Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Statues Controversy Suggests There Are No Heroes, Only Heroic Actions

By Scott T. Allison

In Sweden, there is a fascinating statue of a woman named Danuta Danielsson who became a hero in 1985 when she used her purse to clobber a white Nazi supremacist while he marched in a right-wing rally.

What makes her statue unique among hero statues is that it captures her performing the heroic act of swinging her purse. It’s entirely an action-shot, a big departure from the universal practice of constructing hero statues intended to portray individuals as heroes. Danielsson’s statue isn’t about her as a person; it’s about her one specific act of courage that day.

Heroism, it could be argued, describes an action, not a person.

All around the world, and especially in the United States, statues of slave traders, warriors, and profiteers are toppling to the ground. Once revered as heroes, these statued individuals have been exposed as villainous human rights violators.

With this in mind, Danuta Danielsson’s statue should be one that remains uncontroversial. Her statue portrays a heroic act that can withstand any scrutiny into her character.

What did we know about Danielsson’s character? We know that her mother had survived a concentration camp during World War II. Danielsson knew the horrors of the Nazi menace and took action on that April day in Sweden.

But like all human beings, Danielsson had a dark side. That aspect of her character, however, is irrelevant to her heroic act of clobbering a marching Nazi, an image nicely captured by her statue in vivid heroic detail.

Perhaps there should be no hero statues, only heroic action statues. Many of our tarnished heroes performed untarnished heroic actions. It’s those behaviors that we admire, those courageous, risky, selfless actions that forever made a positive difference for society.

For example, let’s see a statue of Thomas Jefferson composing the Declaration of Independence. Such a statue acknowledges Jefferson’s heroic action without any idolatry of the man, without any of vitriol about whether he’s deserving of the status of “hero”.

Today we see statues of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus, slave traders, and Spanish conquistadors toppling to the ground. Roads and schools named after these individuals are also being changed. We are reminded that a hero is a social construction, tied to the norms and values of a particular era.

Heroic actions, in contrast, are more likely to transcend human time periods. While all humans are flawed and perhaps not deserving of adoration, a morally sublime act is pure and transcendent.

The famous German author and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “The deed is everything, the glory is naught.” In building our statues, let’s remember that actions not only speak louder than words, they may outshine — and outlast — the person performing the action.

People are more likely to disagree about who a hero is than about what specific action is heroic. For that reason, let’s honor and celebrate heroic actions that can inspire us all to behave heroically.

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Scott T. Allison is Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. Another version of this article appears in Psychology Today.

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The Unification Principle of Heroism in the Age of COVID-19

By Scott T. Allison

Heroism is defined by researchers as extreme prosocial behavior that is performed voluntarily, involves significant risk, requires sacrifice, and is done without anticipation of person gain.

The devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals and on societies worldwide bring into sharp relief what “extreme prosocial behavior” really means.

I argue here that heroism’s primary aim is to unify people. The dictionary’s definition of “unify” is to take actions that make people united and whole. Let’s break down these two components of unification, illustrating how they are the central mission of heroism.

First, to unify is to unite people. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, ER nurse Allison Swendsen took a moving photo of an elderly man holding a sign at a window, thanking healthcare workers for saving his wife.

These heroes allowed this woman to reunite with her husband. Heroism always involves bringing people together.

Second, to unify is to promote wholeness, the mark of health and well-being. We can see that all heroic actions during this COVID-19 pandemic are aimed at reducing suffering and promoting the health and well-being of individuals and society. Heroes strive to promote the wholeness of all people, not just some of them. Heroism is always all-inclusive.

The Unification Principle of Heroism

A simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between heroes and villains is this: Heroes tend to be unifiers, whereas villains tend to be dividers.

Villains throughout history have made it their goal to divide human beings, with their divisions inflicting terrible human suffering and death. Genocidal leaders from Adolf Hitler to Pol Pot made it their aim to promote the well-being of one group of people at the expense of another. Dividing the world between “us” and “them” isn’t always villainous, but when doing so exacts intense suffering on members of the out-group, then such dividers are villains.

Heroes, in contrast, adopt a more “nondual” view of the world. They see humanity as one and value the well-being of all people regardless of nationality, race, gender, age, or sexuality. Because they strive for social unity, heroes aim to eliminate disparities in health and well-being, not just disparities between group categories but also disparities among individuals within categories, too.

The unification principle of heroism operates at the levels of both large collectives and single individuals. At the group level, heroes unify people by leading civil rights movements, for example. The goal of most social movements is to reduce suffering in disadvantaged groups by creating a more equal and united society. Our cultural heroes have always made it their primary aim to unify the world. Heroic legends such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Nelson Mandela all devoted their life’s work to bring people of different colors, genders, ethnicities, and geographic regions together.

Unification operating at the individual level occurs when a hero saves a person from harm. If a hero rescues someone from a burning building, the hero has allowed for the reunification of the person with their family. Whether the goal is large scale (e.g., ending apartheid) or small-scale (e.g., saving someone from drowning), the hero is striving to achieve unity, wholeness and well-being, either within a society, a family, or an individual.

Perhaps the goal of unifying people has always been heroism’s primary aim. Back in 1949, the progenitor of heroism science, Joseph Campbell, observed that the goal of the mythic hero’s journey is always to return home and become united with family and community. “Where we had thought to be alone,” wrote Campbell, “we shall be with all the world.”

