Pedro Albizu Campos: Hero of the Puerto Rican People

By Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman

Pedro Albizu Campos was the consummate hero. In 1921 he became the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School while mastering many different languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and Greek. After earning his Harvard law degree, he returned to Puerto Rico and opened a one-man law office where he accepted food, water, and clothing as payment for his legal services from people who could not afford a lawyer.

Pedro Albizu Campos was a man who was more concerned with the progress of the Puerto Rican people than with his own personal gain. As president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNP), he was determined to lead Puerto Rico in its political battle against the United States for the island’s independence. It was during his time as president of the PNP that Puerto Rico would rally the most support it had ever seen towards its fight for political autonomy.

As befitting a hero, Albizu Campos was able to overcome considerable adversity. During his time in the United States, like many other people of color, he had to overcome blatant racism. After World War I broke out, Campos volunteered for the U.S. military and was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the army reserves. Upon completing his training Campos was assigned to the 375th Regiment, the unit reserved strictly for blacks—an act that was in accordance with the US military policies of the time due to racial segregation. Pedro Albizu Campos would eventually be honorably discharged in 1919 with the rank of First Lieutenant.

Campos graduated from Harvard Law School with the highest grade-point average in his entire law class, earning him the right to give the valedictorian speech at his graduation ceremony. Many people at Harvard did not appreciate having a mulatto Puerto Rican as valedictorian, so one of his professors delayed two of his final exams, thus keeping Campos from graduating on time. He would eventually receive his degree a year later after taking both exams and passing them while in Puerto Rico.

The conflicts that Pedro Albizu Campos experienced with the U.S. were his motivation for leading the PNP in its fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. During his time as president, members of the PNP met U.S. repression with armed resistance. In 1950 Campos was arrested as a political prisoner and was subjected to human radiation experiments leading to his death in 1965. Ironically enough this abuse occurred decades after Campos accused Dr. Cornelius Rhoads (a leading cancer specialists with the Rockefeller Institute) of injecting live cancer cells into Puerto Ricans to see if the cancer could spread. The accusations came from a manuscript Rhoads had written which Campos had published after getting his hands on it.

It was not until 1994 that the U.S. Department of Energy admitted to conducting these human radiation experiments on Campos and other individuals. Campos thus became the focal point of tension between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, putting his life on the line in the process. The lasting legacy of Pedro Albizu Campos and his fight for his people’s freedom has been compared to that of Patrick Henry, Nat Turner, Chief Crazy Horse, Frederick Douglass, and Nelson Mandela. Albizu’s political and military actions forever transformed Puerto Rico, its people, and its culture.

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Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond.  They are enrolled in Scott Allison’s Social Psychology course and composed this essay as part of their course requirement

The Invisible Heroes Among Us

dc_firefighter.jpgBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Over the past year, we’ve blogged about many important heroes.  We described the globally transforming impact of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  We shared the remarkably inspiring stories of Pat Tillman, Thomas Jefferson, and Mother Teresa.  And we discussed heroes who displayed unusual courage in doing the right thing, people such as Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, and John F. Kennedy.  Most of these individuals are household names whose faces we recognize and whose heroism is known to much of the world.

Yet, having said all this, they may not be our most important heroes.

Recently, we conducted a study in which participants were asked to estimate the prevalence of six different types of heroes in our society.  The participants were given a sheet of paper listing the six categories of heroes, along with a brief definition of each.  teacher-writing-on-a-9540.jpgTransforming heroes were defined as people who transform the society in which they live. Traditional heroes were described as individuals who show exceptional talent or who perform a single great moral action. Transparent heroes were defined as individuals who do their heroic work behind the scenes, outside the public spotlight. Transitional heroes were described as people whose heroism is unique to a particular developmental stage in our lives. Trending heroes were defined as individuals who are on a trajectory toward becoming heroes.  And transitory heroes were described as people who perform a single nonmoral action that bring them great momentary fame.

The results of our study revealed that people clearly view one of these types of heroes as far more abundant in our society compared to the others.  Which hero is it?  The transparent hero.  Participants estimated that 65% of all heroes are transparent — the invisible individuals among us whose heroic work we often take for granted, yet they perform their heroism quietly and bravely while others bask in the limelight.  No other category of heroes came close to matching this percentage.  Participants judged traditional heroes to comprise 13% of the heroes among us; transitional heroes scored 10%, transforming heroes 7%, trending heroes 3%, and transitory heroes 2%.

