Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

The Almost Hero

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAgIAAAAJDYxYjY4NWIxLWVkNjgtNGU5Yi1iMGFiLTkxYzc4YzJiOGU0ZQBy Rick Hutchins and Scott T. Allison

If you love heroes and desire to live in a more heroic society, there is no better time to be alive than right now. There is a clear and growing “heroism movement” brewing around the world, manifesting itself in hero conferences, hero activism, and hero research. Underlying each component of the heroism movement is the idea that we can all be heroes, that heroism is not reserved for the few, the special, the elite among us, but rather is within close reach of us all.

Close reach, however, does not mean easy reach.

This brings us to the concept of the “Almost Hero”. The Almost Hero is the person perched on the precipice of heroism, the individual who has heroic capability but doesn’t know it or who attempts to be heroic but just falls short.

In this essay, we consider three types of Almost Heroes.

First, there is the Almost hero who succumbs to the “bystander effect”, a phenomenon thrust into public consciousness after Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964. For every instance of a heroic passerby coming to the aid of a person in peril, there is a corresponding tale of those who stand idly by and witness a crime or assault without intervening. It’s the classic case of the road not taken. In one timeline, a person is saved and a hero is made, while in the other there is tragedy for one and a missed opportunity for the other.

What factors decide which outcome prevails? Science has an answer. Studies have shown that people fail to help because they “diffuse responsibility”, which is one’s tendency to assume that other people should do the hard work of heroism instead of oneself.

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Of course, Almost Heroism of this type does not apply to those who do not have the option of taking action; one cannot expect the elderly or the disabled to rush into a burning building or dive into a rushing river, nor even expect the average person to engage an overwhelming or armed assailant. Here we are strictly concerned with those who could have acted but for one reason or another failed to do so.

The bystander effect is a striking example of Almost Heroes choosing not to act when action is needed to save lives.

But what about Almost Heroes who do act but whose actions fall short? What are we to make of them?

This brings us to the second type of Almost Hero, the individual who rushes into a burning building to save someone but is overcome with smoke and must return to fresh air before successfully reaching the victim. Or the Almost Hero who attempts CPR on an unbreathing heart attack victim but cannot revive the person. Why should these failed attempts at heroism preclude them from achieving the status of hero?

These attempts are usually referred to as “heroic efforts” or “heroic measures,” acknowledging the intent and the struggle to avert disaster, even if the attempt falls short of success. In this case, the Almost Hero may be judged either generously or harshly by public opinion, depending on the particular circumstances surrounding the event, but the most unforgiving critic of a failed heroic attempt is almost invariably the Almost Hero himself.

But there is a third category of Almost Hero more tragic than either apathy or failure: What of those who sacrifice their own lives in their vain attempt to help another? Shortsighted people may condemn such people as foolhardy, but most of us know better. There is no nobler act than dying in the act of serving others, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Yet because we live in a society that worships at the altar of the final outcome, this third type of Almost Hero is the most overlooked hero. Behavior speaks volumes. If someone puts herself in harm’s way to help others, she is a hero regardless of the outcome.

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We conclude with two caveats.

First, we should note that Zeno Franco, a renowned heroism scientist, has discussed the idea of “heroic failure”, which does NOT refer to the idea of a failed heroic attempt but rather to the idea of a failure to even try. Franco writes, “By heroic failure what is meant is not that someone 4d132-thinkstockphotos-527343105tried to be heroic and failed in the process, but rather that a leader’s heroic imagination failed, thus not allowing her to see the unfolding crisis events as requiring a heroic response.”

It is incumbent upon all of us to avoid heroic failure, to remain vigilant for opportunities to help others.

Second, we emphasize the benefits of helping others for both the helper and the recipient of helping. It really is a win-win situation. Obviously, the recipient stands much to gain; his or her life may be saved. But what good does helping do the helper?

Researchers have found that we benefit ourselves when we perform acts of kindness. Doing a good deed increases levels of oxytocin, a “cardioprotective” hormone that lowers blood pressure, decreases depression, and slows the aging process. Helping others has also been shown to increase optimism, moods, and relationship satisfaction.