COVID-19 Amplifies the Need for Heroic Unification

Every crisis produces heroes who illustrate the unification principle of heroism. Perhaps more than any single event in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the heroic imperative to unify people. Everyday unsung heroes, such as healthcare workers and first responders, strive to reunite a saved individual with their loved ones. Heroism is always about social unification.

All crises and disasters tend to engender suffering by widening already existing health disparities between people. Consider what any tsunami, earthquake, or major act of terrorism does to people caught in its swath. The physical, emotional, and financial suffering that existed before a major crisis becomes magnified during and after it.

COVID-19 reminds us that the “exceptional prosocial behavior” at the heart of heroism is aimed at reducing existing disparities in well-being, at easing the suffering of one segment of society, at unifying humanity by promoting the welfare of everyone. Heroic scientists racing to develop a vaccine and other treatments for the virus are doing so to benefit all of humanity, not just one segment of it. Jonas Salk became a hero for developing the vaccine for polio, and the vaccine developers for COVID will also likely become cherished heroes as well.

The coronavirus has been especially adept at preying on disparities. People of color have been more adversely affected by COVID-19 compared to Euro-Americans. African-Americans, for example, are less able to take the precaution of staying at home because they are less likely to have jobs that allow them to telecommute. In addition, people of color are more likely to live in crowded housing units that make social distancing difficult.

COVID-19 has also magnified disparities in income, with high-income earners being more likely to maintain their employment during the crisis compared low-income workers. Millions of jobs in the lower paying service and hospitality industries have been lost, many of them permanently. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, already alarmingly large throughout the world, has expanded as a result of COVID-19. Growing disparities in health and in wealth are, at this moment, inflicting tremendous suffering.

The heroes attempting to resolve the current pandemic crisis are working, either directly or indirectly, to achieve the heroic imperative of wholeness and unification across race and class. Reducing health and income disparities is the heroic goal of medical scientists searching for a cure, and should be the heroic goal of our political leaders faced with the task of rebuilding and reunifying society.

The Drive for Unification

The unification principle of heroism has always been an implied element of the definition of the term “hero”. Famed psychologist Phil Zimbardo hinted at unity and wholeness when he argued in 2011 that heroism reflects “a concern for other people in need.” Zimbardo has also referred to unification as sociocentricity, the mindset of looking out for collective well-being. Meeting everyone’s basic needs unifies them with the world and is the imperative of all heroes.

In her recent book on heroism, Elizabeth Svoboda emphasized that “heroes bring people together”. They do so by working for justice and by alleviating suffering, thereby enhancing both psychological wholeness at the individual level and social wholeness at the level of community.

This idea of unification has ancient roots, with world religions from Buddhism to Christianity having long made unification their primary aim. Jesus prayed “that they all may be one” (John 17:21) and Buddha observed that humanity is “many in body, one in mind.” Today’s spiritual geniuses, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Richard Rohr, place unitive consciousness at the forefront of their definition of psychological well-being and spiritual maturity.

Merriam-Webster defined heroism as “heroic conduct especially as exhibited in fulfilling a high purpose or attaining a noble end.” That noble end is the unification of all human beings. Joseph Campbell himself noted that heroes do not distinguish their own fate from that of others. Heroes, said Campbell, are guided by the “true reality” that we are all in “unity with all life.”

Our most iconic cultural heroes have long argued for the imperative of human unification. The famed poet Maya Angelou said that a hero “is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And from J. K. Rowling: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

Consider also a thoughtful quote from Albert Einstein (1950): “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Pragmatics: How to Achieve Unification

In this article I’ve argued that the most fundamental goal of heroic action is to unify people. Research on the attributes of a hero places wisdom near the center of heroic consciousness. One might think that I am pushing for the idea that understanding the “oneness” of people, the interconnectedness of all things, is true wisdom.

That’s only partially correct. We cannot escape the reality that true heroic wisdom resides in knowing how best to implement unification in a highly charged, politically polarized world. In the USA, for example, the conservative push for building walls between America and the rest of the world clashes with the liberal push for more open borders and globalization. Heroic wisdom, grounded in unification, resides in negotiating a balance between these two positions. Opening the borders would result in chaos and the collapse of necessary infrastructure; closing the borders lacks compassion and decency. Wise leaders are needed to navigate a workable path between these two extreme positions.

The unification principle of heroism is always about reducing disparities, and this includes disparities in extreme ideology. Heroic solutions to difficult problems require hard work, and the hard work of unifying humanity’s ideological divide must necessarily involve actions that seemingly clash with our tribal instinct to partition the world into “us” versus “them”.

True heroes tend not to view the world only in binary or dualistic terms. In our desire to unify humanity, it is the height of hypocrisy to divide the world into those who are “right” about a complicated issue such as immigration and those who are “wrong” about it. The means to achieving an end state of wholeness must also be faithful to the goal of wholeness. Unification as a goal also requires unification as a process.

I am not claiming that compromise is always the answer. Nondual thinking can lead to compromise, but it can also lead to taking a firm stance on one side of an issue. Heroic consciousness, for example, would never adopt a compromising position with Hitler’s final solution. Many of the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to COVID-19, involve morally complicated issues that require a balanced heroic unification approach.

I offer two pragmatic solutions to achieving heroic unification, one psychological and one interpersonal. The psychological approach centers on our individual imperative to assume heroic consciousness in all our interactions with others. The three “A”s offer a promising technique: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. First, try to become aware of the default tendency to dualistically lump people into categories of good and bad, us and them, and smart and dumb. Recognize that these divisions run counter to the goal of heroic unification.

