All posts by Scott Allison

About Scott Allison

Scott Allison has authored numerous books, including 'Heroes' and 'Heroic Leadership'. He is Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond where he has published extensively on heroism and leadership. His other books include Reel Heroes, Conceptions of Leadership, Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership, and the Handbook of Heroism. His work has appeared in USA Today, National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate Magazine, MSNBC, CBS, Psychology Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has received Richmond's Distinguished Educator Award and the Virginia Council of Higher Education's Outstanding Faculty Award.

Can You Try to Become a Hero, or Does it Just Happen to You?

By Scott T. Allison

An online conversation with my dear friends Olivia Efthimiou, Ellie Jacques, and Sylvia Gray, got me thinking about whether we can choose to become a hero and how much fate, luck, or circumstances — forces beyond our control — just make heroism happen.

It’s an issue about heroism that is both psychological and philosophical. Can we receive heroism training and do what it takes to transform ourselves into heroes? Or is heroism something that is “done unto us”?

Way back in 1966, a highly underrated psychologist named Leslie Farber noted that most of the best psychological states that we strive for cannot be “willed” by us. These are things like happiness, wisdom, courage, resilience, and even a good night’s sleep. For example, I can decide to read books but I can’t decide to be wise. I can do fun activities but I can’t “will” happiness. I can go to bed at 11pm but I can’t “will” myself to sleep.

I would say the same is true for transforming ourselves into heroes. We can do things to make heroic transformation more likely, such as attend Hero Round Table conferences, participate in hero training, or engage in mindful meditation — in much the same way we can make sleep more likely by going to bed.

But like falling asleep, we can’t “will” heroism.

Last year, Thai Navy Seals risked their lives to save a group of soccer boys trapped in a cave. These Navy Seals didn’t become life-saving heroes until circumstances presented themselves that allowed for heroism to happen. Those Seals had the training and were ready, for sure. But most Seals don’t save a soccer team. (And we should be thankful that most training goes to waste — imagine the bloody carnage of a world where every trained hero uses their training)

In short, there are some “end states” that we cannot “will” to happen – they have to happen as byproducts of various behaviors, experiences, and processes, some of which we can control and some we cannot.

One of my favorite quotes was penned by Georges Bataille: “Mere words have something of a quicksand about them. Only experience is the rope that is thrown to us.” We cannot vow to become courageous and resilient — we have to go through tough times to acquire courage and resilience. Experience is the rope thrown to us — and we must grab that rope even if, and maybe especially if, the experience is painful.

By the way, Farber says that we live in a society that confuses these “two realms of will”, resulting in rampant anxiety and depression in people who try hard to make wonderful things happen that cannot happen when we want them to. So think twice before making either happiness or heroism your goal.

The hero’s journey “happens” to us; it’s not something that we plan. In fact, if we were in charge of the planning, we’d try to avoid the painful journey altogether! The ego cannot be in charge of our destiny. We have to wait for heroism to happen, and sometimes it never will. Which is okay.

Yes, we can decide to do things that make heroic growth more likely. These things include taking CPR classes, getting EMT training, engaging in spiritual practices, and enrolling in hero training programs. But let’s be honest — participating in these activities does not guarantee that you will become a hero.

Perhaps the title of this essay shouldn’t be, “Can You Try to Become a Hero, or Does it Just Happen to You?” Rather, the truth may be closer to, “You Can Try to Become a Hero, and it Might Just Happen to You.” You can’t plan for it, but you can prepare for it.

Knowing all this, I’m doing all I can to prepare for heroism, whether it happens or not. And so should you.

 

Riding the Blue Moon: The Heroic Journey of Healing Ourselves and Others

By Olivia Efthimiou

We are born into a world that invites us to the adventures of the senses. It compels us to instinctively seek out that which will make us whole, give us meaning, and satisfy both our most basic and superordinate needs.

Yet, as the years go by, as we are weathered by the often unforgiving heights of the journey, we seem to fall into an increasingly deep, dark sleep. A sleep that begins to eat away at us like rot. Sometimes we can smell its decay, we feel there is something wrong with our mind, our body, our heart, our spirit. Other times it is as though a comforting veil is pressed lightly upon our head.

