Hurricanes and 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 six feet of water. Hurricanes and Heroism

We are not strangers to the devastation that water and weather can bring, and understand the magnitude of negative impact due to our own experience and the population density of the Northeast. The suffering of the region after 9/11/2001 makes the Hurricane Sandy’s destruction even more poignant. Newark, New Jersey 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 could to help others in the aftermath of Sandy. A young man in his 8th floor apartment looked out his window and saw a taxi overtaken by flood waters. He ran down the steps and into waist-high, then chest-high swirling water, and rescued the driver before he drowned. After the lights went out at their hospital, neonatal ICU nurses worked in the 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. They used hand ventilators to keep them breathing. A young policeman from Staten Island got 6 family members to safety, but lost his own life when he returned to his flooded basement to search for others. Those in the city with power and heat shared their tiny spaces with overnight guests beyond the comfort level.

Locally, I just watched news coverage on five men who pulled a woman out of a burning car in north Moorhead in 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 that 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 that there is a flip side. He has hope for creating a new generation of heroes and feels that science and education can help. He states “We’ve been saddled for too long with this mystical view of heroism,” he says. “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 the Bay Area 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, that allows evil to flourish and leads good people astray. They talk about 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 and present and imagined, like Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and even Harry Potter. He 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, and can be as simple as a compliment or helping a family member. Zimbardo considers these baby steps to take the classroom lessons into the real world and real life. The Hero Imagination Project fosters awareness of the needs of others, a confident mindset, and the willingness to act.

Zimbardo plans to follow the long-term effects of these teachings and encourages alums 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,” Mr. 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.”

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