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

Heroes blog OE 3By Olivia Efthimiou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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The Bodhisattva: Buddhism’s Hero of Wisdom and Compassion

9781590306338By Richard Mercer

Throughout the long course of Buddhist thought and practice, two role models have dominated the landscape—the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.  For the early Buddhists, the consummation of a human lifetime derived from a withdrawn, often monastic, existence marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.   The successful monk or nun who realized nirvana became an Arhat.  For the later Mahayana Buddhists the ideal life changed into one marked by involvement in the world, an engaged life infused with wisdom and compassion—the latter often spoken of as highly skillful teaching of the Mahayana way.  The man or woman achieving this enlightenment became a Bodhisattva and potentially a veritable Buddha.

The popular and famous Vimalakirti Sutra, written in India around 100 CE in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan in the 8th century and into Chinese seven times between the 2nd  and 7th  centuries, tells of a miraculous episode in the life of a legendary Bodhisattva living in the city of Vaishali.

Vimalakirti is a rich man, not a monk,  He has a home, a wife, children, relatives, and servants.  He dresses fashionably, eats and drinks like others.  He visits gambling parlors, listens to discussions about other religions, knows secular literature, conducts all kinds of business transactions and reaps profits.  He visits government offices and courts of law. He enters brothels and wine shops.  He is familiar with every level of citizen.  In all of this his motive is to use skillful techniques and expedient means best suited to the people he meets to bring them the relief that is the goal of the Mahayana Buddhist way.

To accomplish this on what quickly becomes a grand—even cosmic—scale Vimalakirti makes it appear that he has fallen seriously ill.  This gambit is very apt because the fact of illness, and the goal of health, is central to the Buddhist view of the human condition.  The first noble truth articulated by Shakyamuni Buddha on the night of his enlightenment is that human life is marked by suffering, perhaps better thich-nhat-hanh-quote-a-bodhisattva-is-someone-who-has-compassion-withput as disease or dis–ease.  The remaining three Noble Truths spell out for early Buddhists the way to cure this dis—ease.

For Mahayanists the cure is not the monastic way of the early Buddhists.  Vimalakirti counsels Subhuti, a famous early disciple of  Shakyamuni Buddha, on what constitutes real merit far beyond begging for one’s meals.

“Subhuti, if you cannot cut yourself off from lewdness, anger, and stupidity and yet not  be a part of these . . . ;  if without wiping out stupidity and attachment you can find your way to understanding and freedom from attachment; if you can seem to be a perpetrator of the five cardinal sins and yet gain emancipation . . . ; if in this manner you can master all phenomenal things and yet remove yourself from the ways that mark them, then you will be worthy to receive food.”

The Bodhisattva way is to be in the world but not of it, to know this, and to work toward understanding the implications of this truth.

Later Vimalakirti instructs Manjushri, a cosmic Bodhisattva representative of perfect wisdom, that illness springs from deluded thoughts, the upside-down thinking and desires of  one’s human past, remembered and forgotten,

“Manjusri the ailing Bodhisattva should go about regulating and controlling his mind.   By doing so he cuts off the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. . . .  A person who has overcome a sworn enemy deserves to be called a hero in the same way one who has overcome old age, sickness, and death may be called a bodhisattva.”

The Bodhisattva is an enlightened hero whose essence is skillful teaching by word and example that leads people to emancipation from the ever accumulating anxieties, errors, and stress of the human condition.

As a final note, however, it’s important to say that the Vimalakirti Sutra adds spectacle, humor, and drama to edifying doctrine.  The primary climax of the work is a stunning pause known as the thunderous silence of Vimalakirti, his non-response to a flood of abstruse observations by 31 members of the vast multitude of beings, cosmic and human, housed miraculously in his little room.  It is a powerful reminder that the most profound truths are beyond words.  Silence here is eloquent.

But wait there’s more.  Immediately following this Shakespearian moment, Sariputra, a very well-know early disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha, provides wonderful comic relief when he thinks to himself, “it’s almost noon, what are all these Bodhisattvas going to eat?”   His mind is on lunch.  This is not the first time he fails to grasp the profundity of what is happening around him with great comic results.  There are other wonderful moments like this throughout the work that explain the great popularity that accompanies the fame of the Vimalakirti Sutra’s edifying lessons.