When this veil bursts, it is a defining point in the story. Our story arc is split wide open, down to its bare bones. And that is one of the most, or the most terrifying thing most of us can experience. If we can muster the courage to live through it, that is.

We are the heroes of our own story. That much is undeniable. We can be sceptical about assigning the label of ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ to ourselves; most of us are. We may even have a deep resistance to it. But heroism is in our blood. Heroism and the hero’s journey of life and death we must all pass through is the one thing we have in common apart from being human. The ancient origins of the word are not fully validated. But one ascription assigns it the meaning of protector or safeguard.

Fundamentally, to live is to be transformed. We must evolve and change, no matter how we feel about it. And some, if not most, of us will do this kicking and screaming. We live in a world of duality, and two halves must form a whole. We must die, to live again. Healing does not, and cannot exist without dis-ease, in this reality at least.

I used to believe that a hero is a protector and a safeguard of life, of the good, and the pure. But I now believe that to be a hero is to experience, and be transformed by, the journey in all its dualities – the black, the white and all the colours in between. To truly transform, the hero’s journey requires us to go with the flow of energy as it is presented to us. We must not fight it, we must feel it with our body, in its entirety. We must be cracked open, spat out and redefine ourselves when the call to do so comes.

Like the moon, we must wax and wane through all our phases – we must witness these changes. And sometimes, if the stars align, it becomes our natural progression to become the ‘supermoon’, or the ‘blue moon’ as some call it.

When you are called to ride the blue moon, your entire world will fall apart. Life as you knew it, becomes a pale shadow and your reality is turned upside down. Everything you held to be true is disintegrated and you feel like you are torn into pieces with it. There is no in between, and often no safety net underneath, just a gaping black hole that may suck you up if you let it.

Clinicians and psychologists may call this depression, or mental illness. But spiritual teachers have long described this as a ‘spiritual awakening’ often accompanied by a ‘dark night of the soul’. Let’s not forget that the history of modern medicine and psychiatry is less than a century old. Those disintegrating pieces we hold onto so tightly are often referred to as the ‘ego’, who fathers of psychology Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud theorised at length.

But the ego is not an enemy, as spiritual teacher Christina Lopes describes – its purpose is actually to protect us, to build an identity that creates a space in which to define ourselves. Eventually, this safety mechanism we build for ourselves becomes a prison, as it must make way for new forms of being and growth.

Human evolution is now calling us to accept higher and higher levels of uncertainty and complexity – for it is only through this open field that we can ascend to a higher state of flow and disruptive creativity. A state that our current structures are not forgiving of, nor nurturing towards.

In the words of modern day spiritual teacher Adyashanti:

“Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretence. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”

That is what heroism and the hero’s journey process is at its core, as transformation-in-process. More and more people are now called to ride the blue moon and its eradicating process. Yet, as much as this process takes away, it has the potential to give back tenfold.

As Joseph Campbell described, the hero’s journey has life-affirming properties. This is no complicated notion – to live, me must die. In the season 2, episode “Freedom” of the classic series Quantum Leap, Native American Joseph Washakie played by Frank Sotonoma “Grey Wolf” Salsedo, describes death as a doorway – and us as a grasshopper.

The blue moon begs us to leap into its depths. To allow its deep blue waters to completely penetrate us, and seed into us the new self that must be born again from our union with the universe and its/our spirit, as we make our way – begrudgingly, willingly or painfully – into the other side, the new world.

Through this process, we discover that the pieces that fell to the ground and were swept away with the wind were not truly needed or a part of our innate nature to begin with. Those that are left, that stick onto us as if they are indeed part of our skin, we may come to rediscover in a new light, and re-assemble them in a new whole.

And perhaps the illusion is that we were never destroyed or disassembled to begin with – like the moon appears to be incomplete, it has always remained whole. We have just awakened to a deeper, more authentic sense of wholeness. One that is not a version of us – but us.

