What Makes a Hero?

I was driving somewhere after work on Friday and happened to have the radio dial on the local KQED station. A story came up about the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. I’m sure most people have heard of him – he was the one in charge of the Stanford Prison Experiments where normal students were given the role of either a prison guard or a prisoner. The study proved that normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill people can become sadists.

This segment was about a new idea that Zimbardo was working on to try to prove the opposite of what he ended up proving 40 years ago: If normal people can become sadists in certain situations, is the opposite true and can normal people become heroes if the situation calls for it? Zimbardo created the Heroic Imagination Project to find out if students can learn to become heroes. From the news segment: “We want to democratize the idea of hero,” says Zimbardo. “You don’t have to have any special talents to be a hero. You just have to be able to act, when most people don’t.”

When I was out driving on Saturday, the local KQED station had an episode of Radiolab airing. Funny enough, the segment that I got to listen to in this episode about altruism was about heroes and people who had actually won a prize through the Carnegie Hero Fund for their acts of selflessness. Most of the people they talked to didn’t know what it was exactly that made them act the way they did and why they put their own lives in danger for someone else.

There’s always that situation where something happens and everyone, instead of reacting, merely watch. I’ve thought about this a lot. If the situation calls for it, I want to have the capacity to be the person who can actually break off from the herd, to break away from the mindset that someone else can take care of it, and help someone. I realize it’s a lot easier said than done so I hope the feeling on this that I exhibit now would manifest if need be.

I know, I know, the last paragraph above is totally random (and for me to write it out loud, so to speak, is a bit ridiculous) but to listen to two news stories about heroes (both had aired previously) within a day of each other has just made me think. This topic has always intrigued me and these stories made me ask myself if I can be that person. I want to be that person. Maybe I’m being too idealistic and my head is so full of comic books and superhero cartoons that I’m just all talk. I really do hope though that I can strive to be selfless, InshAllah.

Further listening – one of my favorite This American Life episodes titled Superpowers. In the first segment, they talk about what power one would pick if they had the choice: Invisibility or Flight? (I would pick flight, no question FYI :). The second story is pretty cool too.

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