So there you have it. Do not settle for Almost Heroism. Settle for nothing less than Full Throttle Heroism that not only benefits the helper and the helpee, but also benefits our entire society. Research has shown that kindness is contagious. We are inspired by tales of heroism, and your act of heroic kindness will produce a ripple effect that can forever alter the heroic mindset of generations to come.

References

Franco, Z. E. (2017). Heroism in Times of Crisis: Understanding Leadership During Extreme Events. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

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This essay represents the first collaboration between Rick Hutchins and Scott Allison. Rick 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.

To Be a Hero, or Not To Be? On the Pursuit of the Heroic Life

Heroes blog OE 3By Olivia Efthimiou

Much attention is now being paid to the heights humans can achieve and the best of human nature. This is indeed a welcome and much-needed change, and heroism is in many ways leading the fold in this new wave of thinking. The hero is overwhelmingly seen as a symbol of triumph, overcoming the odds against him or her for some victorious end result. They defeat evil and order is restored in the world.

But reality is not as clear-cut. The burden and scars the hero can be left with as a result of what they have learnt and the trials they have undergone may leave them dispirited, calling for even greater amounts of courage to deal with the outcome of the journey. At other times there is no clear triumph as the journey might mean having to live with lifelong pain, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or brain damage.

Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006, p. 31) speak of the “subtleties” of heroism that have been lost. The common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated, overemphasised ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality. An ordinary wo/man who as a result of a single noble act or acts of bravery (usually in sequence) rises to the status of hero or superhuman, sealed into this realm therein. As Franco and Zimbardo (2006) suggest we are all, under the right conditions, capable of both evil (as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison experiment) and heroism. Arguably it is most accurate to describe the life of a human as a combination of both, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Daily acts of reaching outside our comfort zone can be regarded as heroic – we are creatures of habit and comfort. But we are also curious creatures, with an innate thirst for imagining the impossible. An act of doing something that feels uncomfortable, however small, taps into this inborn adventurous spirit, bringing us closer to our innate heroic nature. It is these small subtleties that are indeed becoming lost in all the celebratory fan fare of ‘superheroes’ and celebrity culture. True heroism is likely Heroes blog OE 1to be a quiet, subtle thing, like a whisper in the dark that you can barely sense. But it is there. So let us begin to celebrate the small, the subtle, the unseen. For it is there that our true treasure lies.

Introducing the concept of the “banality of heroism” proposed by Franco and Zimbardo (2006) almost a decade ago, by no means denigrates the centrality of heroism in day to day life. If anything it escalates it, paving the way for a system where everyone is a hero. Acknowledging the value of heroism means acknowledging the value of journey and story, both our own and of others. We must begin to respect story as science, as episteme (from its Ancient Greek derivation), or as deep knowing – and knowledge as a journey itself – and dispel one-dimensional views of individuals, groups and the cosmos, recognising them for the rich tapestries that they are.

I believe that this type of science can provide answers to the enduring presence of heroism, which is arguably one of the few constants of not only the history of humans, but the universe itself. I believe we will also constantly fail to fully comprehend heroism’s function if we continue to look at it as a ‘higher’ ‘superior’ state of humanity (and indeed by not looking outside humanity), but rather as something innate and firmly embedded within life and physiology itself. I believe that rather than thinking of heroism as something ‘out there’, a magical quality associated with a ‘mythical’ past that left us, it has always been there. We just need to open our eyes to it in new ways. In describing this work as merely an initial attempt, Franco and Zimbardo (2006, p. 33) themselves emphasise that “at best, it allows us to propose a few speculations that warrant further investigation”.

Behind every crisis, there is a hero. Behind every life that shatters, there is the opportunity to put it back together. Heroism is a gift bestowed to all of us, which, if left unrealised, becomes a curse and the root of our Pandora’s box. Sometimes the cost is simply too high – so why be heroic? Because as the fictional character of Peter Parker says in the end of Spider-Man 3, “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice. … It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we could always choose to do what’s right.” And most of the time it is not about good or bad choices, but choices that were simply not good enough. Those are the ones that make the most impact in a world where heroism is banal.