Second, accept that we are all human and prone to binary thinking. Accept that engagement in social media magnifies this bias and stirs up negative emotions, and accept that each one of us is powerless over how other people think and behave. Once we practice mindful awareness and acceptance, we are in a good position to take heroic action. Sometimes doing nothing at all is the appropriate response. More often than not, the heroic response is to show gentle compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for our broken world.

Another pragmatic strategy for bringing about heroic unification involves using strategies endorsed by an organization called Braver Angels, which is dedicated to depolarizing the world. Braver Angels teaches interpersonal skills that promote respect, curiosity, and openness between parties who differ ideologically. Braver Angels focuses on recognizing common values and concerns; setting a constructive tone; promoting listening in a way that makes the other person feel heard; helping us speak in a way that enables the other person hear you; and teaching techniques that help us handle difficult interpersonal moments.

Our heroic imperative is to resist our baser instincts to label and categorize, and to embrace ways of thinking and behaving that bring people together. Heroes unify the world by ending suffering, and by listening and negotiating with great compassion. This is the heroic work we desperately need in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

References

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. Norwell, MA: Anchor Press.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (Eds.) (2018). Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Franco, Z., & Zimbardo, P. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_banality_of_heroism

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

Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century. New York: Spiegel & Grau

Kohen, A., Langdon, M., & Riches, B. R. (2017). The making of a hero: Cultivating empathy, altruism, and heroic imagination. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 59, 617-633.

Svoboda, E. (2019). The life heroic: How to unleash your most amazing self. San Francisco: Zest Books.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). What makes a hero? Greater Good. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_makes_a_hero

The Miniseries ‘Devs’ Delivers a Delicious Dose of Heroism and Villainy

By Scott T. Allison

Devs is the ideal TV mini-series for people to sink their teeth into, for many reasons: (1) It’s both science and science-fiction; (2) it’s brilliant mix of psychology, philosophy, religion, and technology; (3) it tantalizes us with the mysteries of love, life, death, time, and space; and (4) it features a creepy 200-foot tall statue of a pre-school girl, which ordinarily would be cause for alarm until we realize that the girl symbolizes Devs’ paradox of our choices changing everything – and nothing at all.

I have to give writer Alex Garland tremendous credit for creating a universe, or rather a multiverse, that succeeds on many different levels. There are fabulous characters, specifically Lily and Jamie, whom we care about and who rise to the heroic challenge. Jamie hits the nail on the head in characterizing Lily as someone who doesn’t merely think about boldly taking actions – she takes bold action in situations where 99.9% of humans would not. That approach to life, dear readers, is the central essence of heroism. As her sidekick, Jamie is loyal to the core and uses his gifts to assist Lily on her hero’s journey.

But Devs is much more than a couple of heroes venturing on the mythic journey. It bestows us with an outstanding ensemble cast featuring generationally diverging Amaya coworkers Lyndon and Stewart; a charismatic, psychopathic villain in head-of-security Kenton; a pair of ethically shady billionaire tech giants in Forest and Katie; and a homeless dude named Pete who somehow worms his way into these people’s lives.

I was captivated by Devs from the get-go. We meet Sergei, and we like him. He’s got a lot of heroic potential – he’s young, smart, loving, loyal. His girlfriend Lily has these same qualities and the two appear to have a close relationship. Amaya’s top secret Devs operation is shrouded in mystery. This element of mystery is a vastly underrated aspect of heroism and villainy. What role does mystery play? It inflames our heroic imagination. It especially ignites our imagination for the presence of potential evil.

Shameless plug time – in our last book, The Romance of Heroism, my co-author George Goethals and I discuss how the ways in which human beings resolve mystery can lead to extreme and biased conclusions about heroism, and especially about villainy. Here’s a brief overview of how this can happen.

The Devs unit at Amaya is mysterious and spawns rumor and speculation, even among government oversight committees. Forest’s instructions to Sergei on this first day at Devs are mysterious – he’s told to just look at code and he’ll know what to do, eventually. The mystery and the potential darkness of Amaya is heightened when we witness Sergei lose his lunch in shock after seeing some of the code. Sergei says, “This changes everything” to which Katie replies, “This changes nothing” — an exchange that offer only the slightest of hints about Devs’ true purpose. At this point, I was hooked and pretty much binge-watched all eight episodes of Devs in two days.

Devs features outrageously high production value. The music, in particular, lends a stylish note during key scenes such as Episode 2’s slow-motion fight between Kenton and Anton in the parking garage. Nick Offerman as Forest strikes just the right balance between brilliance and eccentricity, and between good and evil. I also enjoyed Alison Pill’s striking performance. She shows off her range here, portraying a brilliant scientist named Katie whose emotional control contrasts starkly to her portrayal of a similar scientist in Star Trek: Picard. I love that Katie’s intelligence exceeds that of Forest and that she calls the shots at Amaya as much as, and even more than, Forest himself.

Devs is to be commended for having three very strong female lead characters who drive the story forward. The series takes a big chance in casting Sonoya Mizuno as Lily, our primary hero of the story. Mizuno isn’t the most charismatic actor — yet, I’m going out on a limb by saying that she is the perfect person for this part. Let’s face it, Lily is a tech nerd, and I suspect that few tech nerds have the magnetism of a Meryl Streep or a Kate McKinnon. Her low-key approach is matched by that of Jamie, her sidekick and former lover. The inability of these two characters to communicate their thoughts and feelings was sometimes torture for me to watch, but their dialogue was also realistic in a less-is-sometimes-more kind of way.

