It’s Time to Release Your Inner Hero

by Diane Berenbaum

There are heroes all around us – we hear about them on the news, read about them in novels, and come across them in our day-to-day life. But, what makes a hero? Recently, I set out to answer this question.

A Decision that Saved a Life

One cold January day, the New York City subway was the site of a remarkable act of heroism. A man fell from a subway platform after suffering from a seizure to what seemed to be his sure demise, when another man risked his life to rescue him. Despite the fact that he was with his two young daughters, ages four and six, Mr. Wesley Autrey leapt in front of a moving train and literally put his life on the line to save a complete stranger.

Mr. Autrey covered the other man's body with his own and squeezed between the rails, only seconds before the train passed overhead. As onlookers screamed, he remained steady as five cars passed over his head, missing him by mere inches.

When asked about his actions, which certainly seemed heroic to all those who saw it or heard about it, he replied, “I don't feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” He refused medical attention, and went to the hospital to visit Mr. Hollopeter, the man he saved, before heading to work on the night shift.

How many of us would have taken the same action in that situation? Is Mr. Autrey unique in this world?

An Unlikely Hero Helps Ensure an Allied Victory

Not long after this event, I had the opportunity to meet with a great hero, Marthe Cohn. This diminutive, 86-year old woman looks like an unlikely hero; she is only about four-foot six-inches tall. But, her life is the story of an ordinary human being who, under extraordinary circumstances, became the hero her country needed her to be.

Born in France, just across the German border, Marthe was a young Jewish woman when Hitler rose to power. As the Nazi occupation escalated, her family was forced to flee, and Marthe made a decision – instead of hiding, she joined the French Army.

Her perfect German accent and blonde hair enabled her to pose as a German nurse for the French intelligence service. Crawling under barbed wire fences, and coming face-to-face with German troops, she risked death daily as she sought out details that would help the Allied commanders. 

She spoke rather matter-of-factly about her deeds, and remarked that she was just doing what she was supposed to do (and it was certainly better than doing nothing at all). At the age of 80, Marthe was awarded France's highest military honor, and not even her own children knew what this modest woman did to help defeat the Nazi empire.

What's in a Hero?

Do Wesley Autrey and Marthe Cohn have something that the rest of us lack?  Probably not, experts say. Cara Buckley of the New York Times noted the following observation from Stephen G. Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western University: “Except for sociopaths, humans are built to feel and act out of empathy.”

So, it is not a special genetic make up or trait that some people have passed down to them. It is a decision we each make within ourselves.

Mr. Autrey's brain (technically his thalamus which absorbs sensory information) registered the fall and sent information to other parts of his brain for processing. This same process would have happened in our own brains had we been there with him. But Mr. Autrey did exhibit an extraordinarily high degree of other orientated behavior, according to Dr. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He was focused on the “other” which allowed him to make a quick decision that saved a life.

“No single factor explains heroism,” said Samuel P. Liner, a sociology professor at Humboldt State University. But it is clear that we live in a heroic age. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, whose mission is to recognize “heroes of civilization” in the U.S. and Canada, has awarded 9,053 medals; the recipients selected from more than 80,000 nominees.

Release Your Inner Hero

There are heroes all around us, and there is a hero within each one of us. We do not need to risk our lives to be considered a hero. Just showing empathy, compassion, and kindness can make you a hero in someone else's eyes. 

And it can make you live longer, according to Dr. Post's research. These studies show that everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health can be improved if we bring out our “inner hero.”

So, make a decision to give more of yourself and release the hero inside of you. Giving, far more than receiving, is a potent force that can nourish health and happiness. We may not all save another's life, but we can certainly make another life better, and our own life better in the process.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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