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Note: This is a short version of the essay “The problem of heroism” appearing in the online commentary forum Heroism Today.

References

Franco, Z. E., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 3, 30-35.

Olivia Efthimiou is a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound Research Centre. She is the website creator and administrator of Heroism Science – Promoting the Transdisciplinary Study of Heroism in the 21st Century and lead Editor of International Advances in Heroism Science.

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Are Men More Likely Than Women to Become Heroes and Villains?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The world recently observed the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster in which 1,514 people died after the ship struck an iceberg.  Much has been said about the “women and children first” rule that determined who would be the lucky ones to board the limited number of lifeboats.  Editorial cartoons of the day honored the heroic men who sacrificed their lives to allow others to live.  While gender roles have certainly changed since 1912, studies show that there is still considerable pressure on males to protect women from danger and to place their own well-being behind that of women.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister at Florida State University thinks he knows why men seem so self-sacrificing.  In nearly all human societies “men are expendable,” he proclaims.  And with expendability comes the kind of heroism shown by the men of the Titanic who drowned so that others would live.

Understanding Baumeister’s argument requires an examination of his larger thesis, namely, that evolution has endowed men and women with different motivations and priorities.  In his recent book, Is There Anything Good About Men, Baumeister first examines our patriarchal society — the inescapable fact that men have long dominated the political and economic spheres of our culture.  Men are more likely than women to be presidents, prime ministers, and members of Congress and Parliament.  Men are also more likely to be CEOs of major corporations and wielders of power on Wall Street.  We also see more men discovering cures for diseases, exploring space, and creating great works of art.

Feminists have argued that this gender gap in power, success, and wealth is due to men’s deliberate attempt to oppress women.  Baumeister does not disagree with this assertion.  He does, however, challenge us to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.

Baumeister’s first observation is that while there are no doubt more men than women at the top of society, there are also more men at the bottom.  Men are far more likely than women to commit crimes and to serve time in prison.  Men are also more likely to suffer from severe mental disabilities; they are more likely to die in wars; they are more likely to be homeless; and they are more likely to have the worst and most dangerous jobs in society.

In short, Baumeister argues that men go to extremes more than women.  “In an important sense,” he writes, “men really are better AND worse than women.”

Why is this the case?  Baumeister points to biology and evolution.  Recent research using DNA analysis reveals that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.  Throughout all of human history, it is estimated that perhaps about 80% of women but only 40% of men have been able to reproduce.  “It would be shocking,” writes Baumeister, “if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences.”

Because men have faced a more daunting challenge in reproducing, they may have evolved to be more risk-taking than women.  Nature may have designed men to take chances, try new things, be creative, and explore bold possibilities.  Becoming a hero who succeeded in these risky endeavors may have given men a better chance to attract a woman with whom to reproduce.

Baumeister believes that because women are able only to bear a few children in their lifetime, their priority is to “play it safe” and invest time in developing close intimate relationships.  Women have done best by minimizing risks.

The key to understanding why women have evolved to avoid physical risk lies in understanding what drives population growth.  Baumeister argues that population growth depends much more upon there being plenty of women than upon there being plenty of men.  “To maximize reproduction,” says Baumeister, “a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but only a few penises can do the job.”  If a society loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized.  But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be significantly smaller.  As a result, most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men to do the risky work.

In short, men were designed by nature to take chances, risk their lives, and strive — mostly unsuccessfully — for greatness.

According to Baumeister, the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in a patriarchal conspiracy.  Rather, it came from naturally evolving forces that drove expendable men to seek out wealth, knowledge, and power at great risk to themselves and with the goal of improving their reproductive chances.

