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.

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.

Heroism, Spotlight

Crazy Cameron Hamilton Knows a Thing or Two about Heroes

Mayor Cameron Hamilton

Yesterday my friend Ari Kohen spotlighted a California mayor with a terrible message about bullying.

Mayor Cameron Hamilton apparently announced that schoolkids suffering from bullies ought to “grow a pair” and just handle the matter themselves. That’s obviously not a popular approach these days (it’s also an ineffectual approach) so the Mayor took nationwide flak over it, and agreed to sit down for an interview (video here).

And he actually reveals some very interesting views.

In the video, the mayor sticks to his guns that children basically need to handle bullying themselves. He believes anti-bullying programs are unnecessary, which I strongly disagree with. But what’s interesting to me is his reasoning. The mayor offers three concerns:

  1. Kids are not encouraged to handle bullying on their own.
  2. Kids don’t know how to defend themselves physically if need be.
  3. We aren’t teaching kids to look out for each other and speak out when they see bullying.

Some of these actually have merit, and I’ll discuss them below. But his overarching logic is (I quote), “It’s up to you [the kid] and your friends to put a stop to this.” That is a deeply flawed idea.

Even as an adult it isn’t “up to you” alone to resolve violence or threats against you; we have a complex legal system to make sure grownups can get their assailants removed from society, or receive compensation for the damages against them, or both. And for kids we never take an “it’s up to you” approach. It isn’t up to a kid to do their homework without a parent or teacher’s help, and it isn’t up to kids to drive themselves to the hospital if they’re sick. The whole point of caring for kids is helping them do things they don’t know how to do so they can learn to do them right.

That certainly includes dealing with bullies, threats and confrontation, which is why we have anti-bullying policies. And the new policies that feature bully education and safe zones, which Hamilton disapproves of, were developed precisely because the old “don’t let ’em get you down” approach routinely failed.

So I disagree with Hamilton’s antiquated beliefs about rugged anti-bullying individualism. But in his backwardness, I also think he made some good points.

I think it would be great if more kids were trained in self defense. I was bullied heavily as a kid and learning martial arts helped significantly. That’s not because I went on a rampage and kicked all the bullies’ asses, it’s because martial arts is a powerful way to build confidence in kids. There was probably no activity in my entire childhood that had as much of an impact on my growth as martial arts did. Aside from getting into better physical shape, I felt more comfortable with myself and more able to speak up for myself when someone bullied me. I never actually had to use my training to defend myself physically, because my new positive attitude defrayed most situations and eventually stopped the bullying altogether.

Martial arts may not be right for every kid, but learning to defend yourself does have an effect of making you stronger as a person. I think offering self-defense classes would actually be a great component to a school anti-bullying program. Cameron Hamilton might be able to get behind that.

But the thing that really caught my attention was Hamilton’s third point, that bullying ends when one kid will stand up for another kid they see being bullied. This stood out at me because what he’s talking about is heroism. The most basic act of heroism is when a bystander refuses to stay silent, and takes a stand against something they believe is wrong. Overcoming this “bystander effect” of wanting to keep your head down is central to current hero research… and the anti-bullying programs based on it.

So Hamilton is (rightly) asking kids to be heroes. If they’re willing to do that, they really will end bullying in their schools faster than any safe zone, counseling program or demerit system. The problem is that being heroic goes against our instincts. When we see someone abusing someone else, we have a desperate urge not to get involved. Being the first one to step forward and say something is terrifying.

So you can’t just tell kids, “make sure to stand up for each other.” That advice doesn’t work. It’s like saying, “don’t eat sugar.” The only way to get kids to bravely stand up for each other—a tactic that really does work—is to to teach them how to do that confidently and safely.

And teaching that to kids is the centerpiece of today’s best anti-bullying programs, like the Hero Construction Company run by Matt Langdon. Principals have reported not only a total reversal in bullying after Matt’s program, but also better performance in other areas and students wanting to start school programs and volunteer projects. The bullying stops because kids now have the ability to watch out for each other, just like crazy Cameron Hamilton wants.

But that result doesn’t just happen on its own. Kids don’t just pull up their bootstraps. They learn this behavior through anti-bullying programs like the Hero Construction Company, which is exactly the sort of bully education that Hamilton thinks he really hates.

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

Adventure, Heroism, The Heroic Life

Abstract of a Heroic Life

Photo by James Jordan

This November I’ll speak at a first-of-its-kind conference, the Hero Roundtable. I’m probably the least qualified speaker there, but the founder urged me to accept. So I did.

I was asked to provide an abstract for my talk. Here it is:

I have never done anything heroic. I’ve chosen to follow the path the heroes took.

Every one of us was raised on stories of great heroes—active, cunning individuals who won against all odds. Those of us at this conference have never set aside those stories. We have dedicated ourselves to understanding what heroism is, and to enacting heroism today.

Yet the scholarship of the twentieth century has trained us to handle these tales with rubber gloves. Hero scholars almost universally take their cue from Campbell and treat mythical heroes as literary characters. These heroes are purely fictional, their lessons psychological.

