Don’t Say the “H-Word”

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The Netflix series The Defenders opens with a brief exchange between a cynical and often petulant Jessica Jones and her much more upbeat and optimistic adoptive-sister Trish Walker (1).

Trish: “You’re not comfortable with what you’ve become, Jessica. You are now a full-fledged su..”

Jessica: “Don’t say the ‘H’ word.”

Jessica was still adjusting to the notoriety  she had earned by ending a reign of terror orchestrated by a psychopathic man with the power to control minds. This man, Kilgrave, was bereft of conscience and would use his mind control powers to punish, often with death, slights to his ego as simple as a waiter misspeaking. Jessica’s reluctance to be called ‘hero’ is quite common, easily found in both pop culture and our lives.

Consider a scene for the movie Gladiator.  Lucilla, sister of the tyrannical Emperor Commodus, visits Maximus Decimus Meridius in his prison cell. Lucilla is organizing a group of conspirators to dispose of Commodus and return Rome to its past glory. Maximus, who had recently vowed, quite publically, to avenge the murder of his family by killing Commodus, is chained to a wall. His aid, however, is essential to Lucilla. As she explains her vision Maximus recoils, eventually snarling, “I am a slave. What possible difference can I make?”

Maximus, bound by actual chains, felt incapable of taking meaningful action. Jessica’s chains, while invisible, kept her from simply accepting the good she had done (2). Trish teases her by noting, “Only you could take that big, personal victory and turn it into a defeat.” People can, like Jessica Jones, insist others not describe them with the  “h-word” while others, like Maximus, resign themselves to the idea they are incapable of making a difference. Either way, Aunt May would not be proud.

Why hide from the ‘H-word’?

It is commonly said that people do not readily accept the idea of being a hero because of humility. I do not doubt this is true. There is rarely a singular reason for the people’s behavior. There is often a pie chart of reasons and motivations for our actions. Beyond humility what might cause one to reject the “H-word”?  Perhaps the idea of being a hero is difficult because it is such a big concept. A responsibility? Perhaps it is a concept that challenges our self-image. I am sure there is someone reading this that had a hero, or at least someone he or she looked, or still looks, up to. Someone admired. Is it difficult to imagine another human being thinking so well of you? Is it hard to fathom, even accept, what they see? Beyond self-image is there a fearful element to being heroic?

Over two-thousand years ago Buddha taught, “The wise man tells you where you have fallen and where you yet may fall – invaluable secrets!” He included in this maxim the assertion, “The world may hate {the wise man}” (3).  One may hate the wise man? Why wouldn’t we be more thankful for this aid? The American psychologist Abraham Maslow can help clarify this phenomenon.  

Maslow noted that animosity towards heroic figures (or Buddha’s “wise man”) was quite “common” as he wrote, “The commonly seen hatred or resentment of or jealousy of goodness, truth, beauty, health, or intelligence is largely determined by threat of loss of self-esteem…Every superior person confronts us with our own shortcoming” (4). We live in culture where we can find constant examples of people decrying others for “judging” or “shaming” them. There are, without a doubt, people who cast insults and aspersions about far too casually. They exemplify Maslow’s “commonly seen hatred…” Such actions ought to be decried. There are also times when constructive criticism is rejected and the person offering such aid is labels everything from cynical to the sophomoric phrase “hater.” Honesty, however, demands a confession. I know I have on occasion rejected the critique of others merely to avoid self-reflection and the pain of confronting shortcomings. Can I be the only one to have done so?  

Returning to the idea of the hero, I do not doubt that some resistance to being called hero is the admirable trait of humility.  However, do some individuals resist the label of hero (Jessica Jones) or the call to the heroic quest (Maximus) precisely because of an awareness of personal shortcomings? Worse, could they possess a tendency to overemphasize a weakness and fail to see their own strengths? The ‘h-word’ does not require perfection. Perhaps if we temper our understanding we can more comfortably embrace the mantle of hero.

Coming to grips with the ‘H-word”

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, believes the word hero needs to be demystified. He contends most heroes are everyday people who perform an extraordinary act. He seeks to exemplify these individual so we become more effective at recognizing everyday heroes. Before heroic action takes place, however, preparation begins. Part of the goal of the HIP is to prepare people to be a “hero in waiting” or a “hero in training.” This means people can be taught or exposed to heroic exemplars and develop the capacity to envision themselves as heroic. In so doing they will be more likely to act heroically when the moment arises. Dr. Zimbardo emphasizes the idea that heroic may just be, in essence, a moment when he says, “it may happen only once in your life” (5).  