This brings us back to the Titanic and the men who heroically died so that women and children would live.  While nature may have designed men for this type of bold heroic sacrifice, this same brazenness sends many men spiraling downward toward a life of crime and other villainous activities.  Men are thus hard-wired for both greatness and wretchedness.  It’s a provocative idea, and it’s not without its detractors.  But it is also an idea well-worth thinking about.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R. (2010). Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Resurrection of Christ is the Hero’s Transformation

Resurrection1By Scott T. Allison

Every Easter season, about three billion Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In an earlier blog post, we discussed the heroism of Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. For Christians, resurrection signifies the immense power of God, and it validates who Jesus claimed to be, namely, the son of God.

But there is more.

According to many scholars, including Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr, the rise, suffering and resurrection of Jesus are all significant because they model the human journey of growth, setback, and heroic transformation. I use the word “model” deliberately. We’re all destined to rise, fall, and become resurrected. Jesus showed us that our lives are all about — or should be about — transformation.

The life of Jesus is a blueprint for all human life. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the significance of Jesus’ life and death.

For now, let’s focus on transformation, which I believe is the centerpiece of the hero’s journey. All good heroes in storytelling undergo a transformation that forever changes them morally, emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually. My friend and colleague Greg Smith and I talk about the significance of these types of transformations in our 2015 book, Reel Heroes & Villains.

There is no more dramatic transformation than campbell_herothe one undergone by Jesus of Nazareth. His life followed the classic pattern in hero storytelling. Denied proper shelter and born in a manger, Jesus overcame poverty to grow into the wisest spiritual leader of his time – a remarkable transformation. This transformative rise of the hero represents the first part of the heroic arc.

As with all heroes, his ascendancy had to come to an end. Jesus was arrested for threatening the established order, and he was tortured and brutally murdered. This tragic fall of the hero is part two of the classic heroic arc.

The third act in the heroic journey is the hero’s rising from the ashes of defeat. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “The crucifixion is not a calamity if it leads to new life.” The resurrection was a dramatic physical and spiritual transformation that not only represented the transcendence of Jesus – it transformed all of Western civilization for two millennia and beyond.

More from Campbell: “Through Christ’s crucifixion we were unshelled, which enabled us to Falling-Upwardbe born to resurrection. The imitation of Christ, then, is participating in the suffering and joys of the world, all the while seeing through them the radiance of the divine presence.”

And from Richard Rohr: “Jesus is actually naming and revealing what is happening everywhere and all the time in God. Jesus’ resurrection is a statement about how reality works: always moving toward resurrection.”

Resurrection, then, is transcendence. For Christians, it can also be likened to other phenomena of spiritual change, including conversion and salvation. Hindus call dramatic growth of this type enlightenment, and Buddhists call it bodhicitta. Twelve step programs call it an awakening. The Greeks called it metamorphosis. Psychologists like myself label it plain old development.

But development is clearly an understatement. Transformation is a complete change in form, not unlike a caterpillar transforming intometamorphosis a butterfly. The resurrection of Jesus is the most dramatic form of transformation possible, at personal level and at the level of an entire society or culture.

The pattern in Jesus’ life, and in our own lives, is clear. We move from order to disorder to reorder. And psychologists who study post-traumatic growth will tell you that the final reorder is a more beautiful place to be than the original order.

Transformation gives us hope that no matter how dire our circumstances, we can be redeemed. Hero stories move us all because they call us all. This Easter season, we can pay attention to the story of resurrection and thereby learn much about the hero’s journey that awaits each of us.

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Bibliography

Allison, Scott, and Goethals, George. (2017). The hero’s transformation.

Allison, Scott, and Smith, Greg. (2015). Reel Heroes & Villains.

Campbell, Joseph. (1995). Reflections on the Art of Living.

Rohr, Richard. (2011). Falling Upward.

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 book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Suffering and Sacrifice: The Necessary Ingredients of Heroism

Question-About-Suffering1By Scott T. Allison and Gwendolyn C. Setterberg

“Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary life.” – C.S. Lewis

Are pain and suffering destructive experiences to be avoided, or are they opportunities for people to develop an extraordinary life? The wisdom of spiritual philosophies throughout the ages has converged with modern psychological research to produce an answer: Suffering and sacrifice offer profound gains, advantages, and opportunities to those open to such boons.