Most of all, Devs succeeds in a sublimeway at the level of storytelling, weaving together a tapestry of mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I enjoyed witnessing the unfolding success of the Devs’ mission, which begins with the development of brief temporal simulations that can accurately expose both past and future. Soon it becomes more than just an exercise in simulations and evolves into an actual portal into our true past and into what seems to be our exact future. I love how Devs invites us into the philosophical argument about free will versus determinism and gives us data supporting both positions. Mustn’t the true reconciliation of the free will vs. determinism duality reside in its nonduality? Lily’s final actions in the last episode demonstrate the fallibility of taking an all-or-nothing position on this issue.

Episode eight’s Devs/Deus reveal is fabulous, building on the notion that Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others are self-anointed Messiahs. I should have discerned the connection to Deus coming, as references to the god-like self-images of silicon valley executives are peppered throughout the entire series. But I didn’t see it coming and I credit Alex Garland for giving us enough clues without sledgehammering us.

So we’re left wondering whether we’re all living a “real“ life versus existing as computer simulations of ourselves. And as Stuart says, we could be a simulation existing within countless simulations because the Devs supercomputer exists in every multiverse. And as Forest says, what difference does it make whether our existence is real or a simulation? The laws of the universe work the same either way.

The Devs miniseries is a masterpiece and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys science, science fiction, psychology, philosophy, religion, and ethics. Alex Garland throws a lot of complex, interconnected human issues at us to disentangle. Lily is  pegged as “the chosen one”, the special someone around whom the fate of the entire universe resides, the person whose choices somehow break the prognostic ability of the Devs supermachine, the women whose “death” is visually reminiscent of that of Christ on the cross.

To be fair, Devs isn’t perfect. One could be critical of Pete’s identity as a Russian agent being a little too obvious. We know that Pete isn’t really a homeless man, and so the “big reveal” at the end is hardly a big reveal. A second criticism centers on why Lily and Jamie returned to her apartment after her escape from the mental institution. They had to know that Kenton would likely hunt them down and kill them. Jamie in particular, who was terrorized and tortured earlier by Kenton, should have been extremely reluctant to sit in Lily’s apartment waiting to be Kentonized — unless, of course, Lily and Jamie’s inability to alter their fate is the very point here.

Finally, I’m still not sure why Forest was so adamantly opposed to the multiverse idea. Surely Forest had to know that the multiverse theory, championed correctly by Lyndon, was the surest path toward achieving a reunion with his daughter. Perhaps Forest could not bear any universe or existence in which his daughter dies. The vindication of Lyndon is Forest’s salvation, all made possible by Lily’s “original sin” of disobeying Deus, an act that ultimately leads to Resurrection. None of these pieces fit together perfectly but they blend together just well enough to give us much to ponder.

Overall, our hero Lily traverses the hero’s journey in exemplary fashion. Unaware of her true identity as the key to the resurrection of the universe, she has to undergo enormous suffering to come to an understanding of her central role in everyone’s fate. Her ability to exercise her freedom of choice, at a pivotal time, makes her a hero in the very best sense of the word. She enlists the aid of a sidekick and uses an avalanche of adversity to transform herself into a courageous, resilient, resourceful hero who saves the world.

Here you can check out our full Reel Heroes review of Devs.

10 Examples of Heroism Arising From the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Scott T. Allison

In any tragedy or crisis, you will see many people standing out and stepping up to save lives and make the world a better place. These heroic individuals can range from leaders of nations to ordinary citizens who rise to the occasion to help others in need.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, here are some prominent examples of heroism that we’ve seen:

1. Healthcare worker heroes

The doctors, nurses, and healthcare staff on the frontline are doing a remarkable job of saving lives. Some of these medical personnel are exposing themselves to risk. This is the ultimate criterion of heroism: Self-sacrifice in the service of others.

2. Heroes who respect science

Understanding the science of viral outbreaks is crucial to getting us through this pandemic with as little loss of life as possible. Here are the heroes in this regard:

  • The epidemiologists and medical scientists
  • Those who respect epidemiologists and listen to their advice.
  • Those who respect models of disease spread, social distancing, and quarantine.
  • Those who listen to scientists’ warnings about preparedness for future disease outbreaks.

3. Heroes who bring much-needed supplies and equipment to hospitals

Suppliers, manufacturers, shippers, and drivers — these people are heroically giving us what we need to care for afflicted people.

A striking example of heroism of this type was shown by the New England Patriots football team, who use their team plane to deliver 1.2 million N95 masks to the US from China to help ease shortages. In addition, the Brooklyn Nets basketball team flew in much-needed ventilators and masks to New York.

4. Heroes who support heroes

A man in Detroit decided to use the $900 he’d been saving to buy gasoline for nurses working to save lives. If we can’t save lives personally, the heroic thing to do is to support the people who do risk themselves to save lives.

5 Heroes who lead by example

Good leaders lead by example. Leaders who wear a mask, who abide by same rules as everyone else, set a heroic example for us.

6. Helpers of the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions

People are heroes when they get groceries and supplies for the elderly or for shut-ins. Keeping in contact with quarantined and elderly people over Zoom or phone is also heroic.

7. Whistleblower heroes

The US Navy relieved the Captain Brett Crozier who sounded the alarm about an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Needing help to save his crew, Crozier sent a strongly worded letter to Navy leadership that detailed his concerns about the spread of the virus on the ship. The letter leaked to the media, and Crozier was punished for doing the right thing.

