Heroism as an Emergent Property

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

It seems like it should be very simple-– the definition of heroism. And yet, as we’ve seen, any attempts to delineate a definitive set of properties or criteria result in debate, disagreement and dissatisfaction. The more we try to pin down the concept, the more amorphous it seems. This is because heroism is not an intrinsic property, but an emergent one. In the words of the great philosopher Anonymous, “Heroes are made, not born.”

This is not to say that the potential for heroism does not exist in everyone, but acts of heroism are decidedly situational. The woman who saved her platoon in Afghanistan may be useless when her neighbor’s cat is stuck up a tree –- she’s afraid of heights. Or the man who quietly devoted ten years of his life to caring for his sick mother may not be the person you want around if you’re drowning –- he never learned to swim. The scientist whose vaccine saved countless lives may lack the upper body strength to pull an unconscious adult from a burning building. The great orator whose speeches inspired millions may lack the esoteric knowledge needed to assist somebody having an epileptic seizure.

However, on another day, an undistinguished man with a questionable past may be sitting on his front porch, hear a cry for help, and find himself rescuing several kidnapped women from their captor. Or perhaps a woman who was previously known only as a baseball player’s daughter may be walking down the street, minding her own business, and find herself catching a one-year-old baby who fell from a fire escape. Or perhaps a middle-aged construction worker, waiting for a train with his two kids, will find himself saving the life of a seizure-stricken stranger who fell upon the tracks. Or perhaps a shopper at the supermarket, thinking only of taking home some groceries, may find himself performing CPR on the still body of a child, bringing her back to life.

Ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary circumstances that suddenly blossom into extraordinary events. What seems inevitable is averted. Like life itself, heroism is a thing of self-organizing complexity, emergent, synergistic-– an antidote to entropy.

It is inevitable that we should seek to understand the existence and nature of heroism. Seeking to understand is one of the essential qualities of humanity and we are rightfully amazed at a universe that can give rise to beings who can conceive of such a sublime, but slippery, idea. Yet we also must realize that concepts in the abstract have no perfect analogs in the physical world. The zen concept of a chair is perfect to the intellect, but only infinite imperfect variations exist in reality. We can calculate the mathematical properties of a perfect circle, but no such thing exists outside the realm of pure thought. When the abstract is made real, it is unique and unprecedented-– it is emergent-– and, while it may have aspects in common with past examples, attempting to formalize the concept in absolute terms is like trying to psychoanalyze a person not yet born.

Perhaps, then, the best way to define heroism is to understand that heroism defines itself.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Johnny Appleseed: The First Hero to Advocate "Going Green"

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The past two decades have witnessed a burgeoning public interest in protecting our planet and its limited resources.  The phrase going green was coined in the 1990s to describe the mindset and practice of caring for the environment, with green symbolizing a respect for plant life and other gifts of nature.  A growing wave of companies in all sectors of our economy are now embracing environmentally safe practices.  Going green is the right thing to do, and companies find that a green philosophy even saves them money, too.

One of the first individuals to bring the value of preserving nature to the public’s attention was Henry David Thoreau, who recognized the dangerous impact of the industrial age on the environment.  Over 150 years ago, Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  He understood the clash between modernization and environmentalism.  “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” he opined.

Thoreau was influenced by one man from the early 19th century whose impact on conservation and naturalism was so great that he became a true American legend.  This icon’s name was John Chapman, although he later became better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was born on a small farm in Massachusetts, and as a child his favorite place to spend time was his father’s apple orchard.  As a young adult, he moved west toward Ohio.  Along the way and in Ohio, he planted apple seeds in fenced orchards, sold them, and became somewhat of a wanderer who preached the value of protecting plant and animal life.

Chapman was described in a magazine article as “a small wiry man, full of restless activity.”  He sported long black hair and “keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He referred to himself as merely a “gatherer and planter of apple seeds.”  Chapman played a crucial role in America’s population shift westward during the early 19th century.  His apple orchards provided early pioneers with a self-reliant means of generating income from growing their own apples.  Fresh apples and apple butter were staples in the diets of the early American settlers.  Apple cider could be traded for flour, livestock, sugar, and other staples in cash-poor settlements.  The presence of apple orchards also signified that a piece of land was claimed, serving as the equivalent of a sold sign for all to see.

