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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 8:56 am | Fair 47º


Russell Collins: What Makes a Hero?

Imagine a world where the titans of finance show the same selflessness and courage as our firefighters

The helicopter images of the Jesusita Fire on Wednesday night brought back powerful memories from the Tea Fire — the swirling violence of the firestorm, its stealth and unpredictability as it spreads through the community, the sense of lives about to be tragically altered.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

The image that struck me most from the coverage was the video of a solitary firetruck parked at the end of twisting street, and a row of pixel-sized figures lined up at the back of a canyon facing an approaching wall of flames. They seemed puny and inadequate to the task of protecting the houses and the street behind them — and so completely vulnerable to the cagy, skittering flames.

At any moment, the fire could wrap around and cut off their retreat. I’m not sure what happened to the houses — the TV images get shuffled pretty quickly. I know the firefighters are safe because TV news is reporting no deaths or serious injuries so far.

I can’t avoid the comparison: With the financial sector “Stress Tests” coming due Thursday, news of the fire competes on Reuters and CNN for space with stories of investors and creditors squabbling with regulators to hold on to the largest share of the pie. According to the news, lobbyists are working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the bank executives will get to keep their jobs and their bonuses, whatever numbers come out in the next few days, and that campaign contributions will continue to flow to those politicians willing to vote for the financial industry agenda, even at taxpayer expense.

That may be overly harsh. Certainly there are noble politicians in Washington fighting for what’s right and bankers who care about more than just maximizing profits. But even the good ones come out poorly on a scale that weighs the altruism of their efforts against the courage of the thin line of firefighters risking their lives to protect our community. If the titans of finance lined up shoulder to shoulder to fight the economic downturn for the good of the country and its people — with no regard for their own financial safety — would the future even be in doubt? Maybe that question is naïve. Business is not firefighting, after all.

How about this question: What variation in character, education or environment causes one group of professionals to spend their lives putting everything on the line for the common good, while another group gambles recklessly with the common good for a shot at personal gain?

It’s not an idle question. Philosophers at least since Plato have speculated about the nature of the good man vs. that of the selfish one. More recently, Freud and Darwin built elaborate theories for the altruistic or self-sacrificing behavior of humans and other animals, along with their better known ideas about selfishness. Among contemporary thinkers — such as Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory — there is increasingly a trend to think holistically about biology, psychology, spirituality and culture in an effort to have meaningful conversations about human happiness.

What explains our tendencies to think beyond our narrow self interests in reaching for a satisfying life? How do we educate our children to be happy? What is the biology of self-sacrifice? My own take from Keltner’s writing (his recent book is titled Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life) is that generosity and altruism have a biological basis, but that parenting, education and environment can cause these qualities to flourish or wither. Financiers and firefighters are made, not born, in other words.

Here is a smattering about what Keltner has to say about happiness and altruism:

» Discussions about gratitude — in classrooms, at the dinner table or in your diary — boost happiness, social well-being and health.

» Experiences of reverence in nature improve people’s sense of connection to others and their sense of purpose. The same is true when others are morally inspired by our words or actions.

» Laughing and playing in the face of trauma gives a person perspective about life’s inevitable difficulties and improves resilience and adjustment.

» Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging our materialist desires, brings about lasting well-being.

While he says nothing about financiers or firefighters, Keltner clearly comes down on the side of reverence, generosity and gratitude in defining a happy life. To stand in the line of fire for others is an act of generosity that makes no sense in an economy of pure self-interest. Yet, it contributes to a sense of well-being that no amount of money or power can bring. To be heroic is to be happy, he seems to be saying, which might help to explain the row of tiny figures, at the end of a twisting road, facing a wall of flames.

It’s 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, and according to reports, three firefighters have been airlifted out with injuries. I pray for the recovery of these firefighters, and for the safety of the men and women who will watch over us as we sleep.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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