Sailors cheered when Captain Crozier departed his ship, demonstrating that the average person understands heroism when they see it. It is supremely important and even heroic to recognize heroism when we see it.

There is no more courageous hero than a whistleblower.

8. Heroism turned upside-down: Heroes in the service industry

The pandemic means that heroism now available to everyone: food deliverers, truck drivers, grocery clerks, pharmicists — they’re all indispensable right now and they’re heroes. Franco and Zimbardo (2006) were right — everyday people, not the rich and famous, are society’s true heroes.

We’re heroes just by participating in keeping society functioning.

Doing nothing and staying home is heroic because we’re not contributing to the spread of the virus. Heroism is upside-down now, as typically heroes act.  Now inaction can save lives.

9. Heroes who avoid the hoarding bias

Hoarding is a a type of OCD, caused by anxiety and depression. People have panicked and hoarded food, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.

The solution: relaxation exercises, meditation, online counseling, and developing faith that things will get better.

We’re heroes if we don’t succumb to fear.

10. Heroes who comfort and encourage others

Please do what you can to reach out to offer comfort to people who are frightened and anxious during this quarantine. You can be a hero and save someone’s life just by the smallest of gestures, such as an encouraging text or call.

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COVID-19 Pandemic Turns Heroism Upside-Down

By Scott T. Allison

William James, who authored the first psychology texbook, was taken and moved by the quiet heroism in everyday working people. He noticed “the great fields of heroism lying round about” him. He was mesmerized by small, seemingly inconsequential everyday acts that, in effect, exemplified unsung heroism in everyone.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people did not share William James’s view of heroism. People usually reserved the label of “hero” for a few elite people, for the best of humanity, the exceptional, the iconic, the super.  We’ve tended to be very selective in our use of the “hero” label — that is, until extraordinary circumstances have wakened us to the reality that all of us have a heroic role to play in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one such extraordinary circumstance. Here are two ways that the coronavirus crisis has cast a heroic light on every human being.

1.  Doing nothing, staying at home

Social media memes bound regarding the heroism of staying home and doing nothing to contribute to the spread of the virus. One meme reads, “Ask not what staying home on the couch can do for you, but what staying home on the couch can do for your country.” Another reads, “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”

This do-nothing route to heroism turns heroism on its head. Instead of doing something exceptional to become a hero, we can become heroic by simply doing nothing. Rather than risk our lives to save people, we are being heroic sitting on our couches, eating Cheetos, and watching Netflix.

2.  Everyday workers: Cashiers, waste collectors, truck drivers, food deliverers, and more

It turns out that William James was right all along. The people who are most crucial to the functioning of our society are not the rich and the famous, but the everyday people who work hard to bring us food, deliver goods, pick up our trash, and make life possible for us all.

I am not at all minimizing the extraordinary heroism going on right now among our health care workers, toiling in hospitals, tending to the sick, and exposing themselves to great danger. These are traditional heroes who have always deserved heroic status and who are making remarkable sacrifices to keep us healthy and safe. They are heroes with a capital “H.”

But this pandemic has cast a long-overdue spotlight on the hidden heroism of everyday people. Heroes are no longer seen as rare breeds but as pervasive among us all. Heroism, it seems, has been turned upside-down—ordinary people are now making life possible for us in ways that we never before could properly appreciate.

“Upside-down” may not be the best description for this phenomenon. We are all heroes, now, in our own small way, just by sitting at home and thus keeping the virus at bay. We are heroes simply by doing the jobs that once seemed small, but are now keeping us all afloat during this crisis. A pandemic may not turn heroism upside-down per se, but it transforms heroism into something expansive, inclusive, and universal.

I am calling this “inclusive heroism” — heroism that includes us all, because a pandemic makes us all important in keeping society healthy and running, in our own small ways.

Wrote William James:

“And yet there it was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes. Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every railway bridge and fire-proof building that is going up today… the demand for courage is incessant; and the supply never fails.”

References

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

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

James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: And to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: Henry Holt & Co

Heroic Consciousness: What it is and How to Acquire it

By Scott T. Allison

This blog post is excerpted from:

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

 

The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari (2018) recently described consciousness as “the greatest mystery in the universe”.

What exactly is heroic consciousness? It is a way of seeing the world, perceiving reality, and making decisions that lead to heroic behavior. Human beings display heroic consciousness by employing the nondualistic strategy of unifying disparate experiences into integrated wholes, by engaging in an enlightened processing of transrational phenomena, and by acquiring the wisdom to know when, how, and whether to act heroically.

Heroic consciousness is to be aware of thoughts, use them judiciously, but not be obsessively driven by them. It is to have an ego but not be a slave to it. It is to know when heroic action is needed and when it is not.

I have identified four telltale signs that an individual has experienced heroic consciousness. The four characteristics of the hero’s consciousness include the tendency to show clarity and effectiveness in: (1) seeing the world from a nondualistic perspective; (2) processing transrational phenomena; (3) exhibiting a unitive consciousness; and (4) demonstrating the wisdom to know when to act heroically and when not to act when action would be harmful.

1. Nondualistic Thinking

A central element of heroic consciousness is the hero’s use of the mental and spiritual approach to life known as nondualistic thinking (Jones, 2019; Loy, 1997; Rohr, 2009). Heroes are adept at both dualistic and nondualistic mental approaches. Heroes first master dualistic thinking, the ability to partition and label the world when necessary, and then they learn to go beyond this binary thinking by seeing a rich, nuanced reality that defies simple mental compartmentalizations.