Our review of the wisdom gleaned from theology and psychology reveals at least six beneficial effects of suffering. These include the idea that suffering (1) has redemptive qualities, (2) signifies important developmental milestones, (3) fosters humility, (4) elevates compassion, (5) encourages social union and action, and (6) provides meaning and purpose.

1. Suffering is Redemptive

Buddhism teaches us that suffering is inevitable but can also be a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. The Buddha cautioned that the desire for enlightenment and awakening asks much from those who seek it. One must turn toward the root-of-suffering-is-attachment-570x377suffering to conquer it. Buddhists redeem themselves by channeling the full energy of their attachments to the physical world – the cause of all suffering – into compassionate concern for others.

Christianity also embraces the redemptive value of suffering. Foremost in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the idea that all human suffering stems from the fall of man (Genesis 1:31). The centerpiece of suffering in the New Testament is, of course, the portrayal of the passion of Christ through the Synoptic Gospels. For Christians, Christ’s suffering served the purpose of redeeming no less than the entire human race, elevating Jesus into the role of the Western world’s consummate spiritual leader for the past two millennia.

Our previous work on the psychology of heroism has identified personal transformation through struggle as one of the defining characteristics of heroic leadership. Nelson Mandela, for example, endured 27 years of harsh imprisonment before assuming the presidency of South Africa. Mandela’s ability to prevail after such long-term suffering made him an inspirational hero worldwide. Desmond Tutu opined that Mandela’s suffering “helped to purify him and grow the magnanimity that would become his hallmark”.

In the field of positive psychology, scholars have acknowledged the role of suffering in the development of healthy character strengths. Positive psychology recognizes beneficial effects of suffering through the principles of posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth, positive adjustment, positive adaptation, and adversarial growth.

A study of character strengths measured before and after the September 11th terrorist attacks showed an increase in people’s “faith, hope, and love”. The redemptive development of hope, wisdom, and resilience as a result of suffering is said to have contributed to the leadership excellence of figures such as Helen Keller, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shiva Nazar Ahari, Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling, and Ludwig van Beethoven, among others.

2. Suffering Signifies a Necessary “Crossover” Point in Life

Psychologists who study lifespan development have long known that humans traverse through various stages of maturation from birth to death. Each necessary entanglement on the human journey represents painful progress toward becoming fully human, each struggle an opportunity for people to achieve the goal of wholeness. According to Erik Erikson, people must successfully negotiate a specific crisis associated with each growth stage. If mishandled, the crisis can produce suffering, and it is this suffering produces the necessary motivation for progression to the subsequent stage.

Erikson was the first psychologist to describe the causes and consequences of the “midlife crisis”. According to Erikson, middle-aged people often struggle to find their purpose or meaning in life, particularly after their children have left the home. The only way to move forward is to carve out a life of selfless generativity. A Life-stagesgenerative individual is charitable, communal, socially connected, and willing to selflessly better society. Generativity is the only antidote to the midlife crisis. Generative individuals are among society’s most valuable human assets; they are often called the elders or heroes of society.

A recurring theme in world literature is the idea that people must plummet to physical and emotional depths before they can ascend to new heights. In The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus descends to Hades where he meets the blind prophet Tireseas. Only at this lowest of points, in the depths of the underworld, is Odysseus given the gift of insight about how to become the wise ruler of Ithaca. The Apostles’ Creed tells of Jesus descending into hell before his ascent to heaven. Somehow, the author(s) of the creed deemed it absolutely necessary for Jesus to fall before he could “rise” from the dead.

In eastern religious traditions, such as Hinduism, one encounters the idea that suffering follows naturally from the commission of immoral acts in one’s current or past life. This type of karma involves the acceptance of suffering as a just consequence and as an opportunity for spiritual progress.

The message is clear: we must die, or some part of us must die, before we can live, or at least move forward. If we resist that dying – and most every one of us does – we resist what is good for us and hence bring about our own suffering. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed that “the foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of true suffering.”