Who are these transparent heroes that dominate the heroic landscape?  We’ve found that people have no trouble at all thinking of many examples of these invisible heroes.  They are our parents who made great sacrifices for us.  They soldier.jpgare the teachers who molded our minds, the coaches who taught us discipline and hard work, and healthcare workers, emergency first responders, and military personnel who protect us and save us from calamity.  These heroic individuals are everywhere, quietly going about the business of nurturing us and keeping us safe. They are quite possibly the most under-appreciated members of our society.

And so if you see parents who are raising a child under challenging circumstances, we urge you to show your appreciation to them.  We encourage you to thank your teachers, both past and present.  Take a moment to express gratitude to your former and current coaches and mentors.  The next time you encounter a law enforcement officer, paramedic worker, hospital employee, or firefighter, be sure to let them know how heroic, extraordinary, and appreciated they are.  And most importantly, be sure to shake the hand of the next military serviceman or woman you see.  Their heroism may be unseen to most of society, but their sacrifice makes every good thing in our lives possible.

These invisible heroes may never make it into our school textbooks, garner their own Wikipedia entries, or have their own youtube video that goes viral.  But they are all indispensable members of our society.  These hidden heroes are also our most essential heroes.

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Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  Please send your suggestions to Scott T. Allison (sallison@richmond.edu) or to George R. Goethals (ggoethal@richmond.edu).

Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

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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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The Heroic Companionship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Heroes Book, we discuss the remarkable story of Karl Merk, a German farmer who ten years ago lost both his arms in a farming accident.  In July 2008, Merk was the recipient of the first double-arm transplant, conducted in a 15-hour surgery at the Munich University Clinic by a team of 40 doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists.  Today, after three years of intensive physical therapy, Merk has regained significant use of his arms and is acquiring more function every day.

Merk and the medical team that is treating him are an example of companionate heroes — people who are dependent on each other for their heroic qualities to surface.  Usually, but not always, companionate heroes consist of a person who needs considerable help to survive, and another person who has the perfect skill-set to assist him or her.

Perhaps the most famous companionate heroes of the 20th century were Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.  When Keller was 19 months old, she contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf.  She was imprisoned in a dark, silent world, and no one in her family could reach her.  Keller’s parents hired 20-year-old Anne Sullivan to perform the seemingly hopeless task of educating Keller.  Sullivan was the perfect person for the job.  Visually impaired herself, Sullivan was empathetic, patient, resourceful, and persevering.

Sullivan first tried to teach Keller basic language skills by using her finger to spell words on Keller’s hand, but Keller did not understand that each object had a different name.  A breakthrough occurred on April 5, 1887.  Sullivan led Keller to a water pump and splashed water on one of Keller’s hands while spelling the word water on the other hand. Keller later recalled, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

Sullivan next tackled Keller’s atrocious table manners. Keller had the habit of eating with her hands, grabbing from the plates of everyone at the table, and throwing a temper tantrum if anyone tried to stop her.  Sullivan punished Keller’s tantrums by refusing to “talk” with Helen by spelling words on her hands.  Soon Keller developed impeccable manners and learned how to perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed and brushing her hair.
Thanks to Sullivan, Keller was transformed into a bright, curious, lovely young woman who was destined to make a positive mark on the world. The bond between Keller and Sullivan grew into a beautiful friendship that lasted for 49 years.

Keller was the first deaf and blind person in America to graduate from college, and she later became a prolific author of many books and articles on a variety of social and political topics. Most importantly, Keller became a world-famous advocate for people with disabilities. The 1962 film The Miracle Worker inspired millions of people with its story of Keller’s triumph over disability and Sullivan’s selfless devotion to helping Keller fulfill her vast potential.

“Helen Keller was a fighter,” said Keller’s grandniece, Keller Thompson-Johnson. “She didn’t hide from her problems. She knew that to become a better person and to show other people that they too could overcome their disabilities, she had to be a fighter herself.”  During her lifetime, Helen Keller was consistently ranked near the top of almost every Most Admired list.  In addition, Anne Sullivan deservedly acquired the reputation as a legendary teacher.  Keller and Sullivan are forever linked as heroes who brought out the best in each other.

Below is a rare clip of Anne Sullivan explaining how she taught language skills to Helen Keller.

