The Psychology of Heroism and how to Stand out in an era of Conformity
In a world that is increasingly characterized by people’s proclivity to be possessed by radical ideology, the need for us to reinvigorate our values to live a meaningful life is more urgent than ever. Our society has become deeply fragmented and polarized in the face of incomprehensibly complex problems that are largely a consequence of conformity to such radical ideologies.
Whether it’s the current rise of totalitarianism that has spread like cancer in much of the world, the increasing communal tension between different religious and ethnic groups, or the rise of religious fundamentalism, being irrationally attached to ideas is at the heart of such problems. We’re at the cusp of a psychological breakdown, and it seems we are guaranteed to accelerate on this carnival of pathology.
Despite having made tremendous social & economical progress from our ancestors merely a few centuries ago, why do we find ourselves on the brink of an imminent collapse? Why has everyone collectively lost their minds? Why is there such friction between the political left and right? And why have we lost the alacrity to engage in open ended conversations designed to change our minds?
Carl Jung once famously wrote, “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.” Very rarely has anyone summarized the human condition as pristinely as Jung has managed with this profound observation, but can we discover important truths within the psychological rubble of group conformity that can truly set us free? How do we strip ourselves off the shackles of radical ideology to become rational beings capable of making rational choices?
One possible answer is to channel in the hero inside of us. We all have the capacity for acts of both good and evil. Ideologies that tend to go too far usually end up appealing to the darker sides of the human psyche, all under the pretense of goodness that is adjudicated to be moral by their own ethical standards. So what exactly is heroism and how can it help us in living better lives?
Heroism is about recognizing and drawing a fine line between the concepts of good and evil. Heroism is about cultivating a set of values for yourself that speak out to you. Heroism is about coming to terms with the darker side of your psyche and integrating parts of them into your personality so that you can become a functionally concordant individual. Heroism is about dedicating your life towards the development of your personality and moral character.
Heroism is about recognizing what is unique about yourself and cultivating those skills to contribute towards the flourishing of society. Heroism is about servitude towards a greater ideal, about resilience in the face of insurmountable challenges, and most importantly, heroism is about the ability of individuals like you and me to continually keep updating ourselves in the face of ever increasing complexity.
But the journey towards heroism is seldom a self fulfilling prophecy. Whether we admit it or not, we all have a deep rooted desire to wield tremendous power over our surroundings. Ernest Becker once emphatically wrote, “If everyone honestly admitted their urge to be a hero, there would be a devastating release of truth.”
So how do we go about cultivating a set of values for ourselves that we can dedicate our lives to serving? How can we know for sure which value is truly worth living for? Given that values can become corruptible over time, is there a mechanism through which we can venerate a set of values over others? After all, a drug addict might value another hit of cocaine; a psychopath might value another murder; and a politician might value the consolidation of more power.
In order for us to do so, it is crucial to recognize that human beings in general share one common maxim: which is to mitigate as much suffering as possible. When constructing a set of values for yourself, using this shared maxim as a yardstick to judge your ethical stance on each value will be of supreme importance. When values come at the cost of the psychological or physical suffering of sentient beings, it is advisable to to reject those values in exchange of values that can truly enrich your own life.
A hero might value the concepts of justice, fairness and freedom and live out his or her life in combatting tyranny, ameliorating suffering, and contributing to the flourishing of society. Whatever values a hero might end up adopting, it always involves the shouldering of overwhelming responsibility. And this, I believe, is crucial to the character of a hero.
Cultivating values that inevitably involves the voluntary adoption of responsibility is the bedrock for living a heroic life. This can be accentuated in our day to day lives by conceptualizing an ideal for ourselves that we can aim at. Contrary to what people usually think, becoming a hero does not involve voluntary self sacrifice. In fact, undertaking the journey towards your ideal self can be richly gratifying and psychologically rewarding.
Being a hero does not mean that you need to be in possession of an extra-ordinary set of skills that sets you apart from the rest. If we’re the deterministic product of the interaction between nature and culture, there is very little we can do about the fact that every individual is disproportionately attributed with a specific set of abilities and limitations.
Even if we can’t really boast of the intellect of someone like Einstein, the moral courage and rectitude of Gandhi, or the technical brilliance of Elon Musk, it should not derail us from striving to live a heroic life. For a heroic life is not measured by how much you’re able to change the course of history by your sheer genius, but rather by how much you’re able to enrich your own life by an irrefutable commitment to your values.
Adopting a heroic life in today’s modern age is to swim against the overwhelming weight of expectations that are placed into our shoulders from a very early age to fit into our cultural and social norms. This has been a major catastrophe as it has produced a herd of individuals more susceptible to ideological possession than any other.
Our schools and colleges have indulged and actively contributed to the moral degradation of our children. Today, more than ever, the worth of an individual is derived from how high up they’re stacked within an occupational hierarchy, and this mentality has given tremendous incentive to relinquish a heroic life in the pursuit of an expedient one.
If we are to truly build a society that is based on the principles of justice, freedom, and equality of opportunity, we must reinvigorate our values to match a heroic life. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “A happy life is impossible; the highest thing man can aspire to is a heroic life.”