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Richard Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Boddhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

The Launching of ‘Heroism Science’: Blog, Journal, and Online Resource

Super siloBy Scott T. Allison

A new website devoted entirely to promoting heroism and heroism science has been launched by Olivia Efthimiou, a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound Research Centre.

The site is called Heroism Science: Promoting the transdisciplinary study of heroism in the 21st century.

The introductory page of the site explains:

“The 21st century has marked a shift in research trends across a number of disciplines, especially due to the increasing relevance of technologies in our daily lives and the demand for more complex and creative ways of thinking about our world. In particular, the focus in the sciences, psychology and the social sciences which have traditionally concentrated on the study of disease, evil, maladaptive and irrational behaviours, is now moving towards understanding positive behaviours and promoting personal and collective well-being.

“This has signaled an unprecedented rise in the study of such fields as resilience, flow, spirituality, sustainability, leadership, faith and many more. Heroism and heroic individuals represent the pinnacle of humanity – iahs-3what we can become, do and experience. But, as we are discovering, decoding the heroic process, its antecedents and impacts, is far from simple. Heroism science seeks to uncover the many complex layers of this state of human consciousness which has fascinated us since the dawn of humankind, as we look to the future in both awe and fear of what we might achieve.”

The site includes:

Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company has already published a blog commentary at Heroism Today called Every Hero Needs a Team.

Scott Allison has published the first article in International Advances in Heroism Science (IAHS) called The Initiation of Heroism Science.

Olivia Efthimiou has published the second article in IAHS entitled The Search For The Hero Gene: Fact or Fiction?

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So there you have it – a website that provides all the information about heroism that you’d ever want to know. Everyone is encouraged to contribute to this site — please consider submitting an essay to the blog or an article to the journal, or contributing new resources and readings about heroes and heroism.

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Heroism as an Emergent Property

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

It seems like it should be very simple-– the definition of heroism. And yet, as we’ve seen, any attempts to delineate a definitive set of properties or criteria result in debate, disagreement and dissatisfaction. The more we try to pin down the concept, the more amorphous it seems. This is because heroism is not an intrinsic property, but an emergent one. In the words of the great philosopher Anonymous, “Heroes are made, not born.”

This is not to say that the potential for heroism does not exist in everyone, but acts of heroism are decidedly situational. The woman who saved her platoon in Afghanistan may be useless when her neighbor’s cat is stuck up a tree –- she’s afraid of heights. Or the man who quietly devoted ten years of his life to caring for his sick mother may not be the person you want around if you’re drowning –- he never learned to swim. The scientist whose vaccine saved countless lives may lack the upper body strength to pull an unconscious adult from a burning building. The great orator whose speeches inspired millions may lack the esoteric knowledge needed to assist somebody having an epileptic seizure.

However, on another day, an undistinguished man with a questionable past may be sitting on his front porch, hear a cry for help, and find himself rescuing several kidnapped women from their captor. Or perhaps a woman who was previously known only as a baseball player’s daughter may be walking down the street, minding her own business, and find herself catching a one-year-old baby who fell from a fire escape. Or perhaps a middle-aged construction worker, waiting for a train with his two kids, will find himself saving the life of a seizure-stricken stranger who fell upon the tracks. Or perhaps a shopper at the supermarket, thinking only of taking home some groceries, may find himself performing CPR on the still body of a child, bringing her back to life.

Ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary circumstances that suddenly blossom into extraordinary events. What seems inevitable is averted. Like life itself, heroism is a thing of self-organizing complexity, emergent, synergistic-– an antidote to entropy.

It is inevitable that we should seek to understand the existence and nature of heroism. Seeking to understand is one of the essential qualities of humanity and we are rightfully amazed at a universe that can give rise to beings who can conceive of such a sublime, but slippery, idea. Yet we also must realize that concepts in the abstract have no perfect analogs in the physical world. The zen concept of a chair is perfect to the intellect, but only infinite imperfect variations exist in reality. We can calculate the mathematical properties of a perfect circle, but no such thing exists outside the realm of pure thought. When the abstract is made real, it is unique and unprecedented-– it is emergent-– and, while it may have aspects in common with past examples, attempting to formalize the concept in absolute terms is like trying to psychoanalyze a person not yet born.