Does the Villain’s Journey Mirror the Hero’s Journey?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In an earlier blog post, we outlined the various stages of the hero’s journey in mythology and literature as described in 1949 by Joseph Campbell.  In the prototypical hero story, he or she is called to an adventure, sometimes reluctantly, and is swept into another world fraught with danger.  In this strange world the hero undergoes many tests and trials, gets help from unlikely sources, and is often distracted by a romantic interest.  In the end, the hero overcomes great obstacles, returns home as a person transformed, and is the master of both worlds.  It is a timeless story structure that has assumed countless forms in hero tales across the globe.

But what of the villain?  Nearly every hero story has one, yet far less attention has been devoted to understanding the life story of the prototypical villain in myth and legend.  Do heroes and villains travel along a similar life path?  Or do villains experience a journey that is the inverse of that of the hero?

The answer to the first question appears to be, yes, there are parallels between the lives of heroes and villains.  Christopher Vogler, a noted Hollywood development expert and screenwriter, once wrote that villains are the heroes of their own journeys. Vogler believed that whether a character is working toward achieving great good or great evil, the general pathway is similar.  Both heroes and villains experience a significant trigger event that propels them on their journeys.  Heroes and villains encounter obstacles, receive help from sidekicks, and experience successes and setbacks during their quests.

While we do not disagree with this general parallel structure, we’ve observed that many stories portray villains as following the hero’s life stages in reverse.  We first came across this idea from writing expert Greg Smith, who found an interesting writer’s web discussion board post by an individual going by the username of RemusShepherd.  The idea is compelling:  Whereas heroes complete their journey having attained mastery of their worlds, the story often begins with villains possessing the mastery.  That is, hero stories often start with the villains firmly in power, or at least believing themselves to be superior to others and ready to direct their dark powers toward harming others.

Examples abound.  Consider the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, the shark in Jaws, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and Annie Wilkes in Misery.  In these examples, the story begins with the villain securely in power, the master of his or her world.  The heroes of these stories, in contrast, are weak and naive at the outset.  Only after being thrust into the villains’ worlds do these heroes gather the assistance, resources, and wisdom necessary to defeat the villains.

The villain’s story is thus one of declining power while the hero’s story is one of rising power.  But before this pattern is made clear, there must be one or more epic clashes between the hero and villain, with the hero embodying society’s greatest virtues and the villain embodying selfishness and evil.  In defeat, the villain’s mastery is handed over to the hero.  The villain’s deficiencies of character have been exposed; the hero’s deficiencies have been corrected.  The two journeys, one the inverse of the other, are completed.

And so here we see that Vogler and RemusShepherd may both be correct – heroes and villains may follow similar life journeys but these journeys are often staggered in time within the same story structure.  This temporal staggering may create the illusion that heroes and villains follow inverse paths.  Consider the opening act of a typical hero story; the naïve and deficient hero is just beginning his journey while the villain is at the height of his powers.  Movie franchises may later release prequels that reveal how the villain acquired such power in the first place.  In these prequels we witness a villain backstory that parallels the first movie’s portrayal of the hero’s journey.

A fine line often separates heroes from villains, a line that is clearly delineated in their opposing moral ambitions.  But the line can also be blurred when we recognize that all transforming journeys — whether for good or for evil — must share many common storytelling elements.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2008). Deifying the Dead and Downtrodden:  Sympathetic Figures as Inspirational Leaders. In C.L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Psychology and leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Allison, S. T., & Hensel, A. (2012).  Sensitivity to the changing fortunes of others.  Personality and Social Psychology Connections.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012).  Making heroes:  The construction of courage, competence and virtue.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.

 

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Harriet Quimby: Aviatrix One

By Rick Hutchins

In the early 20th Century, men and women were considered quite different animals and the social roles assigned to them reflected that belief. Women were expected to keep house and raise children while the adventures of invention and exploration were left to the men. Going beyond those expectations was not encouraged, and often punished. Most people conformed to those limitations, but some were not content to be grounded–- some, like Harriet Quimby, felt compelled to find new horizons.

Long before being bitten by the aviation bug, Quimby led an independent and liberated lifestyle that was the envy of many women of her day. An unmarried woman in New York City, she was a successful writer, turning out articles for the magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly for many years, as well as several screenplays for DW Griffith in the early days of Hollywood. She was an “old maid” of thirty-five when she attended an international aviation tournament on Long Island and met famous aviator John Moisant (whose sister was to quickly follow in Quimby’s footsteps). Her first flying lessons soon followed. A headline in The New York Times, typical of the attitudes of that era, stated “Woman in Trousers Daring Aviator; Long Island Folk Discover That Miss Harriet Quimby Is Making Flights at Garden City.”