Cynthia Bourgeault (2013) describes this richer psychological mindset as third force thinking that transcends the rigid mindset of dualities. A third force solution to a problem is “an independent force, coequal with the other two, not a product of the first two as in the classic Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis” (p. 26).

Psychologists have known for a half-century that human cognition is characterized by a need to simplify and categorize stimuli (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). Because our lives include daily encounters with a range of phenomena that defy simple dualistic thinking, it is of crucial importance that we engage in third force approaches that access our deeper intuitions and artistic sensibilities.

Third force solutions to problems are innovative and heroic solutions. In my view, it is crucial that we emphasize third force nondualistic thinking approaches in early education to help promote heroic mindsets in young children.

In contrast to dualistic thinking, nondualistic thinking resists a simple definition. It sees subtleties, exceptions, mystery, and a bigger picture. Nondualistic thinking refers to a broader, dynamic, imaginative, and more mature contemplation of perceived events (Rohr, 2009). A nondualistic approach to understanding reality is open and patient with mystery and ambiguity. Nondualistic thinkers see reality clearly because they do not allow their prior beliefs, expectations, and biases to affect their conscious perception of events and encounters with people.

Abraham Heschel (1955) described it as the ability to let the world come at us rather than us come at the world with preconceived categories that can skew our perceptions. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is” (p. 46-47, italics added).

Rohr (2009) describes nondualistic thinking as “calm, ego-less seeing” and “the ability to keep you heart and mind spaces open long enough to see other hidden material” (p. 33-34). According to Rohr, this type of insight occurs whenever “by some wondrous coincidence, our heart space and mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant” (p. 28).

Asian spiritual philosophies describe nondualistic seeing as the third eye, which is the enlightened ability to see the world with balance, wisdom, and clarity. Heroic protagonists in literature are often compelled to view the world at these deeper levels by traversing the hero’s journey, which involves a descent into a desperately challenging and painful situation. During these darkest of times, heroes realize that their simple dualistic mindsets no longer work for them.

The pre-heroic consciousness must be discarded, allowing heroes to achieve clarity and accumulate life-changing insights about themselves and the world (Allison & Goethals, 2014). We are all called to experience a transformative, expansive, nondualistic consciousness, and we usually get there through great love (Rohr, 2011) or great suffering (Allison & Setterberg, 2016).

But not everyone gets there. Some remain sadly stuck at the level of dualistic consciousness. Dualistic thinkers have a split consciousness that contributes to perpetuating all the damaging “isms” of society – racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and nationalism, to name a few. Split people tend to split people.

If nondualistic thinking reflects a more heroic consciousness than dualistic thinking, how does one adopt a nondualistic approach to the world? I believe there are at least two routes to attaining nondualistic thought. One route consists of Abraham Heschel’s idea of approaching the world with an openness and receptivity to awe, wonder, and gratitude (Burhans, 2016). Heschel called this radical amazement. Our thoughts constrict what we can see, according to Heschel (1955, p. 47): “While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality”.

Research shows that training in mindful meditation can help quell the initial labeling and categorizing process and thus better enable people to see the world as it is rather than as we “think” it is (Jones, 2019). In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell (2007) argues that spending less time thinking and relying upon one’s immediate intuitions often engenders greater clarity about the world.

This first route to nondualistic thinking requires us to adopt practices that encourage us to approach the world with more wonder, awe, openness, intuition, feeling, and artistic sensibility. Adopting these practices inhibits our predilection for forming quick mental partitions of the world that limit our ability to see the world more broadly, deeply, holistically, heroically, and with more radical amazement.

The second route to nondualistic thinking does not seek to reduce initial mental labeling but instead focuses on correcting for mental labels after they have already been generated. There is some evidence that the tendency to make quick, spontaneous categorizations of the world is wired into us and may therefore be very difficult to avoid (Pendry & Macrae, 1996).

Awareness of this pattern is critical to remedying it. If we find ourselves dividing the world dualistically in our minds, we can become aware of this initial binary thinking and then pause to make the necessary corrections. Engaging in mental adjustments that help us see the world in broader, more unifying terms may indeed be the height of heroic consciousness.

This two-step process of automatic judging and then correcting has been documented as a pervasive human decision-making process (e.g., Gilbert, 1998; Kraft-Todd & Rand, 2017; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). We are all capable of heroic consciousness even if at first, as a result of deeply ingrained habit, we show a dualistic pre-heroic consciousness. The challenge here is ensuring that we make the full correction. Research shows that people tend to make initial, faulty judgments and then fail to sufficiently correct for them (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). The heightened awareness of a heroically conscious individual will not allow this to happen.

There are many historical examples of the heroic use of nondualistic consciousness. John F. Kennedy used nondual thinking in his response to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A year earlier, Kennedy and his advisors were humiliated by the consequences of their dualistic reaction to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Learning from this failure, Kennedy patiently considered many possible responses to the missile crisis rather than frame the decision as either going to war versus doing nothing. He settled on a naval military blockade that nicely diffused the crisis and averted a nuclear showdown with the Soviets.

Mahatma Gandhi’s use of nonviolent, passive resistance is another striking example of nondualistic thinking. Rather than frame India’s struggle for independence as either a violent revolution or total submission, Gandhi developed an ingenious strategy of peaceful resistance that became a model for social change worldwide.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced this same nondualistic approach during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. “Nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, 1958). Through patience, contemplation, and openness, a third-force solution to problems emerges that reflects a higher intelligence and consciousness.

