Hero or Villain: What are YOU Capable of Being? - Goodlife Zen

Hero or Villain: What are YOU Capable of Being?


The line between good and evil cuts though the heart of every human being -Solzhenitsyn

Could you be a hero? Like Jim Grant, for example. He is an ordinary person, but something made him do a u-turn when he saw smoke billowing out of a San Diego apartment building.  He called the fire service. Then he got out of the car.

When he found out that no-one had gone into the building to make sure everyone was out, Jim sprinted to a side entrance and bounded up the stairs. The heat and smoke on the second floor was horrible. He ran along the hallway, kicking and banging on each door.

He thought everyone must have got out, when he kicked open a door that was ajar and saw a young woman in a wheelchair with a tiny baby in her arms and a young boy beside her. “Get out!” he screamed. But the woman looked at him in confusion. “I’m have to get dressed and get my crutches,” she said.

Jim grabbed the newborn, and bolted outside, dragging the boy along. When he got outside there was still no sign of the firecrew. Hardly able to breathe, Jim rushed upstairs again. By now Jim could hardly breathe because the smoke was so thick. But the woman, Maria Catlett, refused to go with him as she was confused and still hadn’t got dressed. Jim left her and ran back outside.

There was still no sight of the fireservice. But a young police officer, Caleb Knobel, had arrived. Jim told him about the woman. “Will you take me to her?” Caleb asked. Jim nodded and the went back into house. By now the fire had taken hold and they could hardly see in the thick, black smoke. The managed to find Maria, lifted her out of her wheelchair and managed to carry her to safety.

.Would you have gone into a blazing house three times to rescue people like Jim Grant did? Maybe you don’t think so.

.Everyone of us has the capacity to be a hero. This strength in us is like a sleeping giant, ready to awaken when we encounter a circumstance where our action is likely to save a life.

.What about the capacity to be a villain?  Do we all have that a well?

.Here is a frightening experiment:
In the early 1970s a group of psychologists, led by Philip Zimbardo, decided to create a mock prison in the basement of a university building in order to study the behaviour of ‘inmates’ and ‘prison guards’. Of the 75 who applied, Zimbardo chose the twenty most mentally healthy men. Randomly, half were assigned the role of prison guards, complete with uniform and dark glasses. They were asked to keep order.

.The other half were assigned the role of prisoner. Zimbardo got the police department to ‘arrest’ the prisoners and they were finger-printed, blindfolded, and thrown into the small cells prepared for them in the university building. They were stripped of their clothes and given prison garb to wear. The only identifying mark was a number on their back.

.The prison ‘guards’ – some of whom had previously identified themselves as pacifists – soon fell into the role of hard disciplinarians. When the ‘prisoners’ rebelled and barricaded themselves in, the guards got more and more cruel and even sadistic. They made the ‘prisoners’ march up and down the hallway naked with paper bags over their heads, they kept them awake at night, and sprayed them with fire extinguishers. Zimbardo broke off the experiment when quite a number of the ‘prisoners’ responded with severe depression, crying, rage, and acute anxiety.

.You can hear Dr. Zimbardo describing this experiment in this TED talk.

.Maybe you too ask yourself, “What if I had been one of the guards. Would I have terrorized the prisoners?” I would like to say, “No, no – I would never have acted like that!” But there is a doubt in my heart. I know that I too carry the human potential for both good and for evil.

.In Zimbardo’s fascinating book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,  he writes that there are three questions we need to answer in order to know whether we would respond as a hero or as a villain.

1. Personal: What disposition do we bring into the situation?
2. Situational: What does the situational circumstances bring out of us?
3. Systemic: What are the cultural influences, i.e. political, economic, or legal?

.Are you surprized at the way the ‘guards’ behaved? One of them later said, “I think I was positively creative in terms of my mental cruelty. It was completely the opposite from the way I conduct myself now.”

.Dr. Zimbardo defines evil as follows:

.Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically,  to hurt people physically, and or to destroy mortally people or ideas, and to commit crimes against humanity.

.Let’s take a closer look at evil.

.At the heart of evil lies aggression.
I’m sure we all agree with that. But what lies at the heart of aggression?

.At the heart of aggression lies estrangement.
A look at our evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees, makes this clearer.

.When Jane Goodall started studying chimpanzees, she thought for many years that they are like humans – only nicer. (She describes her life with them in her wonderful book My Life with the Chimpanzees) Then, one day, the group of chimpanzee she was observing started to divide. One break-away group started to frequent a particular area. Soon they began to claim this area as their territory.

.Then warfare broke out that lasted for four years and ended only when the break-away group was completely annihilated. The thing that was most shocking to Jan Goodall was that the apes who finally maimed and killed each other had originally been playmates or grooming mates, but this seemed to be completely forgotten in this warfare.

Goodall calls this process of estrangement ‘social speciation’. What happens is that ‘in’-group to start to behave differently from an ‘out’-group members. After a while, the ‘out’-group may come to be regarded almost as members of a different species. This frees group members of the ‘in’-group from the inhibitions and social sanctions that operate within the group, and enables them to direct acts towards “those others” which would not be tolerated within the group.

;Does this seem familiar human behavior as well? I think it’s the familiar mindset of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Just think of ridicule, bullying, and ostracism on one end of the scale of evil, and slavery and torture at the other end.

.Even though we fall into ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking at times, we also have the capacity to rise above such limiting and damaging thoughts and behaviors.That’s why Jane Goodalls book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey is an inspiring view of humanity.

Our mind has the an infinite capacity to make us behave kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive. Each one of us has the capacity to be villains or heroes.

What are your thoughts on this?

.Note: In a follow-up article I’m going to write about the secret way our mind chooses good or evil, moment by moment. Armed with this knowledge, we can intentionally walk away from the dark and move towards the light. Stay tuned!
Photo of Jim Grant courtesy of Readers Digest

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About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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