Their website also informs us that, “Heroism can be learned, can be taught, can be modeled, and can be a quality of being to which we all should aspire.” The Heroic Imagination project also posits that heroism is an “intentional action in service to others in need or to humanity by defending a moral cause, without personal gain and with awareness of likely personal costs” (6).

It would appear much of what I do falls in line with Dr. Zimbardo. I believe there is indeed a heroic imagination that can be strengthened by exposure to heroes and heroic qualities. Where we may part company slightly is our choice of fuel. He accentuates holding up unknown and hidden heroes among us as models. I tend to hold up historic and fictional exemplars in an effort to inspire heroic visions. The reason I do this is quite personal. My heroic imagination is fueled by big stories and fictional tales. The psychologist James Hillman taught, “Extraordinary people excite; they guide; they warn; standing, as they do, in the corridors of imagination…they help us carry what comes to us as it came to them” (7). Standing in the corridors of imagination. Perhaps by visiting that corridor we become worthy of occupying that sacred space.

There is, however, one particular phrase used by Dr. Zimbardo that causes me to feel hesitant. The HIP declares heroism can be a “quality of being to which we can all aspire” (8). I do not envision heroism as a quality of being. I am more inclined to see certain qualities of being, certain virtues, as essential to becoming a hero. One becomes a hero via action. Heroic actions don’t arise from heroism, they arise from specific qualities.

Say the ‘H-word!”

Psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have performed extensive research in the realm of positive psychology. Peterson and Seligman’s work frees us from a parochial world view and allows us to glimpse the often elusive unifying factors that the human family does possess. They sought to identify virtues that were valued in every culture.  To accomplish this feat they studied a massive swath of literature from across the globe. Their research included, but was not limited to, religious texts, fictional tales, myths, and philosophic treatises. A list of twenty-four virtues was produced. Since then researchers interested in positive psychology have brought the list to communities as divergent as college students in the United States and tribal villages in Kenya. One such researcher, Robert Biswas-Diener, has found people in these diverse cultures recognize the virtues listed and hope their children will develop them. The list includes the following virtues:

Honesty               Judgment         Creativity         

 Love of Learning                         Prudence        

 Kindness             Perspective      Forgiveness   

Perseverance      Spirituality       Humility             

Love                      Curiosity           Fairness               

Gratitude              Humor             Social IQ              

Hope                      Bravery            Zest              

Self-Regulation                              Leadership                               

Teamwork        

Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence (9)

I look at this list and I see the well-spring from whence heroic action arises as well as the lenses through which we see our heroes. Whether Jessica Jones cares to admit it she confronted a psychopath who, in the past, took control of her mind (bravery). As in all heroic quests she faced stumbling blocks and endured set-backs (perseverance). While surly and cynical, she allowed allies to assist her on her journey (teamwork) and guided them to final victory (leadership). She made some questionable decisions along the way (a lack of judgment and prudence) and, in the end, cannot see herself as heroic because of the damage she caused (a lack of self-forgiveness). Heroes need not be perfect and we can root for the character to evolve, to strengthen areas of weakness, and become more accepting of the mantle of hero.

It is not just fictional characters, but real life people who need to become more comfortable with this shift. Not only does a hero not need to be perfect, their heroic deed need not be terribly dramatic. If a teacher rouses love of learning in a student or approaches their craft in such a way that a student’s perspective is widened and their creativity deepened, has that teacher not performed a heroic deed?

I have colleagues whom I know would balk at being called hero. Yet I also know this; teachers can be terribly nostalgic. Many of them have a shoe box or drawer where thank you notes from past students are stored. Many of these messages are heartfelt letters illuminating the virtues the teacher personifies and expressions of gratitude for some unique service rendered. I am fortunate to have met some of the people with whom I work. The notes of appreciation they receive from students are well deserved. My search for heroes need not take me much farther than a walk down the hall. Perhaps, wherever you roam you just may, if you’re not careful, accidentally bump into a hero or two as well.     

 

  1. Jessica Jones appears in her own show, Jessica Jones, and The Defenders. The exchange between Jessica and Trish occurs in the first episode of The Defenders.
  2. The idea of chains binding people in philosophy is quite common. Two examples would be Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s axiom, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”
  3.  Thomas Byrom (translator), Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston, Shambhala, 1993), p. 23.
  4. Abraham Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd ed.) (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968), p. 196.
  5. The information from Dr. Zimbardo comes from the following websites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsFEV35tWsg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWQq0E8ENSc, and http://heroicimagination.org/
  6. Ibid.
  7. James Hillman, The Souls Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York, Warner Books, 1996), p. 32.
  8. http://heroicimagination.org/
  9. Information regarding this list of virtues and positive psychology please go to https://www.viacharacter.org/www/

 

   

 

  

 

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