2. Processing of Transrational Phenomena

Encounters with experiences that defy rational, logical analysis are an inescapable part of life. A second major characteristic of the hero’s consciousness is the ability to process and understand these experiences, as they often reflect the most important issues of human existence. These transrational phenomena are mysterious and challenging for most people to fathom, and thus they require a heroic consciousness to unlock their secrets.

Rohr (2009) has identified five transrational phenomena, and I will add two more. Rohr’s five are love, death, suffering, God, and eternity. The two that I am adding are paradox and metaphor (see also Allison & Goethals, 2014; Efthimiou, Bennett, & Allison, 2019). These seven transrational experiences are a ubiquitous part of human life, pervade good hero mythology and storytelling, and are endemic to the classic monomythic hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell (1949).

To illustrate the importance of understanding the seven transrational experiences in storytelling, let us consider the role of each in the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie can be summarized as follows: The hero, Phil Connors, is a narcissistic television meteorologist covering the annual Groundhog Day ritual in Pennsylvania. Phil is hateful to everyone and has a crush on his producer, Rita. Soon he discovers that each day is a repetition of the previous day, and no one but him is aware that the day is repeating itself. The movie derives much of its humor and wisdom from how Phil handles his temporal entrapment.

Here’s how the seven transrational phenomena of the hero’s journey come into play:

(1) Eternity: The hero of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, finds himself stuck in time, repeating the same day over and over again, seemingly for eternity.

(2) Suffering: Phil suffers greatly because he cannot escape the time trap. He suffers also because despite his best efforts he cannot win the heart of Rita, his producer.

(3) God: Although never mentioned as divine per se, some outside authority or supernatural force is responsible for entrapping Phil in the time loop. This mysterious power is also responsible for eventually releasing Phil from the time loop.

(4) Love: Phil is deeply in love with Rita, but it is not until the end of the story that she reciprocates his affections.

(5) Death: Unable to win Rita’s heart or escape the time trap, Phil ends his own life many times and in many ways, only to discover that suicide for him is impossible. Later, he is unable to prevent a homeless man from dying.

(6) Metaphor: The endlessly repeating day is a metaphor for the rut of unhappy living that plagues most of humanity.

(7) Paradox: Phil has to suffer to get well. The harder Phil tries to win Rita’s heart, the less successful he is. The more he focuses on changing himself, the more he changes Rita. By helping others, he helps himself.

When we are young and not far along our hero’s journeys, all seven of these transrational experiences tend to overwhelm our ill-equipped pre-heroic consciousness. We need stories like Groundhog Day to help us awaken to a new, wiser, broader consciousness. Much like Phil Connors, most human beings suffer until and unless they adopt a heroic consciousness that enables them to grasp the transrational world.

Heroic consciousness is available to us once we realize that choosing to remain unconscious leaves us feeling alone, disconnected, frustrated, and miserable. I am not arguing that our pre-heroic rational minds are bad; in fact, pre-heroic consciousness is useful for healthy early life ego development and identity formation. Phil Connors became a successful television meteorologist by relying on his pre-heroic consciousness alone. I am only claiming that pre-heroic consciousness is insufficient for mastering life’s biggest mysteries involving the seven transrational phenomena. These issues require a broader, more enlightened consciousness to understand, and until we understand them, we are doomed to suffer much like Phil Connors.

We need both dualistic and nondualistic approaches to navigate our world successfully. To be the master of both worlds, as Joseph Campbell (1949) phrased it, we must first master dualistic thinking as our friend Phil Connors did in becoming a successful meterologist. This success alone will not bring happiness. To escape the trap of this first world, we must master nondualistic approaches toward understanding and successfully navigating through the mysteries of the transrational world.

3. Unitive Consciousness

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Albert Einstein (1950)

Heroic consciousness is a nondual, unitive consciousness, exactly like that described in the above quote by Einstein (1950). While recognizing and valuing individual separateness and multiplicity, heroic consciousness sees and seeks unification.

Joseph Campbell (1988) enjoyed telling the story about two Hawaiian police officers who were called to save the life of a man about to jump to his death. As the man began to jump, one officer grabbed onto him and was himself being pulled over the ledge along with the man he was trying to save. The other officer grabbed his partner and was able to bring both men back to safety. Campbell explained the first officer’s self-sacrificial behavior as reflecting “a metaphysical realization which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life” (p. 138).

Heroic consciousness is the awareness of this truth. Campbell (1988) taught us that the classic, mythic initiation journey ends with the hero discovering that “our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life” (p. 138).

Einstein’s metaphor of the mental prison is especially descriptive of pre-heroic consciousness. The pre-hero is trapped in the “delusion” of tribal identity and of separateness from the world. Consistent with the mental prison metaphor, spiritual leaders have referred to our over-reliance on mental life as an “addiction” (Rohr, 2011) and a “parasitic” relationship (Tolle, 2005). Both the perseverance effect and confirmation bias in psychology refer to the troublesome tendency of people to hold onto their beliefs even when those beliefs have been discredited by objective evidence (Fiske & Taylor, 2013).

The stories that we tell ourselves and cling to can hinder the development of our heroic consciousness (Harari, 2018). This is why hero training programs focus on strategies aimed at re-writing our mental scripts to bolster our heroic efficacy (Kohen et al., 2017). The trait of being open to new ways of thinking is considered by psychologists to be a central characteristic of healthy individuals (Hogan et al., 2012).

