This is one of those rare responses that’s based both on a history of our personal conversations, as well as a trained knowledge of the literature and data on heroism.
For anyone who wonders if they have what it takes to be heroic, it’s worth reading:
I have met and there are historical examples of plenty of people who were arrogant, overly self-assured, even narcissistic who went on to become heroes, perhaps precisely because that self assurance was what they need to push them to act in situations that required a heroic response where others did not. At the same time, there are meek, mild-mannered, shy people who would never claim to be trying to live a heroic life, but when pushed have the resolve that they need to respond heroically as well. The point that Dr. Philip Zimbardo and I have been trying to put across in a series of papers is that we doubt that there is a single personality type that defines heroism. Beyond that, saying one is or is not a hero, or saying you are trying to live based on heroic principles probably has very little to do with whether or not you are able to actually act heroically in a given situation. The only proof, as they say, is in the pudding—if you were called to act, did you?
…Part of my fundamental point to people is that there is a misunderstanding that heroism is something outside of normal, everyday life and experience. Most of us are called to act heroically quite frequently, but to see it, you have to attend to the fine details of life as you live it. When you see someone slighting someone else, do you just let it go? Or do you say something? Are you willing to risk an important friendship with a powerful person to point out that what they are doing is unethical? That is heroism that involves social sacrifice. Most of us will be in these types of situations frequently, perhaps even daily, but we are often so busy looking for the “big” act of heroism that we forget these simple versions. I think the risk for anyone who thinks about heroism much is to get caught up in a hero fantasy that is probably a lot more interesting than the heroic reality, which is often ethically complex, stressful, and lonely.
Zeno also stated that, “My caution to you really had more to do with trying to ‘create’ a heroic encounter,” a caution that is well-taken.
The Heroic Life is, at its root, about living a life that echoes that of the heroes of myth: a life of travel and seeking out challenge. No one can ever guarantee they’ll have the chance to act heroically, but they can make a point of challenging themselves and testing their limits continuously.
That merits a post of its own but, for now, I think Zeno’s points deserve to be showcased. You can read his whole comment here.