one’s true purpose in life.  The hero journey is always a journey toward vast personal discovery.

The discovery, moreover, is the basis of a character transformation that enables the hero to bestow a gift or boon to his or her community.  This boon is the consummate heroic act that culminates the journey. Every good hero does more than just enjoy a voyage of self-discovery. Good heroes use the gift of transformation to change the world for the better. This type of gift-giving is apparent in 12-Step recovery groups, which require members to undergo 11 steps of self-discovery followed by a 12th and final step requiring them to “carry the message” to others in need.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

Author Ken Wilbur believes that heroic transformation often begins with the hero first harboring an elitist view of the world and then eventually moving toward an egalitarian view.  Famed psychologist Erik Erickson also saw the classic human trajectory as beginning with ego-constructing activities early in life and then moving toward a stage of generative activities late in life. When we are generative, we are giving to others what was given to us.

In short, the remarkable personal growth we witness in hero stories serves as a blueprint for our own growth journeys. We need only trust that the path of the hero is our own path toward redemption and growth. When we embrace that path, with all its inherent hurts and fears, we are charting our own course toward beautiful transformation. In this way, hero stories energize us toward self-improvement and selfless action.

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This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Core Concepts in the Psychology of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 2: Wisdom in Hero Stories

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

In Part 3 of this series, we explore the energizing function of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic. Here is Part 3.

This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Core Concepts in the Psychology of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.