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?”.

The Science Behind Why We Celebrate Mother’s Day

By Scott T. Allison

It’s a familiar story – a mother sacrifices her life to save her children. On February 7, 2019, Kristina Stratton ran into her burning home to rescue her four kids from their upstairs bedrooms. The children made it out safely, but Stratton succumbed to the flames.

Each year we celebrate Mother’s Day, and for good reason. Our mothers are our Number One Hero, according to our surveys. Fathers occupy second place in our hero surveys, but they are a distant second.

Mothers are indeed the mother of all heroes.

For the past several years, psychologists have been able to pinpoint the precise reasons why people need heroes. Our heroes appear to serve four important functions, which spell out the word DIME: (1) Defense and protection; (2) Intelligence and wisdom; (3) Moral modeling; and (4) Enhancement and inspiration.

Our mothers excel at fulfilling all four of these functions. Here’s how mothers do it:

1. Mothers Defend and Protect

Kristina Stratton is certainly not the only mother who has died while defending and protecting her children. Hundreds of mothers around the world perish each year while shielding their kids from danger. Legendary stories of mothers sacrificing their lives abound, and in fact there are so many tales throughout the ages that Snopes and other fact-checking sites question their veracity.

Legends are usually based on truth, and there is no doubting the truth about our mothers’ willingness to make the deepest of sacrifices for their children.

The protection function of heroes is seen in our respondents’ comments about why their mothers are their heroes. Typical responses include, “My mother protected me from neighborhood bullies” and “My mother kept me safe from predators.” Rebecca M. Fischer, a student researcher at the University of Richmond, found that mothers are “biologically driven to protect, care for, and motivate their children to succeed.”

Other colleagues of mine at Richmond, Craig H. Kinsley and Kelly G. Lambert, have discovered that motherhood changes the brain, producing maternal behaviors directed toward protecting their young from danger.

2. Mothers Provide Intelligence and Wisdom

Scientists are beginning to uncover evidence that intelligence is inherited more from mothers than from fathers.

In addition, mothers tend to be fiercely committed to passing on wisdom to their children. My own mother taught me that the most important things in life are intangible and cannot be bought – love, integrity, character, and honesty.

Many of our most cherished heroes credit their mothers for teaching them fundamental truths about life. George Washington observed that “all I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”

Famed musician Stevie Wonder has said that his mother “was my greatest teacher”. Former First Lady Michelle Obama observed that “Life is practice. I tell my girls this every day, ‘you are practicing who you are going to be.‘ Do you want to be dependable? Then you have to be dependable. If you want people to trust you then you have to be trustworthy. Practice who you want to be every single day.”

A mother’s wisdom is often wrapped in compassion for others. Poet Maya Angelou’s mother encouraged her to “always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”

3. Mothers are Moral Models

Our mothers are heroes to us because they role-model the highest standards of human conduct. Abraham Lincoln once noted that “all that I am, or can be, I owe to my angel mother.” Andrew Jackson claimed that “there never was a woman like my mother. She was as gentle as a dove.”

In his annual Presidential Proclamation of Mother’s Day, Barak Obama emphasized how mothers “shape America’s character”. Many mothers “struggle to raise children while pursuing their careers or as single parents working to provide for their families.” Mothers lead “by powerful example and overcoming obstacles so their sons and daughters can reach their fullest potential.”

As children, we watch our mothers’ selflessness and daily sacrifices, and we learn that we’re all called to perform these acts of kindness for others.

4. Mothers Enhance and Inspire Us

Our respondents to our hero surveys never fail to mention how much their mothers made them better people. Typical responses include, “My mother inspired me to become my best self” and “My mother motivated me to develop my fullest potential.”

Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph’s mother helped the track star overcome polio. “The doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” she said.

Inventor Thomas Edison shared a similar story. “My mother was the making of me,” he said. “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has said that her mother “raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her.”

Our mothers think the world of us and want what’s best for us. They help us all reach for the stars and maximize our fullest potential.

Mother’s Day far exceeds Father’s Day in terms of greeting card sales and gift expenditures, and for good reason. Mothers are our Number One Hero because of the free offering of love that they give us. They are there for us when we need emotional support. Mothers hug us. They comfort us when we cry and let us sit on their laps. They kiss us on our cheeks before school and at bedtime at night.

