Well, it was another up and down week in national news. My eyes were on the protesters, the police, the military, the mysterious para-military forces who showed up on the streets of DC, and on those who govern at the state and federal levels. There was a lot going on. There are so many images burned into my mind – of police brutality…of armed, masked soldiers standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial…and of creative, peaceful, and even joyful resistance.

Some days I have felt more hopeful, and other days less so. I imagine you may have had some ups and downs this week, too, and of course not all of them were even related to the news. We are all struggling in other ways, as well.

In the meantime, my daughter started a new project. She has begun watching the Marvel comics movies in earnest, chronologically, starting with Captain America, the First Avenger, and making her way through her list of other Avengers. I’ve watched one or two of them with her over the last couple of weeks. Which has gotten me thinking a lot about heroes.

It feels like the world could really use some heroes today, to help fix what is broken…to dismantle white supremacy, to fight government corruption, to confront the anti-democratic, authoritarian forces that are gaining strength in our country. If ever there were a time for heroes, it would be now.

But what kind of heroes do we need? Some people, I know, long for a hero who will use crushing force to destroy the enemy and return us to a law and order status quo. A “super man,” so to speak. And it’s interesting that that idea has been embraced historically by both those fighting fascism during World War II and by fascists themselves. That is part of the appeal of a president like the one currently in office.

But that’s not the kind of hero for which I long. I’m longing for more heroes who are ordinary, not for those with superhuman strength or extraordinary powers. And not for those who embrace violence as the means toward their ends. There is enough violence in the world already. And as one of the characters in the movie The Mission once said, and I paraphrase, “If might really does equal right, then I haven’t the heart to live in such a world.”

I’m talking about another kind of hero altogether. And we’ve seen some of them rise up…among the protestors…among some of our political leaders. But the biggest problem is that we all too often think of heroes as “someone else.” Like those extraordinary people who have arisen in the past to help their neighbors escape the holocaust, or survive war and genocide, or to escape rising flood waters. They were so brave, we think. We could never do what they did, we think. And so, all too often, we wait and watch for the “real” heroes to arise.

We are, most of us, part of what Drs. Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo refer to as “the silent majority.” Franco and Zimbardo are psychologists who have spent many years researching heroism. When they began their research, they knew that “under certain conditions and social pressures, ordinary people can commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable,” do things that we would think of as “evil.” They wondered whether heroism worked the same way. Under certain circumstances, can ordinary people become heroes? And, if so, what is it might set heroes apart from the “silent majority?”

Most of us have grown up with the idea that there is a “heroic elect,” that only a very few people can become heroes, and that we probably don’t have what it takes. Franco and Zimbardo call this “a myth that reinforces two basic human tendencies. The first is to ascribe very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special – and see them as superhuman… [they’re smarter than we are, stronger than we are, braver than we are]… the second is the trap of inaction – sometimes known as the ‘bystander effect.”

This bystander effect is what leads us to assume that someone else will step up and help…like the rabbit in Lauren’s story, “One Flower in a Field,” by Joshua Searle-White. Drs. Franco and Zimbardo have also determined that heroism is not merely altruism or compassion. The rabbit was very compassionate when she saw the wilting flower, but she continued to be part of the silent majority for some time as she watched the flower wilt more and more each day.

What sets heroism apart from mere compassion, say the researchers, is that heroism always involves risk, either physical or social. Social risks might be financial, the risk of losing a job, or one’s social status. They might include the risk of losing one’s credibility, the risk of arrest, or a risk to family members. But the bottom line is that heroes are those who are willing to act for the good of another despite potential consequences to themselves. They are not without fear, but they act despite fear. And the good news is that anyone can be a hero.

The rabbit in our story noticed something wasn’t right. She imagined ahead of time what the consequences for her actions might be – someone might get mad at her. But she was also able to hold on to the longer-term consequences, the impact that her action or non-action would have on that flower, and she let that guide her. And then she acted, despite her fear.

The researchers would call this “heroic imagination.” It is “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” And it’s something we can all develop. Because if we can imagine ourselves as heroes then we are more likely to act heroically when situations that call for heroism arise. And there is no shortage of such circumstances today…

When circumstance arise and we are called to courage,
May we know ourselves to be strong and brave.
May we act for others in spite of our own fear.
May we be guided by the fierce and determined love within our own hearts.

So may it be.

©2020 Rev. Wendy L. Bell

Reverend Wendy Bell
Interim Minister | + posts

Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and served a two year term while we searched for a new settled minister.