A year later, in 1911 (more than a decade before Amelia Earhart), Quimby became the first woman in the United States to earn an aviator’s certificate. Her friend Matilde Moisant became the second shortly thereafter.

But Quimby was not yet finished with making history. The next year, in April of 1912 (the day after the sinking of the Titanic), she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel.

Sadly, her next milestone was a tragic one. In July of 1912, she attended, and participated in, The Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum on Dorchester Bay. While circling Boston Harbor, with event organizer William Willard as a passenger, her plane experienced unexpected turbulence and both pilot and passenger fell to their deaths, the plane crashing on the beach.

A century has now passed since the untimely death of Harriet Quimby. The romantic figure of the first aviatrix in her distinctive purple flight suit is all but forgotten. But thanks to her and others like her, the opportunities for women in society have expanded to a degree that few in her lifetime would have believed possible. Yet it is still true, well into the 21st Century, that both women and men are pressed to limit themselves to roles defined by their gender. Most will conform. But some will not be content to be grounded. And thanks to those like Harriet Quimby, their flight may be a little smoother.

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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’ fifth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards,  appears in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Can Dogs be Heroes? The Day A Dog Saved Me

By Scott T. Allison

One of the most memorable moments of my life occurred when I was about 10 years old.  At that time, I walked about one mile each day to school – Woodlake Avenue Elementary School, located in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California.   I just googled the school and sure enough, 40 years later, it’s still there.

One morning I was walking to school and was no more than a block away from home when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I was startled to see a large, brown, and very angry dog running directly at me at full speed.  I stopped in my tracks, terrified.  The dog rushed at me with fuming growls, snarling teeth, and unmistakable hostility. There was absolutely nowhere for me to run or escape.  No tree to climb, no shelter available.  I was sure that I was about to be ripped to pieces.

When the dog was about ten feet from me, a second astonishing thing happened.

From the right, another dog, a different breed but just as big, appeared.  This second dog also seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it instantly positioned itself between me and the attacking dog.  The second dog snarled and barked at the first dog and did not allow it to harm me.  The two dogs squared off, barking and growling at each other.  Each time the first dog tried to lunge at me, the second one cut it off and sent the attacking animal backwards.

Perhaps 15 seconds passed as I watched in amazement, and relief.  One dog was doing everything it could to save me from another.  I gradually recovered from the shock of the situation and resumed my walk to school, at a quick pace, looking back over my shoulder to see what was happening.  When the first dog attempted to follow me, the second one blocked its path.  The two dogs continued to bark and snarl at each other, and soon their noises faded and they were both out of sight.

One remarkable fact about this incident is that I had never seen either dog before that day.  And I never saw them again afterward.  Where in the world had they come from?  And where did they go?

A skeptic might say that the second dog was not protecting me.  Perhaps I just happened to get caught in the middle of a showdown between the two canine superpowers in the neighborhood.

I’m certain this isn’t the case.  I am absolutely sure that the first dog was directing its anger at me, and me alone.  It had made a bee-line toward me, it made clear eye contact with me, and it’s intention was to do harm to me.  And I am equally certain that the second dog’s sudden intervention surprised the first dog as much as it surprised me.  That big beautiful second dog simply would not allow the first animal to hurt me.  There is no doubt in my mind that second animal arrived on the scene to protect me.

There is one intuitive gut feeling about this incident that I must also share.  And I must confess that while this is a leap of inference from the facts that I have just described, it is a powerful feeling that I can’t dismiss.  As I stood there, amazed that a second dog had arrived to thwart the attack, I could sense an amazing presence of love and goodness in that second dog.  It was doing everything in its power to save me and protect me.  I sensed pure selfless love.

I felt, and still feel, overwhelming gratitude toward this altruistic animal.

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For the past three years, I’ve had Google send me every online story it can find involving a hero saving someone’s life.  Every day I get stories from all over the world.  The vast majority are stories of humans saving humans.  But several times each month, there is a story about a dog saving a human life.  A dog who barks in the night to wake her owner because of smoke in the house.  A dog who drags another injured dog off of busy highway.  A dog who alerts someone when his owner falls unconscious.

Yes, there are cat hero stories, too, but they are far fewer in number.  Dogs seem to be hardwired to love and protect people, and there are numerous stories of dogs saving people.  Some of them are amazing and quite moving.  You can read some of these stories here, and other ones here.