Yes, social norms are changing and we now see more fathers taking on the role of nurturers than in previous generations. But the emerging science of heroism helps explain why we reserve a special place in our hearts for our heroic mothers.

Powerful Hero Archetypes in Game of Thrones

By Scott T. Allison

Since the advent of language, human beings have been magnetically drawn to tales of inspiring heroes. The powerful allure of heroism is wired into us, and science appears to support that claim. Hero stories fascinate us because we are all potential heroes, and we’re called to follow the same heroic journey as the protagonists in the stories we love.

Game of Thrones, one of the most highly acclaimed series in television history, owes much of its success to its effective portrayal of heroes. There are at least five deep hero archetypes that Game of Thrones uses to create alluring heroes. These archetypes are: (1) the underdog hero, (2) the hero’s secret royal heritage, (3) the hero’s redemption, (4) the heroic transformation, and (5) the hero’s mentor.

1. The Underdog Hero. There are over a half-dozen characters in the series that win our hearts because of their ability to overcome their underdog status. Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf whom everyone seems to underestimate. He uses his wit, intelligence, and wisdom to survive and thrive in Game of Thrones’ harsh world. Jon Snow is the bastard child of Ned Stark, a status that relegates him to third-class citizenship, yet his overall goodness and courage allow him to climb the social ladder.

Two legitimate Stark children, Sansa and Arya, are diminished and underestimated due to the lowly status of women in Westeros, yet their resilience and cunning enable them to overcome evil. Samwell Tarly is at first a lovable coward whom everyone dismisses but he evolves into a brave and stalwart member of the night’s watch. Daenerys Targaryen is, at the outset of Game of Thrones, mere breeding stock for the Dothrakis yet she emerges as the most powerful ruler of the seven kingdoms.

2. The Hero’s Secret Royal Heritage. In many classic fairy tales, the hero is oblivious to their true special identity, which is often that of a king, queen, prince, or princess. Jon Snow suffers the status of an outcast, and unbeknownst to everyone he is actually the true heir to the iron throne.

As mentioned, Daenerys at first is nothing more than a sex slave while her true identity is Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Protector of the Realm, Queen of Meereen, Yunkai and Astapor, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, The Unburnt Breaker of Chains, Lady of Dragonstone, and more.

Bran Stark has been reduced to a crippled boy but soon discovers his true identity as the three-eyed raven who can see the past, present, and future. It should be noted that the “third eye” is considered a sign of deep enlightenment in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures. Bran grows from nothingness into omniscience.

3. The Redeemed Hero. Stories of redemption abound in Game of Thrones. One notable redeemed hero is Theon Greyjoy, an arrogant jerk who develops severe PTSD after enduring lengthy mental and physical torture at the hands of Ramsey Bolton. Humbled almost beyond repair, Greyjoy slowly regains his confidence and appears to be climbing to the status of a leader as the series enters its final season.

Jaime Lannister’s redemption looked next to impossible after he shoved young Bran Stark to his seeming doom in the series’ first episode. Seemingly irredeemable, Jaime has proven himself to be one of the more loyal and honorable Lannisters. In fact, he could be the only person willing and able to stop his evil sister Cersei. The Hound, who was once a vicious killer, is another character who appears to be slowly carving out a redemptive heroic path for himself.

4. Heroic Transformation. During their journeys, heroes undergo significant mental, moral, emotional, spiritual, and physical transformations. The two Stark sisters, Arya and Sansa, each undergo transformative arcs. Sansa grows in confidence and wisdom, whereas Arya grows into a fierce and daring swordsperson. Jon Snow, too, evolves from a mere guardian of the wall into a wise king of the north. Bran, of course, undergoes a striking spiritual transformation.

Theon Greyjoy transforms twice, first from an arrogant lord into an emotionally destroyed cipher, and then from that cipher into a newly empowered lord. Daenerys owes her remarkable transformation to an unnamed servant to Drogo, a woman who teaches the future Queen how to empower herself in her marriage. This act of mentorship sends Daenerys on her heroic journey.

5. The Hero’s Mentor. In classic hero mythology, heroes receive assistance for someone older, wiser, or unusual in some respect. Daenerys has had several mentors giving her advice over the years, the two most prominent being Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister. Jon Snow was mentored by Ned Stark, Davos Seaworth, and Maester Aemon. Snow himself has served as a mentor to Samwell and to Theon.

