(This was written as an editorial for Oikyotaan, which is the annual magazine of the Bengali Association of Western Australia).
There is a reason why superhero movies are so popular amongst children and adults alike. The persona of a courageous saviour, who is unfazed in times of danger, is fascinating. But while these movies “fascinate” us, they rarely “inspire” us to be courageous ourselves. We attribute the superhero’s courage to the special powers they have. Some can fly. Others have subconscious ability to sense everything in their surroundings. Clearly, we can’t do either. So, we conclude that such death-defying acts of bravery for the greater good of mankind, are not something we are capable of. But what if I told you that courage has little to do with special powers? What if I told you that heroism may not be an innate quality but something that can be learned? There have been conjectures about the existence of a “hero gene”, which makes some people more courageous than others. But no evidence has been found to support it. In fact, research has proven that each one of us have it in us to be heroes.
But who is a hero anyway? We often loosely use the term for a celebrity, a positive role model or a powerful sports figure. But a hero is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things in the face of crisis, with great risk to themselves, without any expectation of reward. Turns out, there are two types of heroes – reflective and impulsive. “Reflective” heroes are the ones who carefully planned a course of action to oppose injustice or immorality. They are the ones who dedicated their lives in the service of others. “Impulsive” heroes are those who risked their lives/safety in the face of an unforeseen crisis (accidents, natural calamities, criminal violence) to save the lives of strangers. Armed with a clear understanding of what heroism is, I started looking at the lives of a few reflective heroes whose stories touched me.
Subhasini Mistry, an illiterate, poor woman in West Bengal, who lost her husband at 23 due to medical negligence, dreams of building a hospital for the poor. And by sheer hard work, grit and selflessness, she goes on to build the Humanity Hospital, which offers free medical treatment to thousands of people today.
Sunitha Krishnan, a victim of gang rape, dreams of rescuing other rape victims like her. She goes on to become a social activist, chief functionary and co-founder of Prajwala, a non-governmental organisation that rescues, rehabilitates and reintegrates sex-trafficked victims into society.
Sanjeev Kumar, a smart, young, successful man, leaves a promising MBA career to fight for the rights of unknown people in a distant village. When his colleagues and friends were probably relocating to foreign lands that hold a better promise for the “house-car-vacation” dream, he relocates to a village and spends the crucial years of his life fighting against untouchability and caste system through his organisation, the Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan.
Naseema Hurzuk, paraplegic at the age of 16, dreams to help others with similar problems. She confesses how at one point in her life, she just didn’t want to live anymore. From there, she goes on to open an organisation called Helpers of the Handicapped, which inspires thousands of people with disabilities to live happy, self-sufficient lives.
What gave them the optimism and courage to do something about a problem, instead of taking the easy option of blaming others/government/infrastructure and saying “This country will never change” or “What can I do?” or worse still “Why should I do it; it’s not my problem.”?
What made these people rise above the feelings of anger, hopelessness and self-pity? Why didn’t they just shut their eyes to the suffering of strangers, like most others do?
Naseema’s words at the end of an interview provide answers, to a certain degree, “When you don’t feel like living for yourself, you must learn to live for others”.
This concept of “living for others” is alien to the vast majority of people. For most of us, “others” consist of our immediate family. The biggest sacrifices we are capable of making are the ones for our own children. Sometimes, even making small life adjustments for our own parents seem too difficult. At the most, we’ll lend money to a friend in need or sponsor the education of underprivileged kids through our preferred charity. And we think that’s enough workout for our conscience. But we take care not to do anything that disturbs the pattern of our lives. While any sort of good is good, as the saying goes “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”
And that is exactly what Subhasini, Sunitha and Naseema did. They were ordinary people who faced immense personal tragedies themselves. It’s probably their own crisis that helped them empathise with others like them. Instead of letting their despair crush them, they used it to fuel their altruism. Studies have shown that people who suffered from a childhood illness or loss that tested their resilience were more likely to be unselfish and heroic.
But this does not mean that people who don’t face traumas cannot become heroes. My curiosity led me to the work of several psychologists, including Philip Zimbardo (professor emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University), who believe that each one of us can be heroic, if we are trained to. The key is to develop our “heroic imagination”, to envisage how we might act in the heat of a dangerous moment, what dilemmas we might face, and how we would deal with them. This belief led to the birth of the Heroic Imagination Project, an organisation that “encourages and empowers individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives”. Turns out, by setting ourselves small challenges, we can cultivate a personal habit of bravery, which equips us for facing the real thing.
Another series of studies was done on the rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Very few did what they did: rescue strangers at great risk to themselves, with no expectation of reward. One finding was that, “as children, the rescuers experienced one or more of the following: a nurturing, loving home; an altruistic parent or beloved caretaker; a tolerance for people who were different; an immense personal loss; an emphasis upon independence, discipline with explanations, and caring”. This suggested that altruism can be learned. What the children learned every day from their parents—kindness and tolerance and independent thinking—helps explain why they became rescuers. These values became so habitual that personal risk did not prevent them from doing the right thing.
If these studies are to be believed (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t), heroism/altruism can be learned and it is our responsibility to inculcate it in ourselves and our children. While the emphasis on literacy and sports (in schools and at homes) has its own benefits, the development of the “heroic imagination” cannot be negated. And if the question “what’s in it for me?” does arise, researchers have answers for that too.
Turns out that being heroic is not only good for society at large but also the individual. “Fostering a clear idea of a personal heroic ideal can help guide a person in times of trouble, or moral uncertainty,” says Philip Zimbardo. And then there is “the helper’s high”, which is the euphoria we feel when we engage in altruistic behaviour.
Phycologists also claim that many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are actually caused not so much by the traumatic event itself, but because of the person’s “inaction” (or the “bystander effect”) at the time of the crisis. Their conscience did not let them live in peace. So, heroism does help us live better.
As residents of a first-world country, we are safe from the world’s worst perils (poverty, war, illiteracy etc.). We do have the luxury of focusing on heroism and altruism. We can bring up children who are more aware, more prepared. It’s high time the media and entertainment industry made real-life heroes more popular than superheroes. If we had more animation movies, books and shows on the lives of real heroes, our children would see how they could become heroes themselves. And maybe one day, even if its years from now, children would want to have Subhasini Mistry-themed birthday parties (instead of Batman and Wonder Woman).
As always, we hope that Oikyotaan this year takes you on a journey. From the dark alleys of science, through Myanmar…straight to Jupiter, on a witch’s broom! When you read the articles, you’ll know what I mean. Apart from the varied contributions of the writers and artists of our Bengali community, you will find stories of ordinary men and women around the world, who saved the lives of strangers. We hope you find them inspiring.
If there is one resolution we make this festive season, let’s make it about something for the higher good. “The call might only come once in your life, and if you pass it by, you’ll always know, ‘I could have been a hero… and I let it pass me by’...” But until that time comes, let’s develop our heroic imagination with small, selfless acts. Donating blood, helping a stranger in a roadside emergency, donating our time/service/resources for a natural disaster appeal or an old age home or an animal rescue shelter – whatever be our cause, whatever be our limitations, we can all break free from our self-centred routines. And when the time comes, let’s hope we can all rise to the occasion and be heroes too.
Sharod Shubhechha from the entire team of Oikyotaan 2017 (volunteers, contributors, sponsors and supporters). Ma Durga may have had many superpowers, but she was heroic nonetheless. Learning from her would be the best way to worship her.