In all the media noise about what’s happening in Baltimore right now, I was struck by a small article on my Facebook feed about a group of Midshipmen (students at the US Naval Academy) directed some families to safety in a subway as rioters threw objects through the windows. These young people took initiative in protecting the vulnerable in a bad situation. We need more people willing to practice heroism in patient and loving ways.
Like most people following with sadness and disgust what is happening in America revolving around race and law enforcement, I have complicated feelings that are hard to express. I’m sure that most people who choose to become police officers do so to protect and serve their communities, and they work a dangerous, and demanding job to do so. I also understand that the black communities in America are tired of their sons and daughters feeling that this protection doesn’t apply to them. Black lives matter. So do police lives. I don’t want this to become a political or racial rant.
The peaceful protesters in Fergusion, Baltimore and elsewhere are righteously indignant about real injustice and systemic racism that needs to be addressed. They are carrying on in the tradition of MLK Jr, Ghandi, the Suffragists, and Nelson Mandela in seeking through peaceful mean awareness and lasting change. Violent revolutions have only ever led to further violence and division in communities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached the need for courageous acts of forgiveness and love on the part of the survivors of apartheid, as the only way to healing for everyone. The rioters that damage property and practice intimidation disrespect the goals of their own community in seeking justice and peace, which cannot exist without each other. Tutu explains in his books about the African concept of “Ubuntu” which means that through recognizing the humanity in others, we become more fully human. The Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge website declares that we each thrive only when we all thrive.
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.Desmond Tutu
In addition to the community, both black and white continuing to love and forgive and work for change, the police departments need to examine their culture. This is not the case of sadistic, racist people who became cops so they could abuse others with impunity. Yes, there will always be a small minority of people who are racist, violent, or like to hurt people. They exist in the minority in all career fields, without the similar problems. Something within these law enforcement systems is allowing and encouraging the abuse. Philip Zimbardo explores the idea that circumstances and environment change the complex behavior of people to bring out the best or worst qualities in normal, healthy individuals. His famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed the abuse of power and sadistic behavior that emerged from normal college students placed in an abnormal situations.
I understand evil and anger and hatred. Years of studying human trafficking taught me about that. What I’m more interested in now is what allows people to transcend their baser selves and forgive, love, struggle for justice, and protect others. Where are the heroes in the current situation, and how do we raise our children to be heroes?
The Grey family, the family of the man whose death has set off the protests, have called for peace and a stop to the violence. Mourners from Mr. Grey’s funeral organized a human wall of Christians and Muslims to block the rioters. Many community members have been out marching for call, engaging the rioters to stop. I’m sure there are many unsung heroes in this situation that have helped people to safety, de-escalated rioters, and just chosen a path of peace. How do we encourage our children and others to become hero?
I remember on a trip to Ireland when a friend and I were walking back to our hostel we witnessed a girl being punched and dragged by her hair down the sidewalk by a man. She screamed and cried and people parted down the sidewalk to walk around them without looking. We were in momentary disbelief, thinking perhaps a movie was being filmed. How could those people ignore the abuse taking place right in front of them. My friend and I immediately crossed the street and put ourselves physically between the girl and the boy abusing her. She sobbed while he bounced around us angrily declaring that she was his, but not daring to strike either of us. We calmly told him he had to leave and that we were taking her to safety. He eventually did stalk off and we got the girl to a nearby hotel, and helped her contact someone to come get her. We were young and didn’t have a clue what else to do. Maybe we should have called the police or a victim services group. We were only on vacation and just knew we couldn’t ignore what we saw. What we did didn’t require inhuman strength or weapons or martial arts skills, or even particular negotiation or spoken skills. Anyone could have done it, and everyone should.
I think the first step to raising heroes is in cultivating the heroic imagination. I love comic book hero movies, I like the action and adventure, and the easiness of identifying who is the hero and who is the villain. Real life isn’t always so simple to decide the right path, but encouraging our children to read stories of Bible heroes, real life heroes in history, and yes, even fictional or cartoon super hero will give them a template for what heroism looks like. Read them stories of heroism from the news, real people who act when others do not, who help others, who are not afraid to speak truths or stand out. Heroes do not blend in quietly, worried about what people will think of them. Empower them through your unconditional love and acceptance. Allow them to be different or exceptional.
Philip Zimbardo switched the focus of his research from what makes people evil to what makes people heroic, and has been working on a Hero Workshop with the idea that heroism is something anyone can do, and everyone should do. Watch some of the videos alone or with your kids. Talk about how they would respond in different situations, such as witnessing another child being bullied. Help them feel strong and capable. If they are empowered in their own lives, they won’t be intimidated to act in their worlds for good.
How would you encourage heroism in children? Are there movies or books or stories that you particularly enjoyed as a child that helped you? What about role playing or games?