Heroism, Spotlight

The Next Generation of Heroes?

Photo via Hero Round Table

As longtime readers know, last year I spoke at the Hero Round Table, the world’s largest conference dedicated to real life heroism. This year I wasn’t able to attend, but my friend Ari Kohen was, and by all account it was every bit as wildly inspirational as last year. Ari has some observations and a question that I think is very important:

I’ve just returned to work after a weekend in Flint, Michigan at the second annual Hero Round Table conference. Roughly 800 people filled a beautiful auditorium to listen to and interact with a very impressive group of speakers over the course of two days.

Some of the speakers were honest-to-goodness celebrities, at least to this audience, like former Michigan State and NBA athletes Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves. Some were well-known academics, like Philip Zimbardo. And then there was Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on extensive governmental lying about the Vietnam War when he released the Pentagon Papers.

Looking at that list, I suspect you can guess who elicited the biggest reaction from the crowd.

It was Zimbardo, the 81 year old psychology professor.

If that wasn’t the person you would have guessed, then you are like me. I would have assumed that people at a heroism conference would have been standing in line to meet Ellsberg, an actual hero. But, at least in part, I think Ellsberg’s heroism is now too far removed from the public consciousness. Most of my parents’ generation (and — to a much lesser extent — my generation) would recognize Ellsberg’s heroism and would likely, if given the option, sit down to hear his thoughts on whistleblowing (especially considering how much whistleblowing has been in the news of late). But people who are younger than I am? Not so much.

So, the question is this: Who are the heroes of the next generation?

What do you think? On this blog I generally define a hero as someone who takes risk to help others. At the same time, it’s natural to think of anyone who inspires us as a hero. With those definitions in mind I would love to hear your take on who the big, memorable heroes of our time will be. Whose name, deeds or work comes to mind?

I need your help. I’m launching a 2,000 mile group bicycle ride across Mexico. More than a dozen adventurers are ready to join me, including men and women, 60 year olds and 20 year olds, experienced cyclists and total beginners. We’re asking for your help so that we can get the safety gear we need. In exchange we want to bring you with us every step of the way. Please check out the Fellowship of the Wheel campaign, contribute if you can, and tell your friends. Thank you.

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The Heroic Life

The Wind of Fate

Image by Celeste

“While I do not know where my purpose lies, I know it lies in something bigger than me, bigger than a class room, bigger than a university and its diplomas. There’s this force in me that just wants to explore, and where I cannot explore with eyes unclouded, I suffocate.”

That’s a quote from Antoine, a reader of mine. In my novella, Lúnasa Days, I write about what I call the Wind of Fate. Antoine has perfectly summed it up here.

It is also, I believe, a sentiment that drives those who follow heroic ideals and seek to live a life of excellence. Antoine talks not only about pursuing a sense of purpose, but about pursuing it on the grandest scale possible. It is that exact ambition—the ambition to do great things—that can, I believe, lead a person to excel at their art and reach for a higher ideal.

That is the Wind of Fate, a wind that can be captured in the sail, propelling you forward; or simply to be weathered like a storm.

How do you catch your wind?

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Heroism, Spotlight

What Are You Doing in September?

Photo via Hero Round Table.

I don’t go to a lot of conferences. Of those I’ve attended, very few are what I would describe as life changing. In fact, I can only name two that had a major influence on me. One of them, the Hero Round Table, is happening again this September.

Last year was the Hero Round Table’s first year and I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s a conference on heroism, and specifically how to create heroism in today’s world. I was impressed not only by the high caliber of names on the speaker list (which made me a little nervous, since I was also on that list) but by the diversity of disciplines they represented: from psychologists and sports players to writers and public school teachers. None of them claimed to be heroes, but each one had learned something about heroism from seeing it up close.

Arriving in Flint, I was immediately struck by the lengths the Round Table went to to make sure attendees would have a blast. That’s no accident: organizer Matt Langdon is a veteran speaker himself, and has a veritable encyclopedia of conference horror stories to tell. He insisted on getting things right, from the venue to the perks for ticket holders to the mid-conference entertainment. Most importantly, he made sure the whole event, as sweeping as it was, focused like a laser on one issue: how people can take these lessons home and create change wherever they go.

In my opinion, it worked. I’ve never seen such a large crowd of people so engaged in heroism. People didn’t come there only to learn or hear cool stories, they came to understand what makes it possible for regular, everyday people to be heroic and then put it into action. I talked to everyone from a 17 year old figuring out her life to teachers fighting to reform our education system. In other words I think every attendee was trying to make a change either in the world or in themselves.