Do you have a story about someone who has saved you?  I’d love to hear about it.  It doesn’t matter to me if the creature saving you was a human being, an animal, a god, or a martian.  I’m interested.

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You can contact Scott Allison at sallison@richmond.edu.

Death and Heroism

By Scott T. Allison

“Death throws life out of balance, and it’s up to us, the living, to try to bring that balance back.” - Rick Hutchins

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the link between heroism and death. Last spring, two events in Richmond, the city I love and call home, sent my heart and my head into a state of grievous yet hopeful pondering.

On May 10, 2014, two of my colleagues at the University of Richmond died tragically in a hot air balloon accident. I knew one of the women, Ginny Doyle, the Associate Head Coach of the women’s basketball team. She is described by everyone who knew her as the shining light of the university. She was a stellar athlete and even better person.

The same praise is being heaped upon Natalie Lewis, who also perished. Natalie was a natural leader, a young woman with so much promise she was named Director of Basketball Operations in her early twenties. She exuded kindness and had a smile that lit up every room she entered. These two individuals are gone but not before leaving an indelible imprint on our small but loving campus community.

I think about Ginny and Natalie the same way I think about my sister Sheree, who succumbed to cancer only a few months earlier. In a flash, our short lives can be rendered shorter than we could ever imagine. We had best be mindful about how we use what precious time we have.

I wrote about my sister and called her, “the quiet hero.” The same can be said about Ginny and Natalie. They quietly touched the lives of many people in ways that will have a ripple effect throughout eternity. Kindness begets kindness, I am sure of it.

Death has a way of humbling all of us. Before they died, it’s quite possible that few would use the ‘hero’ label to describe Ginny, Natalie, or Sheree. Part of this may be due to death heightening our evaluations of those who pass. But I also believe that death amplifies our sensitivity and appreciation of the inherent goodness in people. Death directs our attention to what really matters in life – love.

In the end, our loving actions define us.

If love is paramount, then it is especially heart-gutting when someone dies while performing an act of love. This is precisely what happened here in Richmond in late April of 2014. Eight-year-old Marty Cobb was playing outside when he saw his older sister being attacked by a 16-year-old boy. Marty rushed to help her and died at the hands of the older boy while trying to protect her. Marty’s sister recovered from her injuries. But Marty is forever gone.

It is unthinkable for a precious young boy to die from any cause, but when the boy dies while saving his sister’s life, the pain is — to paraphrase Rudy Giuliani — more than any of us can bear. Marty didn’t just live a life of a hero, as did Ginny, Natalie, and Sheree. He died a hero. There is no nobler way to go.

Marty’s selfless act of ultimate sacrifice has only compounded the outpouring of grief, love, and heartache that Richmond’s citizens are now feeling. Summing up Marty perfectly, a makeshift sign placed outside Marty’s home reads, “Pound for pound, year for year, few greater heroes if any.”

The multi-layered connection between death and heroism exists for a reason. We all are called to pause and reflect about the loving lives of those who have been suddenly wrenched from us. Their lives inspire us all because they call us all.

Three beloved Richmonders are no longer with us. Drawing attention to their immense love deepens our sadness but also instills a joyous recognition that their heroism, quiet and otherwise, is an extraordinary gift fated to reverberate throughout eternity.

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Your Life Purpose? Go on the Hero’s Journey

By Scott T. Allison

What is your purpose in life? This question is as old as the human race itself. Some argue that our purpose is to find happiness. Others say our purpose is to love others, to become the best version of ourselves, or to follow God’s will. Still others say there is no purpose to life at all.

I believe that our lives do have a purpose, and that the clues are all around us in plain view. You can’t miss them. Our purpose is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we easily overlook it or take it for granted.

Put simply, your purpose in life is to live the life of a hero.

The hero’s journey is captured in all the great stories in literature, and in all the great movies we enjoy on the big screen. Hero stories endow our lives with meaning and reveal how a human life is meant to be lived.

Hero stories illuminate your true purpose in four ways:

1. You will go on a journey. At some point during your life, you will journey away from the comforts of your familiar world. In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado sends Dorothy to the land of Oz. In The Fault in Our Stars, cancer sends Hazel to Amsterdam. The hero’s journey can be real or metaphorical. Sometimes heroes choose the journey; sometimes the journey is chosen for them. Brace yourself – your life always includes some type of voyage, fraught with discomfort but crucial in revealing your life purpose.