Chapman enjoyed success with his business model, but he remained a humble man who lived the simplest of lives.  He spent the majority of his adult life living with nature and planting apple nurseries. Chapman clothed himself with the most threadbare garments he received on barter for his apple trees, often giving away the better clothes to the less fortunate.  His generosity and love of nature were legendary, earning him the moniker Johnny Appleseed.  He is remembered today as the patron saint of American horticulture.

In our research on heroes, we’ve found that a certain category of heroes consists of individuals who attain a mythic status.  We call these people transfigured heroes.  Examples of heroes of this type include Amelia Earhart, Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd, St. Patrick, Merlin and Sherlock Holmes.  Transfigured heroes take on a legendary significance.  Their contributions are largely constructed, exaggerated, or glorified into legend.  We need heroes of this type.  They are larger than life.  And as in the case of Johnny Appleseed, they educate and inspire us with their selfless good works.

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Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  If so, please contact Scott Allison at sallison@richmond.edu.

Our 8th Book — Reel Heroes & Villains

ReelHVfrontcoverWhat makes a good movie hero? Which kinds of villains are the best — or the worst?

In Reel Heroes & Villains, Scott Allison and Greg Smith present a new way of understanding movie heroes and villains. Inside this book you’ll find:

  • A new innovative model of heroes & villains in the movies
  • The key to good characters in the movies: Transformation
  • The Eight Great Arcs of transformations in heroes and villains
  • How heroes and villains transform morally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically
  • How the hero’s journey differs from the villain’s journey
  • 52 reviews of movie heroes and villains in 2014

Reel Heroes & Villains is scheduled for release on August 15, 2015.

Here’s what people are saying about Reel Heroes & Villains:

“Allison and Smith have deftly crafted THE premier text of heroes and villains in contemporary cinema. A shiny portrait that brilliantly dissects the hero-villain dichotomy through a dense mixture of passion, knowledge, and humor to offer profound insights into the hero-villain relationship.”

Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company

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“A daring model of heroism and villainy. Allison and Smith’s analysis forever changes the way we view movie characters.”

Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver

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“A must-read for all fans of heroes and villains in the movies.”

Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville

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“Those mad geniuses, Allison and Smith, are back. Here are the secrets of the villains you love to hate, by the writers you love to read. Cinema’s worst villains are no match for Allison and Smith.”

Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor

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“A dive into the minds of those you love to hate. Allison and Smith examine the shadowy reflection of heroism.”

Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim

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“A revolutionary way of understanding heroes and villains in the movies. This book is Allison and Smith’s tour de force.”

Dr. James Beggan, University of Louisville

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.

Christopher Lee: Heroic Prince of Darkness

christopher_lee1By Rick Hutchins

On the silver screen, he was best known for portraying an evil that brought terror to the hearts of the innocent and the brave. For his artistry, he was knighted by Prince Charles of England.

In reality, in the darkest decade in living memory, he fought the greatest evil mankind has ever known.

Perhaps he was knighted for the wrong reason.

Sir Christopher Lee was born in 1922, his father a colonel of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, whose service dated back to the Boer War, and his mother a descendent of Charlemagne, whose beauty was preserved in art and sculpture. His first acting role was at the age of six in a school play. He was never very good at academics or sports, but he excelled in the arts. All of this is common knowledge.

But some people have unknown depths. Some lives rival the adventures of Pulp fiction.

At the onset of the second World War, Lee volunteered for the Finnish forces, but did not see combat. Two years later, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, but a medical condition prevented him from flying. Determined to serve, he then volunteered for RAF Intelligence and it was there that he truly flourished. After coming to the attention of his superior officers for his skill at decodinglee-dracula German ciphers (he was fluent in several languages), he was transferred to North Africa, where he served with the Long Range Desert Group. Here, he penetrated behind enemy lines, infiltrating Axis bases from Egypt to Benghazi to sabotage enemy aircraft and installations.

In addition to several near-death experiences while serving near the front lines, Lee was felled by malaria six times during the North African campaign, and returned to duty each time.

