In my hero delusion cheat sheet I said that people with a healthy heroic imagination are prepared for occasions that require heroism, but don’t seek out those occasions. On the other hand, I suggested that people with delusions of heroism do seek out heroic encounters. A reader asked me this excellent question:
Could you clarify [seeking out heroic encounters] a little further?
Although there is clearly a difference between your own pursuit of adventure… and random acts of violence, it still seems that the first might qualify as seeking opportunties to be heroic. What about those who volunteer for hazardous work in law enforcement, the military, or even emergency rescue in the hope of doing heroic things?
I think the difference is whether you are looking, specifically, to go out and find a situation where you do something heroic (save someone; kill a bad guy; stop a crime) versus doing something that you accept may put you into those situations.
As I travel, I actually hope I don’t end up in situations that need heroes. Those situations are usually dangerous and always nerve-wracking. I stay away from the bad parts of town in Guanajuato, hoping I never meet a criminal and have to decide how to handle it. But I do understand that my adventure will both take me through dangerous areas and confront me with many challenging situations, which hopefully will better prepare me to react effectively if needed.
On the other hand “seeking out” a heroic encounter usually means you’re either looking for trouble or causing trouble. We have good examples of both:
- George Zimmerman was looking for trouble (and a chance to be heroic) when he exceeded neighborhood watch duties by tailing Trayvon Martin even after police asked him not to. He was so sure he could be a hero he ended up killing an unarmed kid.
- Elliot Rodger didn’t go out looking for trouble at Isla Vista, he went out to cause it. He believed he could create a heroic encounter where he would take a symbolic stand against womankind and it would mean something.
In both cases, these men didn’t just prepare themselves to react heroically if needed; they vetoed the “if needed” and made sure they’d get a chance to take dramatic action.
Even if that hadn’t ended tragically in both cases, it would at least show tremendous recklessness, a distorted view of risk and, I believe, a failed understanding of heroism.
This equation may change somewhat when you look at law enforcement and other professions who routinely go into danger. But if you ask most police, soldiers or firefighters they deny that they’re heroes. I’m sure many are motivated by helping people, but not many are hell bent on finding a chance to take a stand and do something dramatic. Police are actually trained to try to defray and minimize these situations, with the use of force as a last resort. Officers who seek out chances to confront and defeat criminals are basically going against their training and orders. I’m sure they exist but I would suggest that those particular officers are unbalanced, badge or no badge.
Anyway, that’s how I see the difference: healthy individuals may sign up for many activities that involve potential risks, up to and including combat. But they’re making that choice on the balance of the rewards (including a sense of honor or service) outweighing the risks. They hopefully aren’t just racing toward risky situations as quickly as possible in order to make their mark on the world—and if they are, they’re a danger to the people around them.