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Documentary examines what makes a hero

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I came across a documentary called 10%: What Makes a Hero? yesterday, and the trailer piqued my interest enough for me to buy it (it’s also available for rental). After all, the word “hero” is used quite often these days. But is it overused? And if so, what does separate a “real” hero from the rest of us?

Merriam-Webster defines hero as, “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” There are many people who have crossed my personal path that fit this definition, especially the “fine qualities” part. Are they my heroes? By this definition, I have to say yes because I do admire them. However, the label “hero” is not something I would have thought to apply to them; to me, they are just great people.

To dig a little deeper, I looked up the word on Urban Dictionary. Hero has several definitions there, but the one that caught my eye stated, “A man or women [sic] willing to sacrifice themself [sic] to help others without the consideration of there [sic] own safety.” This implies that heroes possess a sense of altruism. While some of the folks I admire that I referred to earlier do practice altruism occasionally, there are a few that I think highly of for reasons other than selfless service to others. Does that mean that some are heroes and the others are not? That doesn’t sound right either.

Documentarian Yoav Shamir got the idea for the film after looking at a picture of a Nazi rally. He noticed that one man in the huge crowd had his arms crossed instead of displaying the “Heil” salute that everyone else was. Shamir wondered if this man was a hero and if so, what might have made him brave enough to refuse to salute? And would Shamir have had the courage to do the same himself?

Shamir’s quest led him all around the world to talk to the “New York Subway Hero,” a German woman who helped hide Jews during the Holocaust, the daughters of one of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler, a white female freedom fighter in South Africa, ex-gang members who now devote their lives to helping kids stay out of gangs, a neurosurgeon who got rich from the “dot coms” and donated 99% of his fortune to charity, and Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who made his name in the 1970’s with his Stanford Prison Experiment, but who is now focusing on heroism. What did he find out? Actually, it’s hard to say.

After landing in the hospital from an encounter with tear gas while participating in a rally for peace in Israel, Shamir heard from Zimbardo and his colleague, who had been collecting extensive data on heroism for over two years. They came up with seven common patterns that applied to the “heroes” that they interviewed. Every person exhibited one or more of these traits or was in one or more of these situations:

  1. They took a dominant role in the family; they were “born leaders or rebels.”
  2. They experienced early male attachment via fathers, other male adults and even gang members.
  3. They had inspirational role models.
  4. They experienced post-traumatic growth, which is the development of resilience after a major trauma.
  5. They had been separated from their in-group via hospitalization, stints in jail, etc., which allowed for a change in perspective and/or attitude.
  6. They realized that their development had been stunted and that their life situation was not “appropriate” for their age.
  7. They experienced a change in their fundamental ideology, whether it was spiritual, political or moral.

While Zimbardo, et. al.’s findings are interesting, they seem like common sense when the evolution of a hero is considered. The former Crips and Bloods who are now trying to prevent kids from falling into gang life obviously didn’t wake up one day with a change of heart. Shamir’s peer who went from a big shot in the Israeli Air Force to openly opposing his country’s political policies didn’t just have an inspirational moment. Like in all people, fundamental change is gradual and requires life experience and education (whether in a school, University or on the streets). So these findings weren’t earth shattering to me.

Neither was the opinion of the neurosurgeon, who claimed that people practice altruism because it lights up the reward centers in the brain. Or the representative from the Ayn Rand Institute, who claimed that altruism is a joke and that everyone is only looking out for him/herself. In fact, the thing that I took away from the film about heroism is that the people who performed heroic acts chose to do so, knowing full well that they had several other options. As Shamir said, “When faced with a situation in which another person needed their help, they all saw the choice, and they all chose to help.” Even people who are in less-than-ideal environments have this freedom of choice. “We can find ourselves part of a bad situation, but even then, we have a choice,” Shamir stated.

So, what is a hero? I don’t know if this idea can be narrowed down to one single, neat definition. Basically, as Shamir said in the film, “Everybody can be a hero to someone. It doesn’t take much.” A person doesn’t have to thwart an act of terrorism or be part of a movement to stop some brutality to be a hero. All someone has to do is to take the time to choose to help someone else in a positive way. Most of us have done this at one time or another, whether or not we were even aware of it.

While this doesn’t answer my question about what makes a hero, it does provide a new question: Is there a fundamental difference between “everyday” heroes and those who go above and beyond, risking their lives for positive social or political change? The obvious answer is “yes,” because I know I have affected people positively, yet have never put my life on the line. But if we take the life-risking part out, what is the difference? Perhaps that question will be answered eventually, but maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Whether it’s helping an elderly person cross the street or defending your country, this is a positive choice. Our choices determine our life situations and eventually our legacy. So trying to make the right choices, even if they’re not the easy ones, tend to be the defining parts of our life story.

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