I reject this approach. It’s ineffective at understanding or creating heroism in real human lives.

I believe we can live the great myths. I believe these stories were created not just to inspire but to instruct. The common themes of the ancient myths are a blueprint for determined individuals to become truly heroic.

The heart of this blueprint is an actual, physical journey. Not a literary or figurative journey, not viewing volunteerism or education as a journey. The road to heroship is to travel.

But it is much more than that. It is to go freely into places unfamiliar and unknown. It is to seek challenge, and live by your own ideals. It is to willingly place yourself in circumstances you are not yet capable of handling.

In short, it is to adventure.

The conceit of the hero myths is this: we are at our best when we’re tested past our limit. To adventure hones you as a person. It changes you morally: what began as a journey for yourself ends up demanding your social grace, your communal spirit, your empathy for those unlike yourself. It also changes your capabilities. You develop new and greater talents. The result is an individual who is both highly effective and yet highly idealistic, a person who makes the unbelievable possible.

In this talk I will share my own experiences attempting this journey, and discuss how others can attempt it.

The conference is surprisingly affordable, thanks to creator Matt Langdon. Seating is limited and I hope you will take a look for yourself and consider getting a ticket.

What do you think of the abstract? Is this a talk you’d want to hear? What parts seem weakest?


Heroism, Spotlight

The Hero Round Table

I chase the path that the ancient heroes took. My journey is my way of entering the same mythic world, of choosing the great challenge. I know it will change me, I know it’s dangerous, but I keep going—because what else is it to be alive?

The journey is my way to seek heroism, but it’s only one way of many. There are countless people either seeking a heroism of their own, or working to teach others what it means to be heroic and to cultivate that social bravery in our world today.

What if they all got together?

That’s exactly what will happen this November. My friend Matt Langdon, who teaches kids how to be heroes, has arranged to bring together some of the leading minds on the topic of heroism today. It’s a two day summit that he calls the Hero Round Table.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Speaker at the Hero Round Table

The Hero Round Table is a cross-disciplinary conference on heroism in today’s world. Speakers will include leaders in education, psychology, philosophy, storytelling, and other backgrounds, with breakout sessions for open discussion. 

You don’t need to be a “professional” in any of these fields to attend—the conference is open to everyone with an interest in heroism. It exists to foster and encourage that interest by sharing perspectives, information and ideas.

The Speakers

Heading the conference will be Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the world famous social scientist whose work on the psychology of evil and the psychology of heroism has completely changed what we know about ethics. Dr. Zimbardo is the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment and currently leads the Heroic Imagination Project.

Also lined up to speak at the conference are Zoe Weil, the legendary humane education advocate; Jocelyn Stevenson, a creator of Fraggle Rock and other children’s shows; Dr. Ari Kohen, who teaches heroism in the context of human rights and politics; and 15 others including a teenager who got frustrated with ineffective anti-bullying programs and went on to change his high school on his own.

Plus You and Me

And yes, if you haven’t guessed it, I’ll be speaking there as well. Matt has invited me to join the lineup and talk about the use of adventure as a transformative practice to cultivate heroism: why adventure works, how my journey has changed me, and how others can do the same. (I’ll be speaking via video link to avoid backtracking my journey.)

The Hero Round Table will be held November 9th and 10th in Swartz Creek, Michigan. Seating is strictly limited and I encourage all of you to grab tickets now, while you still can. There’s a chance I can snag a ticket for a giveaway, but don’t wait for it—if you would benefit from attending this conference, get a seat now!

Note there will also be a prize awarded to one project designed to create heroes in today’s world. Perhaps it will be yours?

Adventure, Spotlight

Starve Like Ogres, Feast Like Kings

Photo and original bookmarks by Lucia Whittaker

I want to convince Matt Langdon (maker of rules that kids actually get) to join me for a leg of the Adventure. Perhaps when I leave New Orleans, which won’t be till spring.

This was my pitch:

We will feast like kings and starve like ogres! Burn in the sun and shudder in the wind. One day is a dream of paradise, the next is a fork in the road to choose from.

This is, perhaps, not good sales copy. Who wants to burn, shudder, starve?

Ah, but my time on the road was entirely joyful. There were hard moments, it’s true, but that is travel’s coquetry. She pushes you away when she wants to pull you close. The kiss is inescapable, but you must struggle for it and wait.

When at last she touches your shoulder, it thrills.

The Blood is Mandatory

Every adventure is this way. The dancing of the soul is a guarantee, the bad times its prelude and adagio. No symphony can rise on just one or the other. The blood, as they say, is mandatory.

Thus, from the mud the mountains look loftier. Once near the peak, the mud is long behind you; every thorn becomes a badge, an award, a memory. At the same time, the smallest pleasures stand in stark outline. A slow cup of coffee, a cafe terrace, stretching in wet grass.

Sensual pleasures hum through the soul, highlighted by previous discomfort.

And so discomfort and joy become bedfellows. Two swans who lead the way: one to navigate the sea-storm, one to preen in the sun. They make love in tall grass. They sing at evening.

This is the joy of the heroic faith.

