|Several nonprofit organizations – including
the Heroic Imagination Project, and the Giraffe Heroes Project – are dedicated
not only to identifying heroes, but also to nurturing new ones. Some experts
are convinced that heroism is, at least in part, learned behavior, and they argue
that we need more of it.
While we loosely apply the term "hero" to athletes, entertainers
and the generally rich and famous, the spotlight is shifting increasingly to
ordinary folks. A classic example is the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who managed
to land safely in the Hudson River last year after his US Airways jet hit a flock
of birds. He then threw out the first pitch at opening day in San Francisco,
served as Grand Marshal at the Rose Parade, made dozens of TV appearances, and
was exhaustively covered in a half-dozen books including his own.
Captain Sully's experience proved he's an extraordinary pilot, but is he a
hero? How about Wesley Autrey, the construction worker who jumped onto the tracks
to save a young man who had fallen, and became known in media as New York's Subway
Hero? Like Sully, who stayed in the plane assisting passengers until all escaped,
Autrey risked injury or death. Was that a heroic act, or an impulsively foolish
Last week's "CNN Heroes" focused more on life-long pursuits. Among
the people featured: a 74-year-old doctor who cares for as many as 900 patients
a day in the crime-ridden town of Juarez, Mexico, at the hospital she helped
start; a Cambodian man who planted thousands of land mines as a soldier, and
now devotes his time to finding and removing them; a builder in Houston, Texas,
who constructs mortgage-free houses for military vets.
The Giraffe Heroes Project, whose name relates to sticking one's neck out,
has identified roughly 1,000 heroes at www.giraffe.org, such as the cheerleader
from Iowa who creates cheering squads around the nation for students with disabilities.
There’s a Giraffe kit for schools, complete with hero trading cards and
videos. The objective is underscored in the organization's slogan: "Encouraging
today's heroes; training tomorrow's." But, hold on. Is that really possible?
Philip Zimbardo, the noted Stanford psychology professor and author, believes
it is. “Heroism can be learned by example and reinforced with practice," he
Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project (www.heroicimagination.org). “The
definition of a hero that I promote,” he told me, “is someone who
acts voluntarily on behalf of others in need, or in defense of a moral cause,
aware of risks and costs, without expectation of tangible rewards.”
Zimbardo (with whom I've worked on unrelated projects), seeks "a growing
community of heroes, all empowered to initiate extraordinary social change."
Fundamental in Zimbardo's work is his assertion that risk need not be the
major component of heroism. "Nobility of purpose and non-violent acts of
personal sacrifice," are keys. Heroes include "those individuals who
challenge institutionalized injustice, deception, and fraud."
Left unclear in the hunt for heroes is whether there are more such people
today, or if our trying times, combined with a reality-TV mindset, simply make
us more determined to find them. Maybe our ever-squabbling politicians, over-indulgent
entertainers, and scandal-plagued business leaders have made us look elsewhere
for people to admire.
"Heroes are created by popular demand," wrote the journalist Gerald
W. Johnson. In these demanding times we could certainly use a lot more.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.