What does it take to be a hero? On a train, in a crowd, or in the quiet of your office? If you're ever in a situation of great peril or stress, can you step up and be the hero?
Lots of popular books and films are about apparently ordinary people who are thrust into situations of danger and step up to act courageously. Think of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Tris Prior in Divergent, or the Bruce Willis character in all those old Die Hard movies, An ordinary person is pushed into an extraordinary situation and steps up.
I've just published a book called The Oasis Within, which is the prologue volume to a new series of novels where one of the main themes is how we can be prepared for greatness. One philosopher who has read that first book has written me that it's the first portrayal of a hero that really digs down deep into how a grounding in the right wisdom can equip any of us for more heroic action.
There's an interesting article about this in the New York Times. Professor David Rand with his colleague Ziv Epstein studied 51 winners of the Carnegie Medal for Heroism and came to a conclusion that surprised them. The overwhelming majority of heroes who act to save another person or to otherwise do what needs to be done in a tense and pressure filled situation, do not deliberate or think it through carefully before doing anything, but instead act instinctively, intuitively, and fast.
There's an old saying. "He who hesitates is lost." That seems to apply to many situations of great value and risk. We often think of ethics and morality as all about rational decision making, as if the moral agent must first weigh all the values involved in a situation and then choose which to prioritize and pursue. Wrong. The late Iris Murdoch, philosopher and novelist, wrote a fascinating little book called The Sovereignty of Good. In it, she says that, typically, at the moment of moral decision making, the precise moment we choose this or that, the decision has already long been made by what we've been doing, valuing, thinking about, feeling, and paying attention to, in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years preceding that moment. Most big decisions, and especially those involving some measure of courage or boldness, aren't deliberated at all, but simply arise out of who we are, or what we've become prior to the point of action. We do this or that because we are already committed to this or that, or because we already are this or that.
Our actions show who we are. They arise from within, and in a way that can be quick and intuitive.
The Americans on that high speed French train recently didn't hold a short seminar on the costs and benefits of all the possibilities and alternative potential responses available when they noticed the guy with the gun. They saw it and somebody said "Let's go." They took action. That's normally the trajectory of heroism. It sees a need and acts to meet the need. So, when you find yourself deliberating extensively over some choice, weighing the pros and cons, chances are that you're not getting ready to be a hero. The hero simply sees and does. The lesson for us is then simple. We need to be preparing ourselves carefully to do the right thing instantly when such a situation arises.
Are you paying attention to the right things, day-to-day? Are you valuing the truly best things? Are your feelings guided by real wisdom? Do you have enlightened commitments, or is the culture getting under your skin a little bit, to encourage selfish superficiality, personal aloofness, or short term ease? We become what we habitually do, in the life of the mind, the emotions, and in our actions. Today, you can begin to create the moral hero within who will act fast and instinctively tomorrow. Or you can deepen and reinforce the good tendencies you already have. It's up to you.