i heard about a new program that is being tried in some schools, and i really hope it catches on. the idea captures such a powerful paradigm shift that i knew i had to write about it, because i think it is dead-on true, and because i think more people should be thinking along these lines.

i’m not sure who is responsible for developing this idea, but it may be the person who wrote the book the lucifer effect (which is now sitting in a pile on my bedroom floor, so after i’ve read it i may be able to let you know more…). in any case, the idea as i understood it is something like this: our idea about a hero is completely wrong. while most of us think HERO and picture a cape and superpowers, the actual real-life hero is much more likely to be the average guy (or gal) on the street who pulls someone off of the subway tracks after he’s had a seizure or stops an assault by turning on a bunch of lights and calling 9-1-1. real heroes are the people in each and every moment who make a decision- either consciously or unconsciously- to act in a noble way.

and that is something that can be taught.

so while you can’t go into a school and teach kids to bend metal rods with their eyeballs or reverse the gravitational pull of the earth, what you can teach is that, by practicing making moral and correct choices they strengthen their “hero” muscle. and when, someday, they each may be called upon to make a defining decision, they will be that much more likely to make the right one.

studies have shown time and again the one of the easiest ways you can get someone to behave outside of their moral comfort zone (in a bad way) is to put them in an unfamiliar situation. so, while i might be very comfortable taking someone to task in my own home for telling a racist joke (i am a bad example of this, by the way, because i have a big mouth, so i exercise my moral muscle a lot- hahahaha), i would in theory be much less likely to tell off that same person if we were at a social gathering or in the home of a stranger. the less at home i felt, the less likely i would be to take a stand.

this can be explained by a number of factors. obviously if i am in an unfamiliar setting, i may not know the expectations or the correct social behaviors. the more attuned one is to these cues, the less likely one would be to violate them, which may explain why reserved british *h frequently wants to run and hide when he sees someone acting out of line in public. because he can watch my blood pressure rise, and he knows that if someone’s behaviour gets to a certain level of unacceptablility, i just might intervene to take it in hand. this makes him alternately proud and mortified, i think, but this is the price we pay for exercising moral muscle…

in the school programs, they teach children that they will feel uncomfortable when they observe bad behaviour or sticky situations. but this is not a signal to shut down. sometimes it is a signal to step up. obviously they are not telling children to put themselves at risk. this is not a curriculum that tells little kids to try to stop muggings single-handedly or to take on bullies with physical force when they have no hope of not getting beaten to a pulp. this is about being diligent to return the change in a store when you are given too much. it’s about carrying someone’s packages when you see they are struggling. it’s about not fake-laughing at a mean joke just so you can feel in with the popular kids. it’s about reaching around to your back and feeling those hard bumps and knowing that’s a spine and it’s there to hold you upright. and each time you stand just that much taller. because you know you are a good person who acts in a moral way. and that means something.

because a hero is built one act at a time.

when you think about it, there isn’t too much difference between a person who walks over to a person in tears and asks, “can i help?” and a person who walks past. but really, there is a world of difference. there isn’t a lot of time involved in saying thank you sincerely, versus merely mouthing the words meaninglessly and moving on with your day. but looking someone in the eye and giving them some real appreciation for whatever they did for you- even if it is what they were supposed to do (like making your coffee hot or putting a bandaid on you or clearing your salad plate)- can change someone’s entire day. and how super-hero-level-powerful is that???

in general, it is one of my great aggravations in life when people redefine words to suit the meaning of the moment. whether something is politically charged or not, i think that if you have a new situation, you should think of a new term to fit it. so when i call these small acts of nobility “heroic”, i really do mean that. i really do mean, in the literal sense of the word, that by acting in a moral and righteous way, that you behave like a hero.

and i wholeheartedly agree with the idea behind the school curriculum that the more you can get kids to practice this skill in small comfortable ways, the more it becomes part of their nature so that they are more likely to see themselves as heroes and behave as heroes in big ways.

i think that in this world, it is an act of exaltedness, it is an act of rebellion against the norm, it is an act of defiance of mediocrity, and it is an act of true heroism.

now the only question left is, what kind of hero will you be?