As a naïve schoolboy often doused & immersed in polar concepts like good and evil, black and white, day and night, I was used to viewing things in extremes. It is, of course, an easier way to teach people at the developmental stage, to show every concept or idea in terms of its upper and lower limits. Some would argue that some issues need to be examined at the extremes of their ambits in order to understand their impacts fully.
Once, during a Hindi movie, where the villain happened to be the father of the leading lady (big surprise), I failed to understand why he would care to save his daughter when he was, after all, a villain. My tiny brain thought, “As this man kills without compunction, he is evil and that’s that. After all, if he were to care about his daughter’s well-being, shouldn’t he empathize with the other people whose sons and daughters he indiscriminately harmed?”
People who are determined to like me read that as precocious empathy, while naysayers would chide me for my naiveté. I would agree with both. Mind you, I was six years old then.
As I am older, I often contemplate the role and structure of a true hero. Bill Maher says that heroes distinguish themselves by willfully putting themselves in harm’s way. I agree. So what exists in the fabric of a person that confers upon him such ultimate altruism and selfishness?
Panderers would be quick to say that these are the chosen ones and they are really gifted; and we must all emulate them.
When you stop to think about a society filled with heroes, the utopian desire to have a firmament of altruism disappears. When you really think about various motivators which help determine (or even predict) behavior, the one that beats all else is self-preservation and self-interest.
It is probably the lynchpin of the theory of evolution which is all about adaptation to various conditions. It is understandable, therefore, that people around us will act on their self-interest more than anything else.
Let us go back to the fundamental gene or elemental particle that makes a hero a hero.
It would be simplistic, and quite simply demeaning, to characterize such people as self-loathing or self-destructive. There is more to this.
Now, most people are not perennial heroes; there is more likelihood of an ordinary person stepping up and doing something heroic. So, most lives are characterized by long periods of self help and preservation peppered by moments of altruism.
Our eyes now move towards understanding the more elusive ‘small heroic moments’. News archives are replete with people trying to describe what went through them during that moment. There is hardly anything going on in the mind as to whether to do that heroic deed or not. That part is so much more instinctive. A person sees a situation, and does what he can to correct it, within reason. A hero almost discards reason to save another life or a cause.
All this rambling is leading nowhere. Perhaps this post serves only the purpose of making people reflect on those moments where they have seen or done something that can be agreed upon as heroic. I do salute heroic deeds, but I also know that while they are few and far between, there is something in the totality of evolution that has a spot for heroism and probably even explains it fully. We need to look hard enough; it is waiting to be found, patiently, like all other explanations.