Sunday read: What makes a hero?

Image of Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” from Jeff Widener/AP via

Years ago, around the time of the State of the Union address, I pitched a story about people who had committed heroic acts. I particularly wanted to interview Larry Skutnik, the man who dove into the Potomac’s frigid waters to save the life of a passenger after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in 1982. A few weeks later, he was in the audience at Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union.

I never got ahold of Skutnik, other things got in the way, and the story was never done.

(To its credit, Politico found him last year. He turned out to be rather crusty and quite prescient.)

Mr. Skutnik was one kind of hero — the kind who, on the spur of the moment, performs a selfless deed. But there are other types. Humane leaders who maintain and proclaim their ideals in the face of criticism and violence. Bold explorers who take off for places unknown. Scientists who toil in anonymity while coming up with a breakthrough.

In these parlous times, when the world is either retreating from itself or suffering from anger and distress, I can’t help but wonder: Will some new heroes emerge?

(Yes, that’s the kind of “You’re our only hope” savior-yearning that tends to get the world into these messes — and reveals me as a non-hero who’d step back and let someone else take charge. Nevertheless, I continue.)

Philip Zimbardo, the famed psychologist who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, has spent a lot of time thinking about heroism. His thoughts — taken from a talk he gave a few years ago — are my Sunday read.

Zimbardo believes that we can trained, to some extent, to be heroes. He helped launch the Heroic Imagination Project to do so. He explains:

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is amplifying the voice of the world’s quiet heroes, using research and education networks to promote a heroic imagination in everyone, and then empower ordinary people of all ages and nations to engage in extraordinary acts of heroism. We want to democratize the notion of heroism, to emphasize that most heroes are ordinary people; it’s the act that’s extraordinary.

Can this work? I hope so. We need more altruism and benevolence, and I hope I can play some small part — even if I’m not diving into a frozen river.

You can read Zimbardo’s essay here.

(Incidentally, this is an underrated movie:


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