There have been plenty of dark mentors, too — people who appear to mean well but are intent on steering the hero down a dark path. Sansa Stark’s dark mentor is Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, who manipulates her into making several bad decisions. King Tommen’s dark mentor is the High Sparrow who steers Tommen toward betraying his wife and his mother. Some mentors are a mix of good and bad, as when Arya Stark is trained by the assassin Jaquen H’ghar, the mysterious man of many faces who teaches Arya important skills yet almost destroys her in the process.

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Game of Thrones has won 39 Emmy Awards for a reason – the series has crafted highly memorable characters who have undergone dramatic heroic arcs. We’ve reviewed five ways that Game of Thrones has used powerful hero archetypes in portraying extraordinary heroism. We look forward to the series’ eighth and final season when all these hero journeys reach their natural completion.

We Needed Tiger Woods to Win The Masters

By Scott T. Allison

For years I’ve been telling my students that the reason why we watch movies and read novels is not to be entertained, but to be inspired and educated about life.

The main characters in our favorite stories are telling our story. It’s a story of being swept into painful circumstances, feeling helpless and lost, getting help from others, transforming into something new, and emerging on the other side better than before.

It’s the story of life, and the heroes of our favorite stories are showing us the way. No wonder we pay such rapt attention.

Tiger Woods’ victory in the recent Masters golf tournament illustrates just how the world of sports entertainment parallels the drama and theater of movies, television, novels, and plays.

Tiger, as you may know, burst onto the sport scene as a golf prodigy in the 1990s. He dominated the sport as almost no one ever had. He even won the 2008 US Open while playing with a broken leg. Tiger seemed invincible.

You probably know what happened next. Tiger’s marital infidelities were revealed, suggesting a sex addiction. He took a long sabbatical from golf to get well. When he came back, he was no longer a dominant golfer. Even worse, he began to suffer significant injuries to his ankle, knees, and back.

Every one of his comebacks stalled, with Tiger’s injuries mounting in number and severity. In 2017 he could hardly walk and was worried he might never lead a normal life, let alone play golf again. He underwent spinal fusion surgery as a last resort, a procedure that would impair his ability to swing a golf club but would allow him to live a relatively pain-free life.

Stories were swirling about Tiger’s broken, decrepit body. He was written-off as a player who was once great but who would never again reach the pinnacle of golf.

After recovering from this major back surgery, Tiger discovered he could still swing a golf club, although not in the same way or with the same flexibility and speed. He made adjustments to his swing and practiced as hard as he could, although his aging body would not permit him very much practice time.

In 2018, against all odds, Tiger not only returned to professional golf, he won the PGA Tour Championship. Still, there were doubters. Surely Tiger would never win a major championship, not at the age of 43 and not while competing against today’s younger, stronger players.

Tiger’s victory in the 2019 Masters tournament was a stunning accomplishment. It is being hailed as perhaps the greatest comeback in sports history.

Human beings need good comeback stories. All of us experience loss and failure of some type. It can be a divorce, a disease, a tragedy, an injury, or a transgression. Whatever it is, we all suffer through times in our lives when we’re trying to come back from pain and adversity.

In coming back, Tiger role-modeled many heroic virtues – hope, hard work, determination, resilience, and inspiration.

The sports world is a stage and we are drawn to heroic protagonists on that stage whose stories parallel our own struggles in life. Tiger went on the hero’s journey, suffered, and transcended that suffering.

We needed it to happen.

The Romance of Heroism

In this book, heroism experts George R. Goethals and Scott T. Allison explore how the romantic conception of heroes is constructed, both in real life and in our heads.

Here is an excerpt from the Introductory chapter:

We adopt an approach that we call the romance of heroes.  Merriam-Webster defines romance as an emotional attraction, or special quality or feeling that comes from a person, place, or thing.  The verb form of romance is to exaggerate or invent detail.  This book explores these processes as they operate in our human perception of heroism.  We assume that people are motivated to actively construct reality from incomplete information.  There is a long history of theory and research in social perception and social cognition to support this idea.” 

“We also assume, based on our own research, that people are motivated to have heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2011).  Our contention in this book is that our love of heroes is so strong that we could call it a romantic longing.  Merriam-Webster reminds us that this longing is a strong emotional attraction that may cause mental exaggeration or invention.  Our desire and drive to designate people as heroes may be subject to distortion and to motivated perception under conditions of uncertainty.  We’ll also explore how this tendency to exaggerate or invent in response to strong motives can contribute to our construction of villains as well as heroes.”

