Modern Day Heroes

Presentation Notes: Leahcim Semaj, PhD


Annual Essay Competition: “Modern Day Hero”

KINGSTON & ST. ANDREW PARISH LIBRARY :     (Jamaica Library Service)

 Shortwood Branch Library, May 9, 2013


What actually makes a hero?

it’s the willingness to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Serving others while simultaneously serving oneself can be noble, certainly, but a special kind of nobility attaches itself to those who serve others at a cost to themselves.

Ordinary person doing extraordinary acts


Heroism is an activity with several parts.

First, it’s performed in service to others in need—whether that’s a person, group, or community—or in defense of certain ideals.

Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty.

Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice.

Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act.

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward. (Zimbardo)


This definition implies the number of genuine heroes we have is at once smaller and larger than we all think.

Smaller, because many of those people held up by the media as heroes, while undoubtedly wonderful in many ways, don’t qualify as heroes.

Certainly not famous sports figures. Not Shaggy. Not Usain.

American hero Captain Sullivan… does indeed for me represent the epitome excellence, commitment, humility, and grace under pressure, the actions he took in the particular circumstance that made him famous weren’t, in my view, heroic. Strictly speaking, he risked losing nothing personal in what he did on that day he and his crew (let’s not forget his crew) saved the lives of all the passengers of Flight 1549.

Leadership, courage, decisiveness, and technical expertise—yes. But heroism—no.

Few people consider themselves heroes when doing something they have no choice about doing. This includes, I’ve discovered, most patients who find themselves facing potentially terminal diseases like cancer. Most such patients, in fact, bristle at the notion that “fighting” their disease makes them heroic. They certainly don’t feel like heroes, they tell me.

So how, then, using this definition, are there more heroes around than we think? To find the answer, look at your neighbors and friends. You’ll often find, if you bother to ask, that they’re making sacrifices for others—sometimes enormous ones—all around you.

Single mothers who deny themselves vacations, clothes, and even food to send their children to college.

Couples who become foster parents.

Children who put their careers on hold or even abandon them altogether to care for their sick parents, or to keep them out of nursing homes.

Organ Doner  who donated a kidney to save his brother.

Here are a few key insights from the Zimbardo research surveying 4,000 Americans from across the country.

Heroes surround us. One in five—20 percent—qualify as heroes, based on the definition of heroism I provide above.

  • 72% report helping another person in a dangerous emergency.
  • 16% report whistle blowing on an injustice.
  • 6% report sacrificing for a non-relative or stranger.
  • 15% report defying an unjust authority.
  • not one of these people has been formally recognized as a hero.

Opportunity matters. Most acts of heroism occur in urban areas, where there are more people and more people in need. You’re not going to be a hero if you live in the suburbs. No shit happens in the suburbs!

Education matters. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be a hero, I think because you are more aware of situations.

Volunteering matters. One third of all the sample who were heroes also had volunteered significantly, up to 59 hours a week.

Gender matters. Males reported performing acts of heroism more than females. I think this is because women tend not to regard a lot of their heroic actions as heroic. It’s just what they think they’re supposed to do for their family or a friend.

Race matters. Blacks were eight times more likely than whites to qualify as heroes. We think that’s in part due to the rate of opportunity. 

Personal history matters. Having survived a disaster or personal trauma makes you three times more likely to be a hero and a volunteer.


You can be a hero:

Based on these insights into heroism, we’ve put together a toolkit for potential heroes, especially young heroes in training, who already have opportunities to act heroically when they’re kids, such as by opposing bullying.

 A first step is to take the “hero pledge,” a public declaration that says you’re willing to be a hero in waiting. It’s a pledge “to act when confronted with a situation where I feel something is wrong,” “to develop my heroic abilities,” and “to believe in the heroic capacities within myself and others, so I can build and refine them.”

 You can also take the four-week “Hero Challenge” mini-course online to help you develop your heroic muscles. The challenge may not require you to do anything heroic, but it’s training you to be heroic. And more rigorous, research-based education and training programs for middle and high schools, corporations, and the military that make people aware of the social factors that produce passivity, inspire them to take positive civic action, and encourage the skills needed to consistently translate heroic impulses into action.

Essentially, it is possible to build the social habits of heroes, to build a focus on the other, shifting away from the “me” and toward the “we.”


As the poet John Donne wrote:

  • “No man [or woman] is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 So every person is part of humanity.

Each person’s pulse is part of humanity’s heartbeat.

Heroes circulate the life force of goodness in our veins. And what the world needs now is more heroes—you.

It’s time for all of us to take action against evil.

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