Monday, June 4, 2018

SpiderMan -- #Heroism #AboveAndBeyond #Altruism

Child in superman suit

By Lisabet Sarai

Last week the world witnessed a startling feat of heroism, when Malian immigrant Mamoudou Gassama climbed four stories up the side of an apartment building to rescue a toddler dangling from a balcony.

According to the twenty-two year old young man, he reacted instinctively, scaling the building without stopping to think about the implications. Indeed, if he’d paused to consider the possible consequences, he might not have taken action. Not only did he risk injury and death, but also, because he was residing illegally in Paris, his highly visible activities were guaranteed to alert the authorities to his existence. His story ended happily—the French government (rather hypocritically, considering their general policy toward migrants) gave him immediate citizenship—but it could have had a far different conclusion.

Stories like Gassama’s always make me feel a little bit better about humanity. I wish the media did more to celebrate the everyday heroes who put aside their own best interests to help others. There are more of these people than we realize; they just express their heroism in somewhat less spectacular ways than the guy whom the tabloids have christened “Spiderman”. I’m awed, for instance, by the people who work with Doctors Without Borders, providing medical and humanitarian services in conflict zones where they are as much targets as the individuals they serve. Or for an even quieter type of heroism, consider the millions of people who devote themselves to the health and well-being of the severely disablednot just professionals (though their day-in, day-out service is also heroic), but ordinary folks whose children, siblings or parents can’t survive without them.

I have a three-year old cousin who was born with SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), a genetic neuromuscular disorder that leads to gradual paralysis and (usually) early death. His parents are my personal heroes. They’ve reorganized their lives to give little D not just the medical support he needs, but also to make his childhood as normal as they can. Last year, the whole family (D has a seven year old brother) took a trip to Disneyland, despite the fact that D is confined to a wheelchair and has to wear an oxygen mask because his lung muscles are too weak to let him breathe.

That’s family,” you might say. “Everyone takes care of their own blood.” Aside from the fact that there are many dedicated caregivers who work with unrelated individuals, does that make the actions, the dedication, the sacrifice, worth any less? Not to me, at least.

Although sometimes it seems that society has become totally selfish and self-centered (think about the billions of dollars spent on devices to capture and “share” trivial self-portraits), altruism is a fundamental human characteristic, one that is not sufficiently acknowledged. It flows, I believe, from the unconscious knowledge that we are all connected. I don’t think it’s an accident that last week’s Spiderman comes from a traditional culture where family and community are given higher value than in individualistic Western societies. I don’t have any data, but I’d bet that instances of heroism like this are more common in more sparsely populated rural or agricultural areas, where people tend to know their neighbors, than in crowded, anonymous cities.

Superheroes are all the rage these days. Traditional comic book characters are being resurrected and reshaped for the twenty first century. From what I can see, though, these characters are more occupied with egotism and inter-personal conflicts than with truly helping the powerless. In today’s typical superhero film, the so-called heroes have no qualms about destroying vast swathes of public infrastructure in their pursuit of the so-called villains. Civilians become collateral damage in a clash of super-powered titans.

Entertaining? Maybe, but I wouldn’t label that as heroism.

Real heroes aren’t necessarily as flashy. But they’re all around us, if we look. Including when we look in the mirror.


  1. Wonderful post, Lisabet. Very insightful. One of the questions, as a writer, that most fascinates me is, who are the heroes and who are the monsters. It's not always clear. I agree with you, I would love to see more stories of true heroes. I think they're far more likely to inspire the hero in each of us than are superhero movies.

    1. I know this is one of your favorite themes, KD.

      When I was researching this post, I came upon an institute at Stanford University that does scientific studies on altruism and compassion. In particular, they have a number of studies listed that describe teaching methods or activities that measurably increase the compassion with which people respond.

  2. Altruism isn't supported by the "American" ideal of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps...of being totally independent...of not needing anyone to make yourself a success. In reality, we are all connected. Socialism means we all pay for something we all benefit from. Don't like socialized medicine? What about socialized highway systems? How about socialized police and fire protection? Or should we all have to contract with private companies whose executives will get rich from our bad luck? Kind of like insurance execs.

    In the Avengers movie before "Infinity War," that was the reason there was a schism within the group. Some of them, like Captain America, were horrified at the number of civilian casualties that were disregarded as unimportant by others who pointed to the end result as justification. I happen to love big action, and superhero movies. But I've also been a voracious consumer of books since I was about 4 and Mom taught me to read. Reading is the single-most indicative factor in empathy, which is the twin of altruism. In temporarily "becoming" another person...a character in the novel, you live someone else's life, see things through their eyes. This teaches you to do this, and by extension, you learn to see other people's points of view as equally valid to your own. I blame the lack of people reading for a whole lot of today's ills. Making fun of, and beating up the "bookish nerds" is anathema to a civilized society.

    As for the idea that people only do kindnesses for family, that's a parlor game I learned many years ago. Ask someone, would you be willing to risk your life for your child? Almost every parent will say yes. How about for your parents? Some might say yes, but others will figure parents have lived a good, long life, and don't need to be rescued. How about for a sibling? How about for a cousin? An aunt or uncle? How about for a playmate of your child? For any child? Usually the farther you get from the person's own family, the more they would be unwilling to risk their own life. Then you have the truly altruistic folks, like soldiers who hurl themselves atop bombs, to protect their unit. Or teachers who push children out of the way to stand in front of a shooter. Or the medical folks who care for Ebola victims, knowing there is no cure or vaccine. All examples of truly altruistic folks, who live their beliefs.

    Interesting topic. It will be cool to see what everyone's take is on this one.

    1. Hi, Fiona,

      I haven't seen Infinity War (nor am I likely to), but I find the conflict you've outlined fascinating.

      Your take on the American ideal of individualism and self-reliance and how it undermines cooperation and compassion mostly matches mine . However, I think Americans can also be incredibly warm and helpful to people, even strangers. Indeed, I think every human being is capable of great kindness, love and sacrifice, if necessary.

      The more love you get, though, the more you can give.

      The parlor game you describe is a bit meaningless, because I think this sort of truly heroic act is emotionally or spiritually triggered, You can't imagine how you'll feel in the actual circumstances, or what you'll do.

  3. It's true that we can't tell what we'll do in emergencies, but I think most of us are more likely to risk ourselves when children are involved, or to be most impressed by others who save children. Gassama might have acted in the same way to save an adult stranger, but would his feat have generated as much awe and publicity if he hadn't rescued a child? And the headlines describing the four year old child as a "toddler" worked to enhance the impact of the heroism.


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