Heroes escape their mental prisons and experience a transformed consciousness when they engage in the process of self-expansiveness (Friedman, 2017), during which the boundaries between oneself and others are perceived as permeable. Many spiritual geniuses, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Richard Rohr, deem unitive consciousness as core to their definition of spiritual maturity.

Buddhist philosopher Hanh (1999) writes that human beings tend to believe that their fellow humans “exist outside us as separate entities, but these objects of our perception are us …. When we hate someone, we also hate ourselves” (p. 81). Rohr (2019) emphasizes that consciousness is the key to understanding the oneness of humanity: “The old joke about the mystic who walks up to the hotdog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything,’ misses the point. I am already one with everything. All that is absent is awareness” (p. 1).

In their list of features that distinguish heroes from villains, Allison and Smith (2015) argued that heroes seek to unite the world whereas villains seek to divide it. Unification in perception and in action tends to reduce human suffering, whereas division in perception and in action tends to produce suffering. The hero’s consciousness thus operates in the service of ending human suffering, and the villain’s consciousness (and also at times pre-heroic consciousness) can operate in the service of producing human suffering.

Heroic consciousness is therefore necessary to achieve personal wholeness, collective wholeness, and the future well-being of our planet.

4. Wisdom of Tempered Empowerment

In the 1930s, a theologian and philosopher named Reinhold Niebuhr penned what is today commonly referred to as the serenity prayer (Shapiro, 2014). The prayer is as follows:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

The serenity prayer has enjoyed considerable worldwide recognition as a result of being adopted by nearly every 12-step recovery program. I believe the serenity prayer contains brilliant insight about heroic, behavioral self-regulation.

George Goethals and I have written elsewhere about addiction recovery programs deriving their effectiveness from their use of the hero’s journey as a blueprint for growth and healing (Allison & Goethals, 2014, 2016, 2017). Other scholars and healers have also noted the parallel between heroism and addiction recovery work (Efthimiou et al., 2018; Furey, 2017; Morgan, 2014). The serenity prayer is the centerpiece of recovery programs because addiction is largely a disease of control (Alanon Family Groups, 2008). The prayer works because it helps recovering addicts develop the wisdom to know when to exercise control over their lives and when to admit powerlessness.

Each of the three lines of the serenity prayer reflects the wisdom of heroic consciousness. First, the prayer asks for the serenity to accept people and circumstances that cannot be changed. This is a prayer for acceptance of non-action when action is pointless. It takes a deeper, broader, heroic consciousness to recognize the futility of action in a situation that seems to call for action.

For example, if a chronic alcoholic is repeatedly arrested for disorderly conduct, and their partner repeatedly bails him out of jail, the partner may finally have had enough and decide not to bail out the alcoholic in the future. Not helping someone may at times lead to a better outcome than helping someone. After not being bailed out, the alcoholic sitting in jail may do some much-needed soul-searching that can lead to their own recovery and healing. The partner who fails to help the jailed alcoholic may be more of a hero by doing nothing than by any action they can take. In terms of the serenity prayer, the partner accepts that they cannot change the alcoholic and that they cannot stop the cycle of repeated arrests for disorderly conduct. Passive acceptance and non-action are sometimes the wisest responses and reflect a nondualistic heroic consciousness.

Beggan (2019) would call this heroic non-action an example of meta-heroism. According to Beggan, “The meta-hero acts heroically by not acting heroically, at least in terms of a more narrow definition of heroic action. In this case, the right thing may actually create hardship and moral ambiguity” (p. 13).

Beggan (2019) points out that there is a bias in heroism science toward taking action rather than inaction. His analysis puts the adage that “the opposite of a hero is a bystander” on its head. It seems there are times when heroes are indeed bystanders. But it takes an enlightened consciousness to discern these moments that call for heroic inaction.

The second element of the serenity prayer focuses on praying for the courage to change things that are changeable. After realizing that they are powerless over the alcoholic, the partner may recognize that they do have power over their own choices and attitudes. We can only change ourselves, not others. It takes heroic courage not to help a loved one when helping might be enabling the loved one’s pattern of dysfunctional behavior. Moreover, it takes heroic courage to take charge of one’s own life by confronting the alcoholic about the dysfunctional pattern, setting boundaries with the alcoholic, or perhaps even terminating the relationship with the alcoholic.

In any difficult situation, there are always things one can change and options one can consider, although it may take great courage to try something that is completely different and outside one’s proverbial comfort zone. It requires a heroic consciousness to consider all the things that can be changed with the goal of doing what is best for all concerned. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors could have stayed in bed in his hotel room for all eternity. But instead, he accepted his powerlessness over the time loop and became focused on changing the one thing he could change: himself.

The third and final component of the serenity prayer asks for “the wisdom to know the difference” between those things over which we are powerless and those things over which we do have power. This wisdom lies at the heart of heroic behavioral consciousness, healthy self-regulation, and sage empowerment. I call this the wisdom of tempered empowerment.

Pre-heroes cannot easily distinguish between what they can control and what they cannot, nor are they adept at anticipating the efficacy of their efforts to control others or their environment. As a result, pre-heroes can easily become meddling or enabling individuals who do more harm than good (Beggan, 2019). People with heroic consciousness possess the wisdom of tempered empowerment by recognizing the difference between situations that call for action and situations that call for inaction. The heroically conscious individual has the courage to do great things as well as the courage to avoid the kind of helping behavior that may be harmful, futile, counterproductive, or unnecessary.

This blog post is excerpted from:

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.