2. You will grow from adversity. Overcoming obstacles and failures is a central part of your life journey. Children’s fairy tales prepare us for adversity by featuring heroes who grow from their setbacks. The three little pigs find a way to outsmart the big bad wolf. Bambi overcomes his mother’s death to grow into a great leader. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure,” observed mythologist Joseph Campbell. Heroes use adversity to better themselves. When you are challenged by the darkest of life circumstances, know that your journey is fashioning you into a wiser, more resilient individual.

3. You will assemble a team of allies. You should never undertake your journey alone. Heroes find a way to attract sidekicks, friends, and mentors to help them overcome obstacles. Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company calls it “building a team around you.” Often the person who helps you is someone you least expect. Remember that the point of the journey is to transform you into a stronger, better person. Trusted allies will guide you through adversity and will assist you in becoming forever transformed by your journey.

4. You will give back to society – The hero’s journey is far more than mere personal transformation. Once you return from your journey, you will use your new-found gifts to make the world a better place. In 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon survives his ordeal as a slave and then works to end slavery. In The Odyssey, Odysseus endures his turbulent voyage home and then becomes a wise ruler of Ithaca.

Your life purpose is to use your own personal transformation to help transform society. Once mentored by another, you will now mentor others. Your selfless service to the world will forge your place in the human chain of love shown by people who came before you and by people who will follow you.

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The hero’s journey is not just illustrated in fiction but in the real lives of the world’s greatest heroes, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These three legends lived the four truths of heroism outlined above and used their gifts to forever change the world.

You may not be on the life trajectory of a Gandhi or a Mandela, but rest assured you are on a hero’s journey that has momentous implications for yourself and for the world. Perhaps you are in the process of overcoming cancer, a difficult childhood, a financial setback, or some major transgression. As you struggle, remember that regardless of the outcome, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose. Each human life is meant to be a heroic life.

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Liz Murray: The Hero Who Went From Homeless to Harvard

By Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta

People do not need to possess superpowers to be heroes. All humans are equipped with the ability to summon up the necessary resilience and resourcefulness to overcome adversity, and in extreme cases these efforts can be a heroic inspiration to us all. No one illustrates this idea better than Liz Murray, who transformed herself from being a homeless person into a Harvard graduate.

Born to loving, yet drug-addicted parents, Liz Murray suffered through a turbulent childhood in which most of the money that came into the household was spent on drugs. Murray recalls moments where her mother stole her birthday money, the Thanksgiving turkey, and the family television for cocaine and heroine. Lacking basic resources such as clean clothes and food, Liz Murray had to learn at an early age how to shoplift.

Due to her poor circumstances and having to care for her sick mother, Murray attended school irregularly. Soon her mother died of AIDS, and then her father abandoned her and her sister. The two children had no choice but to live in a homeless shelter. There seemed to be no future for either of them.

Despite these dire circumstances, including hunger and homelessness, Liz Murray chose to structure her life around education. She made the decision that she would become a straight A student and graduate from high school. Sleeping on underground trains, park benches, and her friend’s couch, Liz Murray studied for exams anywhere that she could. She overcame the downward trajectory that many teenagers in her situation follow by believing that every day represented an opportunity for growth.

As a result of her hard work, Murray managed to win the New York Times scholarship for kids in need and, with the help of a dedicated high school teacher, was accepted into her dream school, Harvard University. As her heroic story was passed along to Oprah Winfrey and other sources, the media promoted her heroic story to mass audiences. The cable TV channel Lifetime produced an original movie re-creating her heroic journey.

In their research on heroism, psychologists Scott Allison and George Goethals have found that heroes typically excel in the areas of morality, competence, or both. As a teenager and young adult, Murray distinguished herself on the heroic dimension of competence by dedicating her life to receiving an education. After she graduated from Harvard, she began to show great morality by using her success to inspire others to follow their dreams.

She wrote a book describing her harrowing upbringing and her decision to prevail over her circumstances. Her autobiography is aptly subtitled, A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard. The book speaks to all of us by teaching us that anything is possible if you make every day count toward achieving our goals.

Liz Murray is also a hero for sharing her story in her role as a motivational speaker. The focus of her speeches is on helping children and teens avoid drug addiction and gangs, and to strive to complete their education. On her Facebook page, she describes herself as “a believer of possibilities, creativity, audacity, passion, fun, and a global community.” This could be the motto of all heroes.

Below is a clip of Liz Murray describing her story.

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Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta 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.