In our forthcoming book, Riding the Blue Moon: A Practitioner’s Guide for Healing Ourselves and Others, we bring together healers from various walks of life who discuss the terror and beauty of the awakening process, and the journey of healing as vital to our human journey.

Because, once in a blue moon, life may never be the same again. We can only be so lucky.

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Olivia Efthimiou is a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound. Her current research focuses on the emerging field of heroism science, embodiment, transdisciplinarity, healing, evolution, the philosophy of science, and creative play in social, locative and mobile spaces.

Three Reasons Why Neil Armstrong Captivated Our Heroic Imagination

By Scott T. Allison

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, nearly a billion people around the world dropped what they were doing to watch, in awe, as a human being stepped on the moon’s surface for the first time.

What was it about Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” that captivated our heroic imagination? Here are three reasons why Armstrong remains an iconic hero.

1. Armstrong Lived the Hero’s journey

First, to understand the psychology of adventurer heroes, we must turn to the insights of mythologist Joseph Campbell. It was Campbell who reminded us that the hero’s journey is the universal human journey into the unknown, into the darkness where danger lurks yet treasure lies.

All of us are thrown into harm’s way many times during our lives. Whether it is disease, divorce, unemployment or an accident, we are all like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, sent on a journey against our will, encountering painful obstacles that require us to develop courage, resilience, and resourcefulness.

Astronauts and other adventure-heroes differ from us in that they deliberately choose to embark on their hazardous journeys. They put themselves in harm’s way to move themselves forward personally — and to advance humanity as well. Adventure heroes make great sacrifices and take great personal risks willingly. Doing so puts them on a heroic pedestal and empowers us all to solider through whatever difficulties we currently face in our own mundane lives.

The vast darkness of space has always mesmerized the human race. Joseph Campbell observed that heroic myths from around the world focused on the hero entering the biggest, darkest forest, or the deepest, darkest cave or ocean. Areas of vast unknown darkness symbolize our worst unconscious fears.

Our best hope for personal growth is to face these primal fears and trust that help is available. Let’s remember that Neil Armstrong didn’t go to the moon alone – he had help from scientists, technicians, mentors, and colleagues. The hero’s journey is always a social journey. And no one did it better than Neil Armstrong.

2. Armstrong Possessed Heroic Traits

Neil Armstrong is also a hero because he embodied many of the “Great Eight” traits of heroes: He was smart, strong, caring, reliable, resilient, selfless, and inspiring. Armstrong was described as passionate about space exploration, and he was a brilliant, dedicated aeronautical engineer.

Like many great heroes, Armstrong was humble, always downplaying his accomplishments and eschewing the limelight. “Besides being one of America’s greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all,” said Charles Bolden, a NASA administrator.

Consistent with all inspiring heroes, Armstrong spent his retirement giving back to society. During the 1970s, he taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, sharing his life experiences with young people and inspiring them to succeed in life. Generosity of spirit is perhaps the greatest of all heroic traits, and Armstrong had this quality in abundance.

3. Armstrong Fulfilled Our Romantic Longing For Space Travel

There is a reason why the world fell in love with Star Wars, and with Star Trek before that. People have always harbored a strong fascination for the vastness of space. Our ancestors were mesmerized by the stars and concocted stories about them to quell the longing for some understanding of the mystery of the cosmos.

Heroic technological innovators conquered the barrier of air flight in 1902, and then space travel in 1961. As William Shatner said in the opening to Star Trek, space is indeed the final frontier – and with the moon landing, Neil Armstrong boldly went where no one had gone before.

Astronauts who make strong sacrifices and take significant risks are pushing the boundaries of survival and discovery – and in doing so, they serve as powerful role models for us mere mortals who struggle to meet the challenges of everyday life.

Every human life is packed with metaphorical lunar expeditions. Heroes give us hope that we can all slay our dragons during the deepest darkest times of our lives. We learn from heroes that we can embrace our heroic journeys with the same courage that Neil Armstrong did back in 1969.