Paradoxically, if we avoid suffering, we avoid growth. People who resist any type of dying will experience necessary suffering. Those who resist suffering are ill equipped to serve as the leaders of society. Our most heroic leaders, like Nelson Mandela, have been “through the fire” and have thus gained the wisdom and maturity to lead wisely.

3. Suffering Encourages Humility

Spiritual traditions from around the world emphasize that although life can be painful, a higher power is at work using our circumstances to humble us and to shape us into what he, she, or it wants us to be. C.S. Lewis once noted, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Richard Rohr opines that suffering “doesn’t accomplish anything tangible but creates space for learning and love.” Suffering serves the purpose of humbling us and waking us from the dream of self-sufficiency.

Humility is a major step toward “recovery” in twelve-step programs such Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous, and Al-Anon. Step 1 asks participants in theseHumility programs to admit their total powerlessness over their addiction. The spiritual principle at work here is the idea that victory is only possible through admitting defeat. Richard Rohr argues that only when people reach the limits of their private resources do they become willing to tap into the “ultimate resource” – God, Allah, the universe, or some power greater than themselves.

In twelve-step programs, pain, misery, and desperation become the keys to recovery. Step 7 asks program members to “humbly ask God” to remove personal defects of character (italics added). This humility can only be accomplished by first admitting defeat and then accepting that one cannot recover from addiction without assistance from a higher power. In the end, selflessly serving others – Step 12 — is pivotal in maintaining one’s own sobriety and recovery.

4. Suffering Stimulates Compassion

Suffering also invokes compassion for those who are hurting. Every major spiritual tradition emphasizes the importance of consolation, relief, and self-sacrificial outreach for the suffering. Buddhist use two words in reference to compassion. The first is karuna, which is the willingness to bear the pain of another and to practice kindness, affection, and gentleness toward those who suffer. The second term is metta, which is an altruistic kindness and love that is free of any selfish attachment.

Biblical references to compassion abound. According to James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” In Mark 6:34: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, Compassionbecause they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” For Jesus, compassion for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the unclothed, the widowed, the imprisoned, and the orphaned was at the core of his heroic leadership.

Psychologists have found that just getting people to think about the suffering of others activates the vagus nerve, which is associated with compassion. Having people read uplifting stories about sacrifice increases empathy to the same degree as various kinds of spiritual practices such as contemplation, prayer, meditation, and yoga. Being outside in a beautiful natural setting also appears to encourage greater compassion. Feelings of awe and wonder about the universe and the miracle of life can increase both sympathy and compassion.

Being rich and powerful may also undermine empathic responses. In a series of fascinating studies, researchers observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection. They discovered that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other motorists rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Luxury car drivers were more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk rather than let the pedestrian cross the road. Compared to lower and middle-class participants, wealthy participants also showed little heart rate change when watching a video of children with cancer.

These data suggest that more powerful and wealthy people are less likely to show compassion for the less fortunate than are the weak and the poor. Heroic leaders are somehow able to guard against letting the power of their position compromise their values of compassion and empathy for the least fortunate.

5. Suffering Promotes Social Union and Collective Action

Sigmund Freud wrote, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love object or its love.” It is clear that Freud viewed social relations as the cause of suffering. In contrast, the spiritual view of suffering reflects the opposite position, namely, that suffering is actually the cause of our social relations. Suffering brings people together and is much better than joy at creating bonds among group members.

Psychologist Stanley Schachter told his research participants that they were about to receive painful electric shocks. Before participating in the study, they were asked to choose one of two waiting rooms in which to sit. Participants about to receive shocks were much more likely to choose the waiting room with people in it compared to the empty room. Schachter concluded that misery loves company.

Schachter then went a step further and asked a different group of participants, also about to receive the shocks, if they would prefer to wait in a room with other participants who were about to receive shocks, or a room with participants who would not be receiving shocks. Schachter found that participants about to receive shocks much preferred the room with others who were going to share the same fate. His conclusion: misery doesn’t love any kind of company; misery loves miserable company.