Looking at the dichotomy of heroism and villainy, the authors offer insights into Donald Trump’s ascension to the US presidency, particularly detailing the correspondence between the needs of the US public and the promises the former reality TV star made in reply.

Goethals and Allison also consider how three highly charismatic men dramatically and fundamentally changed American society in the mid-20th century — Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley, and Muhammad Ali, called here The Three Kings.

This exciting and innovative book explores how charisma and human needs create romantic images of individuals as heroes and villains. For researchers and students of psychology and leadership, this is a fundamental text on the creation of both genuine heroes and false idols.

This book is now available for purchase at Amazon.com.

 

The Heroic Wisdom of Yuval Noah Harari

By Scott T. Allison

The ancient Greeks referred to prophets as individuals with the capacity to foresee the future. Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari would deny being a prophet, as he admits to not knowing how the future will unfold. But perhaps no one alive today is more skilled at describing with intelligent detail several different possible outlooks for humanity.

Harari argues that the year 2050 can either look like a Utopia, with humans all around the globe enjoying unprecedented prosperity, or it can descend into a catastrophic “digital dictatorship”. The key centers on how we manage the potentially disruptive merging of information technologies and bio-technologies. This merging will produce revolutionary changes in our personal lives, reshape society as a whole, and may even mark the end of homo sapiens.

Some of these radical changes are already happening, and Harari implores us to develop ethical guidelines for the appropriate application of emerging technologies. These ethical guidelines must be developed and applied globally, as the reality of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, and impending technological revolutions affect our entire interdependent planet.

For details of Harari’s visions of the future, you’ll need to read one or more of his best-selling books: Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

What is the source of Harari’s visionary wisdom? Our research on heroism suggests that heroes are able to see the world through a deeper and broader lens. The ancient mystics and Buddhists called such viewing nondualistic thinking. This style of perceiving reality refers to the ability to go beyond seeing world in terms of simple binary categories. Nondualistic thinkers like Gandhi, Lincoln, and Harari all have the gift of going deeper and seeing nuance that goes beyond mere black-and-white dichotomies. Simple dualistic thinking contributes to a host of damaging “isms”: racism, sexism, and ageism, to name a few.

Nondualistic thinking refers to broader, more mature contemplation of perceived events. It resists the urge to feed one’s own ego or the collective ego. Nondual thinking is humble and patient with mystery and ambiguity. Abraham Heschel (1983) described it as the ability to let the world come at us rather than us coming at the world with preconceived categories skewing our perceptions. 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.”

Asian spiritual philosophies describe it as the third eye, which is the enlightened ability to see the world with balance, wisdom, and clarity. In our writings of the hero’s journey, we have argued that heroes almost always descend into darkness before they achieve self-insight and acquire the wisdom of transformation (Allison & Goethals, 2016). Heroic experiences are rife with phenomena that can only be understood by seeing the world through a nondualistic lens.

An example of Harari’s nondualistic wisdom is seen in his view of nationalism, which has burgeoned around the world in recent years. One might think that Harari would condemn nationalism, given that he champions a globalized approach to dealing with current and future planetary problems. But Harari doesn’t believe that a nationalistic mindset is completely wrongheaded. Instead, he adopts a balanced, nondualistic perspective of nationalism.

Nationalism, he argues, is only bad if it involves viewing the lives of one’s own nation’s citizens as more important than the lives of people residing in other nations. Nationalism is good if it is defined as treasuring one’s own national culture as beautiful, distinctive, and special — not better or worse than those of any other nation. Harari believes it is possible to eliminate the bad aspects of nationalism (a belief in superiority) while retaining the good aspects (a love for one’s unique culture). In this way, all human life is equally precious regardless of national boundaries.

A healthy nationalism, adopted by many countries, can lead to a healthy globalized approach to the problems of climate change and the potentially disruptive effects of emerging technologies. Below is a Youtube video of Harari’s heroic vision for a world community that can effectively bring about the best possible future for us all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8x3zaIYrHTs

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46, 187-210.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Spyrou, S. P. (2019). Donald Trump as the archetypal puer aeternus: The psychology of mature and immature leadership. In K. Bezio & G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Leadership and populism. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Heschel, A. J. (1983). I asked for wonder. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Rohr, R. (2009). The naked now. New York: Crossroad Publishing.