References

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Worthington, E. L, & Allison, S. T. (2018). Heroic humility: What the science of humility can say to people raised on self-focus. Washington. DC: American Psychological Association.

Heroes Whom We Forgot: The Writers

By J. A. Schultz

Enûma Eliš.

In the Beginning.

Thousands of years ago something seemingly magical was invented. It was a magic that allowed one to read the mind of another. To speak across vast distances. From time immemorial voices of the dead could be known. The magic is as profound as all of human wisdom and as simple as the words you are now reading.

Like the taming of fire before it, it would become a seminal event in human history.

In fact, it would create history.

Writing.

It is an easy thing to take for granted, these little scratches that allow us to share our thoughts. But writing is the thing that has created the modern world we live in. Without it our cultures would have to be passed down from by word of mouth and fallible memory — as many non-literate cultures had done before.

So it is more than a little ironic that we don’t actually know who invented writing and precisely when. Simple scratches have been found as old as 800,000 years old in Java and 40,000 year old “hashtags” near Gibraltar. But the earliest evidence of actual writing comes from the Vinča culture in what is now known as Romania. The most ancient of these is known as the Tărtăria tablets dating back to 5500 to 5300 BC. However this find is controversial and the first definitive examples of writing date back to Sumer and Egypt in 3100 BC and China in 2100 BC.

Throughout history humanity sought to find separation between itself and the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet for every milestone we place, every divine aspect we imagined for ourselves, our natural brethren had quite happily knocked down. Except for writing.

Writing was most likely invented as a way to keep track of common things such as harvests or the numbers of livestock being kept at any given moment. It was simply a way to making life easier. Little could they have known the world they were setting in motion. For writing soon went beyond the confines of mere clerical work and allowed people to share their thoughts, loves, and madness and do so through space and time.

Because of that initially utilitarian invention we can experience the love the Pharaoh Akhenaten felt for Queen Nefertiti through his letters and poems to her 3000 years ago. Or Claudia Severa inviting her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her birthday celebration in 100 AD. Or the amazingly erudite letter written by a ten year old girl named Elizabeth to her stepmother, Anne, on the 31st of July 1544. Or the words of my 5th great-aunt giving testimony on May 18, 1886 on why her nephew used various aliases.

These echoes, these preserved moments of time, are the result of the efforts of people who most likely had no idea what they were setting in motion. They had no intention of being heroes — at least not for inventing something so ubiquitous — but without their efforts our modern civilization would not exist. Lives would be slowly forgotten or garbled beyond any recognition. Lessons of the past would be left aside. Human history would shrink to that of a handful of generations. Death, already a tragic loss, would be catastrophic. Not just for their loved ones, but for society as a whole.

Because of these heroes, these ancient writers whose pens really were mightier than any sword, vast swaths of history are open to us. There for us to read.

Because they taught us how to write.

Enûma Eliš.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, tries to make the best use of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

Why Our Fathers are Our Heroes

8By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Mother’s Day blog post, we noted our research finding that people listed their mothers as heroes more often than any other person.  Fathers were a close second.   Why are parents viewed as so heroic?  Developmental psychologists tell us that the relationship we have with our parents is the first significant relationship of our lives.  It is a relationship that indelibly shapes our values, our aspirations, and our future behavior.  Thus when we experience successes in our careers and in our personal lives, it is not surprising that we attribute those triumphs, at least in part, to our parents.

The origin of Father’s Day is not entirely clear, but there are several fascinating possibilities.  Babylonian scholars have discovered a message carved in clay by a young man named Elmesu roughly 4,000 years ago.  In the message, Elmesu wishes his father good health and a long life.  Some believe this ancient message represents evidence of an established tradition of honoring fathers, but there is little evidence to support a specially designated Father’s Day until modern times.

There is some debate about the origin of the Father’s Day that we celebrate today.  Some claim that a West Virginian named Grace Golden Clayton deserves the credit.  fathersIn 1907, Clayton was grieving the loss of her own father when a tragic mine explosion in Monongah killed 361 men, 250 of whom were fathers.  Clayton requested that her church establish a day to honor these lost fathers and to help the children of the affected families heal emotionally.  The date she suggested was July 8th, the anniversary of her own father’s death.