Effective leaders intuitively know how to use suffering to rally people behind a cause. This leadership skill can be used to achieve evil ends, as Franklin_D_Roosevelt_Quotationswhen Adolf Hitler roused the German people to action after their nation suffered from the aftermath of the first world war. Leadership that uses suffering to achieve a moral or higher purpose can be said to be heroic leadership. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were masters at capitalizing on the suffering of British and American citizens to bolster resilience and in-group morale. Suffering can be the glue that binds and heals after everything has seemingly shattered.

Suffering can also mobilize people. The suffering of impoverished Americans during the Great Depression enabled Franklin Roosevelt to implement his New Deal policies and programs. Later, during World War II, both he and Churchill cited the suffering of both citizens and soldiers to promote the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, tea, biscuits, coffee, canned milk, firewood, and gasoline.

In North America, African-Americans were subjugated by European-Americans for centuries, and from this suffering emerged the heroic leadership of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, among others. The suffering of women inspired Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a host of other heroic activists to promote the women’s suffrage movement.

6. Suffering Instills Meaning and Purpose

The sixth and final benefit of suffering resides in the meaning and purpose that suffering imparts to the sufferer. Many spiritual traditions underscore the role of suffering in bestowing a sense of significance and worth to life. In Islam, the faithful are asked to accept suffering as Allah’s will and to submit to it as a test of faith. Followers are cautioned to avoid questioning or resisting the suffering; one simply endures it with the assurance that Allah never asks for more than one can handle.

For Christians, countless scriptural passages emphasize discernment of God’s will to gain an understanding of suffering or despair. Suffering is endowed with meaning when it is attached to a perception of a divine calling in one’s life or a belief that all events can be used to fulfill God’s greater and mysterious purpose.

Friedrich Nietzche once observed that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl suggested that a search for meaning MeaningSufferingBitransforms suffering into a positive, life-altering experience: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice…. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (145). It appears that the search for meaning not only alleviates suffering; the absence of meaning can cause suffering.

The ability to derive meaning from suffering is a hallmark characteristic of heroism in myths and legends. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949) discovered that all great hero tales from around the globe share a common structure, which Campbell called the hero monomyth. A key component of the monomyth is the hero’s ability to endure suffering and to triumph over it. Heroes discover, or recover, an important inner quality that plays a pivotal role in producing a personal transformation that enables the hero to rise about the suffering and prevail.

Suffering is one of many recurring phenomena found in classic hero tales. Other phenomena endemic to hero tales include love, mystery, eternity, infinity, God, paradox, meaning, and sacrifice. Richard Rohr calls these phenomena transrational experiences. An experience is considered transrational when it defies logical analysis and can only be understood (or best understood) in the context of a good narrative. We can better understand the underlying meaning of suffering within an effective story.

The legendary poet William Wordsworth must have been intuitively aware of the transrational nature of suffering, sacrifice, and the infinite when he penned the following line: “Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, and shares the nature of infinity.” Joseph Campbell connected the dots between suffering and people’s search for meaning. According to Campbell, the hero’s journey is “the pivotal myth that unites the spiritual adventure of ancient heroes with the modern search for meaning.”

Conclusion

For an individual or a group to move forward or progress, something unpleasant must be endured (suffering) or something pleasant must be given up (sacrifice). Humanity’s most effective and inspiring leaders have sustained immense suffering, made harrowing sacrifices, or both. These leaders’ suffering and sacrifice set them apart from the masses of people who deny, decry, or defy these seemingly unsavory experiences.

Great heroic leaders understand that suffering redeems, augments, defines, humbles, elevates, mobilizes, and enriches us. These enlightened leaders not only refuse to allow suffering and sacrifice to defeat them; they use suffering and sacrifice as assets to be mined for psychological advantages and inspiration. Individuals who successfully plumb the spiritual treasures of suffering and sacrifice have the wisdom and maturity to evolve into society’s most transcendent leaders.

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This article is based on a chapter authored by Scott Allison and Gwendolyn Setterberg, published in ‘Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership’, in 2016. The exact reference for the article is:

Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals, (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2016). Transforming motives and mentors: The heroic leadership of James MacGregor Burns. Unpublished manuscript, University of Richmond.

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.) (2014). Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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