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Published November 07, 2012, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: What leads people to heroism?

I was in New York City for a conference the last weekend of October. I took the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn on Friday, and dined in Manhattan’s Seaport district on Saturday evening. I left early the next morning, sad to miss the last day of my meeting but warned of impending flight cancellations. Two days later, the subway tunnels were flooded with water, and I saw the tiny restaurant from Saturday’s dinner on “Nightline.” I heard it took on 6 feet of water.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

I was in New York City for a conference the last weekend of October.

I took the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn on Friday, and dined in Manhattan’s Seaport district on Saturday evening. I left early the next morning, sad to miss the last day of my meeting but warned of impending flight cancellations. Two days later, the subway tunnels were flooded with water, and I saw the tiny restaurant from Saturday’s dinner on “Nightline.” I heard it took on 6 feet of water.

We’re not strangers to the devastation that water and weather can bring. The magnitude of the impact is worsened by population density of the Northeast. The suffering of the region after 9/11 makes the Superstorm Sandy’s destruction even more poignant.

Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker tweeted, “Tough times don’t always build character but they usually do reveal it. Thanks to all who are lifting themselves by lifting others.”

Tough times do reveal heroes, and there are many amazing stories of neighbors, friends and strangers doing whatever they can to help others in the aftermath of Sandy.

A young man in his eighth-floor apartment looked out his window and saw a taxi overtaken by floodwaters. He ran down the steps and into chest-high swirling water and rescued the driver before he drowned.

After the lights went out at their hospital, neonatal ICU nurses worked in Third World conditions, keeping their tiny charges alive and warm for hours. When transport ambulances finally arrived, they carried the babies gingerly down 15 flights of stairs, illuminated only by flashlights. The nurses used hand ventilators to keep them breathing.

Locally, I just watched news coverage on five men who pulled a woman out of a burning car in north Moorhead a few weeks ago. They were deservedly honored as heroes.

What drives ordinary people – many untrained and with very much to lose – to make an instant decision to risk their own lives to save others?

Rohit Deshpande, a professor at Harvard Business School, studied heroism to find out what causes some to act while other stand by. It seems confidence and a highly developed moral compass are common among people who do heroic acts. Ordinary heroes “have this instinct for doing something good for other people. We find this across a whole series of situations. We find people who risk their own lives to protect people from harm,” says Deshpande.

Yet studies of human nature suggest that many of us stand back and watch. Certainly, there are horrible stories that surface not only out of disasters like Katrina and Sandy, and even our own Red River flooding. Even in everyday life, we can become a silent partner to evil by failing to act and speak out.

One of my former professors at Stanford, Philip Zimbardo, thinks there’s a flip side. He has hope for creating a new generation of heroes and feels science and education can help. He states, “We’ve been saddled for too long with this mystical view of heroism. We assume heroes are demigods. But they’re not. A hero is just an ordinary person who does something extraordinary. I believe we can use science to teach people how to do that.”

He created a pilot curriculum for middle and high schoolers in California that starts with students taking a hero pledge to boost commitment. He calls it the Heroic Imagination Project. Lessons include an evaluation of human nature’s dark side, which allows evil to flourish and leads good people astray. They talk about Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany as an example of blindly obeying authority, and of the bystander affect that holds people back from helping someone in need if others are around.

The next phase is learning about empathy and becoming more attentive to the feelings of others. They learn about heroes past, present and imagined, including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Harry Potter. Zimbardo hopes to create a compendium of hero stories.

The class includes action steps that start with doing one thing every day to make someone else feel better. Zimbardo considers these baby steps to take the classroom lessons into the real world. The Hero Imagination Project fosters awareness of others’ needs, a confident mindset and willingness to act.

Zimbardo plans to follow the long-term effects of these teachings and encourages alumni to maintain a committed connection. He hopes to have a hero project in every city.

“One of the problems with our culture is that we’ve replaced heroes with celebrities,” Zimbardo says. “We worship people who haven’t done anything. It’s time to get back to focusing on what matters because we need real heroes more than ever.”

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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