Deconstructing the Selfless Hero

What makes a hero? It’s a question writers must ask themselves, from time to time, in order to build an engaging story. It gives rise to other queries, this fascination with agape. What level of selflessness is heroic? Where does that sense of sacrifice come from? How can an ‘ordinary’ person become a hero? These are some of the explorations in Elizabeth Svoboda’s What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.

Svoboda begins by recounting the story of Dave Hartsock. When their parachute failed to open, skydiving instructor Hartsock sacrificed his body to protect Shirley Dygert, a client whom he had only recently met. This resulted in Hartsock being paralyzed from the neck down. What possessed him to disregard self-preservation for someone with whom he was so newly acquainted? These questions drive the book’s first-half examination into theories of compassion and altruism. Through the standpoint of genetics, psychology and Buddhism, the foundation of selflessness is questioned. The second half of the tome suggests ‘practices’ for building compassion and awareness. Though more predictable exercises like meditation are proposed, such unlikely scenarios as the corporate boardroom and amateur vigilantism allow the study to branch into unexpected, intriguing corners.

While it would be a great disservice to simplify Svoboda’s efforts to a single word, the short answer to her book’s titular investigation appears to be ‘practice.’ By ‘starting small,’ people can create a sustained process of compassion, understanding and selflessness. The psychological reward is shown to be as great, or greater, for the person offering the altruism, as it is for the receiver. The book’s strength is in it’s provision of suggestions for establishing those patterns in a person’s every day life.

Though ‘science’ is in both the title and content, this is a surprisingly easy read. That is testament to both Svoboda’s sensitivities, and her ability to share her own vulnerabilities. Even when citing complex studies, the writing maintains a very human dialog with the reader. This book is highly recommended to anyone curious about the nature of heroism, as well as writers hoping to be more aware of just what it is that makes a hero.

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