Not reveling in pain, reveling in life itself. Life always entails pain, like the bitters in a well-made drink. The adventurer orders it double.

If you wish to join me, for two days, twenty or a year, we will see it together. You too will thrill in the complete harmony that life presents. We will laugh at snowstorms, hold each other in fever and, smiling, chase the dogs who steal our lunch.

When we relax in a rich man’s garden, we will look at each other across cups of tea and we will know: This is earth and blood.

Earth is all we’re given, blood is all we spend. Why pretend there’s anything else?

Heroism, Spotlight

Female Heroism in Pixar’s “Brave”

One day on my journey I saw the movie Brave with two friends. Kira and Tony put me up for a couple nights at a family cabin. After swimming and drinking by the lake we decided a little red-headed warrior girl would be a great addition to our evening.

I enjoyed the movie. I was surprised when Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company lampooned it in the Hero Report. He had two main criticisms:

  1. The main character, Merida, starts off too accomplished (a master at archery and horsemanship) so there isn’t an arc of becoming a hero.
  2. The concept of being brave enough to change your fate, supposedly the eponymous point of the movie, is hardly made at all.

Matt isn’t totally wrong here, but he misses a big chunk of what’s important (and inspirational) about the story. I think this is largely because he comes at it with a very masculine expectation of what constitutes a protagonist.

I should disclose some biases. One, I’m male myself. Two, I love Celtic culture and stories, as do Kira and Tony. We adored the setting and the little hints of Celtic and Viking society that were peppered throughout. More to the point, as someone who enjoys fencing, traveling and adventuring, I like stories about becoming a badass. Brave doesn’t deliver such a story.

But actually? That’s a breath of fresh air.

Breaking the Formula

There’s a pretty formulaic way of doing adventure movies. An initially clueless male hero discovers he has great power; he masters that power and saves the world. Since this is the archetypal hero, there was a time when feminists agitated for more females in this role (or at least, that’s what male directors heard).

Accordingly, Matt wanted Brave to use the same “become a badass” story arc but with a female hero. He cite his daughter’s poster of a female knight storming a castle as an example of what he’d like in a movie. And admittedly, that kind of female badass was really a step forward in our view of gender roles—in, like, the 1970s.

We have a pretty good stockpile of those heroines now. (Cf. Battlestar‘s Starbuck, Firefly‘s River Tam or Metroid‘s Samus, among hundreds of others—I’m leaning toward non-sexualized examples here.) This character is so common she’s become a trope, parodied by comedies like Your Highness. (heh, minotaur penis). And sure, female badasses are still outnumbered by male badasses, but the role-model-value of this trope is questionable.

Increasingly, I hear feminists criticize the female badass.* Sure, it’s nice that women are allowed to have swords and guns now, but is that the only way to be a female hero? Do heroines really have to give up all pretense at femininity and occupy a traditionally male role? Are tomboys the only successful females our daughters are allowed to see?

What if a girl likes princesses and ribbons—can she be heroic, too?

*Readers: I now can’t find the feminist articles I had in mind here. Anybody have a link to a good one?

Brave gives us a heroine who is torn between these worlds. Merida wants to shoot arrows and ride in the woods, which she only does once near the beginning. To Matt this is a shame: why can’t she use these skills throughout the movie to change her fate? But she tries to use these skills—and discovers that badassery can’t always change power structures or one girl’s fate.

The reason Merida begins as a badass is the same reason Luke Skywalker begins as a farmer. Neither the archery in Brave nor the vaporators in Star Wars are going to be enough to save the day. The hero has to find new skills to achieve their goal.

Merida’s goal is not to be married off to some lug her parents choose. Instead of shooting her way to freedom, she ends up having to rely on a mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine talents, including her outdoors skills, ancient magic, deception, a jail breakout and, unprecedented, accepting the advice of her mother. 

Merida’s character changes substantially over the film. She goes from a badass but selfish/clueless teenager to a real adult. She learns to establish her personal freedom without ditching her responsibilities to others.

That’s a pretty impressive change. It echoes Sarah from The Labyrinth more than it does Katniss Everdeen, thank the gods.

Matt closes by summing up what he disliked:

…It’s a cliché against another cliché. Her mother wanted her to be a Disney princess, but she wanted to be a Disney prince.

Unrealistic parental expectations versus unrealistic childhood dreams? Sounds believable to me.

Merida’s arc is to overcome both extremes in favor of a successful, realistic adult life. This is a major departure from Campbellian story structure, so it’s a bold move for Hollywood—and it’s long overdue.

Have any of you seen this movie? Is Merida a good role model for girls? Is she a hero? Was the story good?

Heroism, Spotlight

Today’s Hero Report

This is last minute, but I’ll be live on the air at the Hero Report with Ari Kohen and Matt Langdon. We’ll be podcasting today (Friday 7/27) at 3:00 CST.

The Adventure has started, and with it my personal quest to understand heroism and meet the gods. These guys thought it would be time to bring me back on the air and give an idea of how exactly that’s working out.

And you can ask us questions live on the air!

The Hero Report Weekly

If you can’t watch it live all episodes are archived on the front page of that site.