Following the Axis surrender in North Africa and the Allied invasion of Italy, Lee began Intelligence work for the Army. During this time, he served with the Gurkhas, suffering yet another brush with death, and took part in planning a potential assault on the Nazi’s Alpine Fortress. Lee was then returned to the Air Force, where he was promoted and posted to Air Force Headquarters to work with the Special Operations Executive, conducting espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance missions in Occupied Europe.

When the war ended, Lee worked with the Central Registry of War Criminals, tracking down Nazi fugitives and turning them over to the authorities for interrogation and indictment. He duties brought him several times to Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust firsthand.

Flight Lieutenant Christopher Lee retired from active duty in 1946. This is the bare bones of what we know of his activities in the second World War. His full service record remains classified to this day.

Lee was decorated for his heroism in wartime by Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Great Britain. He was appointed a Commander of the Venerable Order of St. John. He was knighted for his services to charity. These, of course, are in addition to the many well-deserved honors he received for his inimitable work in film.

On screen, he portrayed the darkest of villains; on the stage of life, he was truly the noblest of heroes.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ eleventh guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.

Leverage Your Fortune: Respecting Someone Costs Nothing

3611908731_95e2dd639a_zBy Steve Hutchins

Once upon a time, I was a young man. And I had some vanity. Don’t we all . . . .

I had every hair color and style under the rainbow. I knew I was a faggot, even then, and I was trying to craft myself into an image that I was attracted to. So stupid. But I was a kid.

One day, I followed my favorite hair stylist into Quincy, Massachusetts. That was cool for me; my comic book shop was in Quincy. I could get my hair done, get my monthly “stash”. It all worked. I boarded the bus and made my way. Those were the days. I was wearing my favorite long coat. It was like a trench coat, but made of wool. I wore that coat for years. Wore it out, in fact.

I ended up beside a man who was, I guess, what would be called “troubled”. I’m sure you’ve met people like this before: it’s clear something isn’t quite right, but it’s difficult to define exactly what. He started talking to me. Just talking. My Mum would kill me, but me, I’ve always had a good handle on whether I’m in danger or not. At sixteen, yes, she would have killed me.

He said to me: “You must be a businessman.”

I said, “What? Me? No!”

“Well, I saw that coat and I thought you must be a businessman.”

I replied, “Not me. It’s a nice coat, but I’m just a kid.”

american-horror-story-season-3-kathy-bates-ryan-murphy-jessica-langeAs impressed as he may have been with my coat, that wasn’t really his agenda. He wanted to talk. And he just kept talking. And I kept listening.

He was fixated on his childhood. He mentioned he was spending time in an institution in Quincy. Yes, a psychological institution. He spoke much about marijuana. Even then, it didn’t mean a thing. Ryan Murphy provided my latest cliché’ in American Horror Story: Asylum: “I don’t judge, Jude. I never judge.”

At one point in this man’s conversation, I happened to look across the bus at the other passengers. They were looking at me the same way they were looking at him. Time delivers some perspective. I was a child. These adults judged me, words unspoken, upon my casual association. It was, as if, well, you must be crazy, too, to be talking to him. I never forgot that feeling nor how unfair that was.

Was I that guy’s hero? And will I ever know? It was a time and a place in space and a circumstance and a mood and. . . well, clearly no one else on that bus was willing to talk to that man. Why not? It costs you. . . what? Respecting someone costs nothing.

I’m not sure why I’m telling this story. It was one of few defining moments in my life, but I haven’t told it in a very long time. I suppose my point is that I had been picked on, as every kid has, but that was kid stuff and I’ve always handled bullies well.

But, when those passengers on that bus looked at me, I realized that poor man was looked down upon like that every day of his life. It wasn’t a moment for him. It wasn’t a cute little story he could tell years later. He was harmless. All he wanted was an ear to bend, that’s all.

I suppose my point isn’t that my ears easily bend, but, rather, why is what I did such a difficult thing for most people? Who is the hero here? That stupid kid, sparing scant minutes of his life to listen, or that troubled guy fighting every day to live a better life? I never forgot that moment. It’s been thirty years now.

We have to try to help others where we can. Life wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.

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Steve Hutchins supports heroism in all its forms and resides in Whitman, Massachusetts.