I’m sharing all this because this year promises to be even better and I really recommend going. A few highlights from the speaker list:

  • You’ve heard of Edward Snowden? Snowden can’t return to US soil, but his friend and fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg will speak about the bravery and risk involved in stepping forward when someone’s doing something wrong—even if it’s your own government.
  • Edith Eger is one of the few remaining Auschwitz survivors. She speaks of “turning broken bones into dancing” and asks why some people become mired in adversity while others move past it. For her, forgiveness and letting go are the answer.
  • All world leaders need security, including the Dalai Lama. For years, Stephen K. Hayes served as His Holiness’ personal bodyguard, blending a variety of martial arts with authentic ninja training to keep the Lama safe.

That’s just a small part of a truly impressive lineup. The best part is that these speakers don’t just swoop in and swoop out—most of them will be hanging around the conference all weekend and, if last year is any indicator, happy to talk with anyone who comes up to them. To me, those conversations are the best part.

The Hero Round Table is happening in Flint, Michigan on September 19th and 20th, 2014. You can get more information and buy your ticket here. Tickets are going fast.

As always, I don’t run paid promotions on this blog. I just believe in what the Hero Round Table is doing. It was a great experience for me and, if you like what I write on this blog, it probably will be for you to. I hope you get a chance to go.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, Heroism, Religion

Good and Evil When You’re Just Too Tired

Image by Alba Soler.

Image by Alba Soler.

Crossing Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi I encountered a great deal of trouble. Sometimes it was nature (heatstroke, exhaustion, headwinds) and other times it was the work of my fellow human beings. Always, my own stubbornness in pursuing the Adventure played a part. The suffering would have ended if I had just gone home. Unlike many wanderers, I had a choice.

But had I quit, I also would not have seen so clearly just what humanity is made of. I don’t mean the humanity we’re proud of, the humanity we show friends and loved ones and coworkers and, sometimes, the cause du jour. I mean the humanity we like to forget: the humanity we show strangers.

It’s not that we’re bad to strangers. Not always. But there is a deep, deep divide in the hearts of men over what a stranger is and how we should treat him.

About half of us look at a stranger as someone we’re not sure about, but who is basically friendly unless proven otherwise.

The other half of us view strangers as inherently untrustworthy, as guilty until proven innocent. This is the attitude that prisoners take toward other prisoners, that tramps take toward fellow tramps, that gang members take toward outsiders. And yet it’s also the attitude that many normal, friendly, law abiding citizens take toward anyone they haven’t been introduced to, especially when that person is in their town, on their sidewalk, or approaching them with a friendly wave.

I’m convinced that this particular trait is more than just potentially gruff or off-putting: it’s dangerous. This is the attitude that allows us to treat a stranger as an invader and shoot them or drive them away before we ask any questions.

But even though I was astonished just how many people have this default attitude, I also learned on my trip that humans are essentially good at heart. We are not a sinful species, and for all our wars and crimes we are, in our genes, basically nurturing. We evolved to be social and social is what we are. Whenever we start to see the person next to us as the same as us we begin to care about them. What convinced me of this was not all the spontaneous generosity on my journey, but all the non-spontaneous generosity, the people who were cold at first but then warmed up, the turnarounds.

The truth is that most of us withhold kindness not because we’re selfish but because we’re absorbed in our own worlds. We don’t see the person suffering next to us. Or we see them, but can’t imagine how we could help.

On the road I saw that a small act of kindness has a much bigger impact for the recipient than it does for the person doing it. You may think that you’re doing something inconsequential, but that smile/helpful attitude/dollar bill can completely make someone’s day. And, conversely, there’s the awful truth: you may think the favor they’re asking isn’t worth the effort, but turning them down can leave them in a miserable, even life-threatening way.

It’s that last one that sits at the heart of good and evil. Evil doesn’t come from the devil or a bad upbringing. It comes from a small amount of understandable laziness. It’s when you see the car with the flat tire and you drive right past not because you’re selfish or they scare you, but because you’re in a hurry. Because you’re not sure you know how to change a flat. Because the idea of stopping to help sounds like too much effort.

Almost always, when we turn down a chance to help another person it’s because we’re tired more than scared. We easily come up with stories to make our laziness excusable (“I’m sure they have a cell phone” “I wanted to stop but I couldn’t afford to be late” “I don’t know, they looked a little weird”). But as we weave those stories, we overestimate how much inconvenience a basic good deed would cost us, while underestimating how devastating our lack of help can be.

That’s what I’ve learned living in the wild, making my own way, being both a giver and a person in need of giving—and, all too often, being a person who wouldn’t give.

Ultimately, good isn’t about love or enlightenment. You don’t have to love people you don’t know, you don’t have to forgive those who wrong you, you don’t have to overcome craving and attachment. That stuff might help make you saintly but we don’t need a lot of saints. We just need people who are basically good, who improve the world around them a little bit at a time. And from what I’ve seen on the road, that comes from being giving.

It’s just paying attention to what other people need and going 10% out of your way to help them.

Please share this post with others, and tell me your thoughts below.

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Readers have called Lúnasa Days “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Heroism

What Makes SPU Students “Heroes”?