Perhaps, then, the best way to define heroism is to understand that heroism defines itself.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Johnny Appleseed: The First Hero to Advocate "Going Green"

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The past two decades have witnessed a burgeoning public interest in protecting our planet and its limited resources.  The phrase going green was coined in the 1990s to describe the mindset and practice of caring for the environment, with green symbolizing a respect for plant life and other gifts of nature.  A growing wave of companies in all sectors of our economy are now embracing environmentally safe practices.  Going green is the right thing to do, and companies find that a green philosophy even saves them money, too.

One of the first individuals to bring the value of preserving nature to the public’s attention was Henry David Thoreau, who recognized the dangerous impact of the industrial age on the environment.  Over 150 years ago, Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  He understood the clash between modernization and environmentalism.  “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” he opined.

Thoreau was influenced by one man from the early 19th century whose impact on conservation and naturalism was so great that he became a true American legend.  This icon’s name was John Chapman, although he later became better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was born on a small farm in Massachusetts, and as a child his favorite place to spend time was his father’s apple orchard.  As a young adult, he moved west toward Ohio.  Along the way and in Ohio, he planted apple seeds in fenced orchards, sold them, and became somewhat of a wanderer who preached the value of protecting plant and animal life.

Chapman was described in a magazine article as “a small wiry man, full of restless activity.”  He sported long black hair and “keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He referred to himself as merely a “gatherer and planter of apple seeds.”  Chapman played a crucial role in America’s population shift westward during the early 19th century.  His apple orchards provided early pioneers with a self-reliant means of generating income from growing their own apples.  Fresh apples and apple butter were staples in the diets of the early American settlers.  Apple cider could be traded for flour, livestock, sugar, and other staples in cash-poor settlements.  The presence of apple orchards also signified that a piece of land was claimed, serving as the equivalent of a sold sign for all to see.

Chapman enjoyed success with his business model, but he remained a humble man who lived the simplest of lives.  He spent the majority of his adult life living with nature and planting apple nurseries. Chapman clothed himself with the most threadbare garments he received on barter for his apple trees, often giving away the better clothes to the less fortunate.  His generosity and love of nature were legendary, earning him the moniker Johnny Appleseed.  He is remembered today as the patron saint of American horticulture.

In our research on heroes, we’ve found that a certain category of heroes consists of individuals who attain a mythic status.  We call these people transfigured heroes.  Examples of heroes of this type include Amelia Earhart, Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd, St. Patrick, Merlin and Sherlock Holmes.  Transfigured heroes take on a legendary significance.  Their contributions are largely constructed, exaggerated, or glorified into legend.  We need heroes of this type.  They are larger than life.  And as in the case of Johnny Appleseed, they educate and inspire us with their selfless good works.

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Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  If so, please contact Scott Allison at

Our 8th Book — Reel Heroes & Villains

ReelHVfrontcoverWhat makes a good movie hero? Which kinds of villains are the best — or the worst?

In Reel Heroes & Villains, Scott Allison and Greg Smith present a new way of understanding movie heroes and villains. This book is already an Amazon Number One Best Seller. Inside this book you’ll find:amazon-bestseller

  • A new innovative model of heroes & villains in the movies
  • The key to good characters in the movies: Transformation
  • The Eight Great Arcs of transformations in heroes and villains
  • How heroes and villains transform morally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically
  • How the hero’s journey differs from the villain’s journey
  • 52 reviews of movie heroes and villains in 2014

Reel Heroes & Villains is scheduled for release on August 15, 2015.

Here’s what people are saying about Reel Heroes & Villains:

“Allison and Smith have deftly crafted THE premier text of heroes and villains in contemporary cinema. A shiny portrait that brilliantly dissects the hero-villain dichotomy through a dense mixture of passion, knowledge, and humor to offer profound insights into the hero-villain relationship.”

Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company


“A daring model of heroism and villainy. Allison and Smith’s analysis forever changes the way we view movie characters.”

Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver


“A must-read for all fans of heroes and villains in the movies.”

Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville


“Those mad geniuses, Allison and Smith, are back. Here are the secrets of the villains you love to hate, by the writers you love to read. Cinema’s worst villains are no match for Allison and Smith.”

Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor


“A dive into the minds of those you love to hate. Allison and Smith examine the shadowy reflection of heroism.”

Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim


“A revolutionary way of understanding heroes and villains in the movies. This book is Allison and Smith’s tour de force.”

Dr. James Beggan, University of Louisville