Still others believe that the first Father’s Day was held on June 19, 1910 through the efforts of Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington.  Inspired by the newly recognized Mother’s Day, Dodd felt strongly that fatherhood needed recognition as well.Her own father, William Smart, was a Civil War veteran who was left to raise his family alone when his wife died giving birth to their sixth child.  Dodd was the only daughter, and she helped her father raise her younger brothers, including her new infant brother Marshall.

Whereas Mother’s Day was met with instant enthusiasm, Father’s Day was initially met with scorn and derision.  Few people believed that fathers wanted, or needed, any acknowledgement.  It wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon made Father’s Day an official holiday.  Today the holiday is widely celebrated in the month of June by more than 52 countries.

Why are fathers heroes?  fathersThe respondents in our survey listed two main reasons.  First, fathers are given credit for being great teachers and mentors.  They teach us how to fix a flat tire, shoot a basketball, and write a resume.  Fathers are less emotional than mothers, but they lead by example and devote time demonstrating life skills to us.  Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, once said, “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.”

Second, fathers are great providers and protectors.  Our respondents told us that their fathers were heroes in their commitment to provide for their families, often at great sacrifice.  Many fathers work at two or more jobs outside the home to ensure that their families have adequate food and shelter.  Fathers also provide us with a sense of safety and protection.  Sigmund Freud once wrote, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

On this Father’s Day, we wish all fathers, and all men who serve as father figures, all the kudos they so richly deserve.  Happy Father’s Day!

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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).

Can Heroes Be… People?

By J. A. Schultz

On December 12, 2018, University students took down a statue they believed to be racist. It had been erected only two years prior but was almost immediately the subject of controversy and vandalism. However this wasn’t a Confederate statue in an American school.

This was at the University of Ghana.

And the statue was of Mohandas “Mahātmā” Gandhi.

In the West this would come off as rather shocking as Gandhi is often seen as a hero. A man of wisdom and nonviolence. However this view turns out not to be universal. Gandhi had lived in South Africa for two decades in his youth but his critics argue that while he had advocated for the rights of Indians, he had ignored the blight of native Africans even referring to them as “kaffirs”– a derogatory term used against the native people. A man who wasn’t necessarily opposed to Apartheid. This is a legacy not often heard of in the West, but it is one remembered in Africa. And due to this, Gandhi is not always regarded as a hero there.

And this is an important lesson when dealing with heroes or even people have grown to admire. Understandably we tend to like these people to be “pure” in thought as deed. Perhaps mistakes were made in the past, but our heroes have grown past them. Improved. Move on. Inversely however there are also critics of our heroes — or perhaps we’re the critics of some “media darling” — who point out their failings and question the legitimacy of their heroic status.

So which is it?

The thing that is often lost in the debate is the fact that heroes (whether we believe the title is warranted or not) are in fact people. Flesh and blood people who have good days, bad days, slips of the tongue, or simply don’t completely understand the world they live in.

Just like everybody else.

And while this may seem like common sense — an obvious truism that doesn’t need to be stated — it is still a question that haunts us: Do good deeds outweigh the bad? Does the bad outweigh the good? Can people actually change and if so, how much should the past be put aside? Do our own prejudices and preconceptions cloud our judgments? Most importantly: is heroism diminished by other, unrelated, deeds? Is Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work diminished by his extra-marital affairs? Are the founders of the United States diminished due to their position on slavery? What do we focus on?

In the end this is a subject we have to agree to disagree on. But it is just as important to understand that we’re not dealing with fictional characters here but real people. People who are often just as lost in life as you or I. People who not only make mistakes and don’t always repent for them to our liking.

Admire Gandhi the Mahātmā.

Criticize Gandhi the young lawyer living in South Africa.

But don’t forget that they are the same person.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, is a writer who is upset that he will be portrayed as a villain in the 2103 movie release of “You Call That A Book?”.