Photo by the Seattle Times

Several students stopped a gunman Thursday in yet another shooting, this time at a Seattle university, cutting short his killing spree.

I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on this, since these guys have already been (correctly) lauded as heroes across the media. But there are a few things worth adding:

  • It’s notable that the person who first tackled the gunman used pepper spray. I can’t say how many times I’ve been scoffed at for carrying pepper spray as my (only) self defense tool on my journey. “It won’t help you when someone else has a gun,” I’m told. This is a case where someone with only pepper spray not only defeated a gunman, but almost certainly saved many lives.
  • The same person exercised incredibly good judgment. They ran up and tackled the gunman just as he paused to reload. Had they run in blindly they would likely have been shot themselves. This is a great example of how true heroic action isn’t just brave, it’s also practical and that is why it succeeds. It’s also a great example of how when one person acts, everyone else just watching will, too. Once the first hero sprayed and tackled the gunman, others ran in to help hold him down.
  • The person who tackled him most certainly is a hero, even by my own strict definition. It doesn’t matter that he was on the job as a building monitor; building monitors aren’t police officers or even security guards, and are not expected to defeat criminals. His training as a monitor was most likely to call security or 911. He exceeded that duty for the sake of others, and acted both intelligently and courageously. That’s a true hero.

Of course, had our hero had a gun instead of pepper spray, he may have made matters worse; there were clearly a lot of people around and more bullets in the air could easily have endangered bystanders.

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My book Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Heroism, Spotlight

The Hero Delusion Report

That’s me in some back and forth with hero philosophers Ari Kohen and Matt Langdon on this week’s Hero Report

The discussion builds from my essay on the difference between heroic imagination and hero delusion, inspired by the mass killing at Isla Vista.

One clarification: toward the end of the discussion Ari frames healthy heroic imagination as “other regarding”, i.e., selfless. I agreed in passing but on reflection I’m not sure. It seems to me that the road to heroism almost always starts out with a focus on the self. You begin by seeking to understand your own purpose in life or by trying to live up to a dream, talent or ideal. This is an act of personal development. Over time that development, and the realization of your own potential, allows you to be more and more helpful to others.

This is a core idea in Classical heroism, that pursuing your own excellence is what ends up turning you into a hero. Even our 21st century idea of heroic imagination is essentially an inward, reflective act: you picture yourself as a hero and ask how you can improve to reach that ideal.

In the video, when Ari says we should think only of the good of others, I joked that I actually spend several hours a day thinking about my own good. If we focus too much on selflessness we make heroism unrealistic, and we miss out on a great hero development tool which is self development. Very few of us dreamed as children of being St. Francis of Assisi, but an awful lot of us dreamed of being Harry Potter or Superman.

For more on selfishness, terrorism and other hero delusions, check out the video for yourself. My favorite part is on the question of whether heroism is relative or defined by the winners.

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Adventure, Heroism, The Heroic Life

What Counts as “Seeking Out” Heroic Encounters?

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.

 

 

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Heroism

The Heroic Delusion Cheat Sheet

Photo by Brozzi

Yesterday I went into detail about the difference between a healthy heroic imagination, which is a force for positive growth, and unhealthy heroic delusions, which can be dangerous.

That article was long and detailed, because it offered my arguments for the differences that I see. But I think it can be reduced to a simple cheat sheet, which might be helpful in identifying hero delusions when you see them. So here we go:

1.

If a person wants to change themselves to meet the challenges of a difficult world, that’s a sign of heroic imagination.

If they want the world to change to fit them, that’s fertile ground for hero delusions.

2.

Heroic imagination makes a person more prepared for situations where heroic action is needed, but they don’t actively seek out those situations.

Hero delusion leads a person to seek out chances to be the hero.

3.

A heroic imagination helps a person develop realistic responses to problems.

Hero delusions give rise to wildly unrealistic solutions.

4.

Someone with a heroic imagination can communicate their ideals to others, because they are both inspiring and realistic.

Someone with hero delusions develops fringe ideas that most people can’t get behind.

5.

Someone with a heroic imagination may be an introvert or an extrovert, but they can work as part of a team toward a common goal.

A person with hero delusions is a loner. They see themselves as the only one who can make a difference and are unlikely to work in a team.

6.

A heroic imagination accepts and responds to real world limits, which may mean many years of hard work to make even a small change.

Hero delusions prefer a single, dramatic act that (they believe) will change everything.

7.

Heroic imagination leads to pro-social behavior and consideration of the needs of others.

Hero delusions lead to anti-social behavior and imposing one’s will on others.

8.

Taken to an extreme, heroic imagination fails by celebrating everyday behavior as heroic.

Taken to an extreme, hero delusions cause violent and forceful acts.

9.

Heroic imagination is contemplative.

Hero delusions are narcissistic.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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