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The Unification Principle of Heroism

Heroes always take actions that unite us and make us whole.

Image by CKA / Shutterstock
Source: Image by CKA / Shutterstock

For years, heroism has been defined by researchers as exceptional prosocial behavior that is done voluntarily, carries significant risk, involves sacrifice, and is performed without anticipation of personal gain.

The ravaging effects of COVID-19 on individuals and on societies worldwide bring into sharp relief what “exceptional prosocial behavior” really means.

I argue here that heroism’s primary aim is to unify people. The dictionary’s definition of “unify” is to take actions that make people united and whole.

First, to unify is to unite people. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, ER nurse Allison Swendsen took a moving photo of an elderly man holding a sign at a window, thanking healthcare workers for saving his wife.

These heroes allowed this woman to reunite with her husband. Heroism always involves bringing people together.

Second, to unify is to promote wholeness, the mark of health and well-being. We can see that all heroic actions during this COVID-19 pandemic are aimed at reducing suffering and promoting the health and well-being of individuals and society. Heroes strive to promote the wholeness of all people, not just some of them. Heroism is all-inclusive.

The Unification Principle of Heroism

A simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between heroes and villains: Heroes tend to be unifiers, whereas villains tend to be dividers.

Villains throughout history have made it their goal to divide human beings, with their divisions inflicting terrible human suffering and death. Genocidal leaders from Adolf Hitler to Pol Pot made it their aim to promote the well-being of one group of people at the expense of another. Dividing the world between “us” and “them” isn’t always villainous, but when doing so exacts intense suffering on members of the out-group, then such dividers are villains.

Heroes, in contrast, adopt a more “non-dual” view of the world. They see humanity as one and value the well-being of all people regardless of nationality, race, gender, age, or sexuality. Because they strive for social unity, heroes aim to eliminate disparities in health and well-being; not just disparities between group categories but also disparities among individuals within categories, too.

The unification principle of heroism operates at the levels of both large collectives and single individuals. At the group level, heroes unify people by leading civil rights movements, for example. The goal of most social movements is to reduce suffering in disadvantaged groups by creating a more equal and united society. Our cultural heroes have always made it their primary aim to unify the world. Heroic legends such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Nelson Mandela all devoted their life’s work to bring people of different colors, genders, ethnicities, and geographic regions together.

Unification operating at the individual level occurs when a hero saves a person from harm. If a hero rescues someone from a burning building, the hero has allowed for the reunification of the person with their family. Whether the goal is large-scale (e.g., ending apartheid) or small-scale (e.g., saving someone from drowning), the hero is striving to achieve unity, wholeness, and well-being, either within a society, a family, or an individual.

COVID-19 Amplifies the Need for Heroic Unification

Every crisis produces heroes who illustrate the unification principle of heroism. Perhaps more than any single event in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the heroic imperative to unify people. Everyday unsung heroes, such as healthcare workers and first responders, strive to reunite a saved individual with their loved ones. Heroism is always about social unification.

All crises and disasters tend to engender suffering by widening already existing health disparities between people. Consider what any tsunami, earthquake, or major act of terrorism does to people caught in its swath. The physical, emotional, and financial suffering that existed before a major crisis becomes magnified during and after it.

COVID-19 reminds us that the “exceptional prosocial behavior” at the heart of heroism is aimed at reducing existing disparities in well-being, easing the suffering of one segment of society, unifying humanity by promoting the welfare of everyone.

The coronavirus has been especially adept at preying on disparities. People of color have been more adversely affected by COVID-19 compared to Euro-Americans. African-Americans, for example, are less able to take the precaution of staying at home because they are less likely to have jobs that allow them to telecommute. In addition, people of color are more likely to live in crowded housing units that make social distancing difficult.

COVID-19 has also magnified disparities in income, with high-income earners being more likely to maintain their employment during the crisis compared to low-income workers. Growing disparities in health and in wealth are, at this moment, inflicting tremendous suffering.

The heroes attempting to resolve the current pandemic crisis are working, either directly or indirectly, to achieve the heroic imperative of wholeness and unification across race and class. Reducing health and income disparities is the heroic goal of medical scientists searching for a cure, and should be the heroic goal of our political leaders faced with the task of rebuilding and reunifying society.

Our most iconic cultural heroes have long argued for the imperative of human unification. The famed poet Maya Angelou said that a hero “is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people." Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And from J. K. Rowling: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

The most fundamental goal of heroic action is to unify people. Research on the attributes of a hero places wisdom near the center of heroic consciousness. True heroic wisdom resides in knowing how best to implement unification in a highly charged, politically polarized world.

Our heroic imperative is to resist our baser instincts to label and categorize, and to embrace ways of thinking and behaving that bring people together. Pragmatic strategies for creating heroic unification include hero training programs and practices that promote heroic mindsets. This is the heroic work we desperately need in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.


The full version of this post can be found here.

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