Heroism is Bad for Community

“The victim-rescuer-persecutor syndrome occurs frequently in human relationships of all kinds and is common in many helping relationships,” writes Lee Ann Hoff (Hoff, 2001, p. 121). This is a common phenomenon: when a well-intentioned person tries to help somebody else, the person receiving assistance often becomes considered a victim, both by themselves and by their helper.

The implication of seeing yourself as a helper or a rescuer is that your self-description becomes dependent on the existence of a disempowered, helpless, or victimized other person. (This is especially a problem for social agencies who must promote the fact they are helping ‘disadvantaged’ people in order to justify their funding.)

Without victims, the rescuing role would be obsolete, and therefore nullified. Complementary victims are required for every person who fancies themselves a hero. A hero with no one to save is no hero at all.

Juxtapose the notion of ‘helping people’ (and thus potentially, inadvertently victimizing them) with the essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exists precisely because none of them are victims, villains or heroes. Only within this commonality can the corrosive power triad be avoided. In fact, the common unity disintegrates into a power structure as soon as any single point of this triangle is established within the group.

Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes towards you, nor towards one another. Where the power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible.

Perhaps heroism is bad for community?

Or perhaps true heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather joining in common unity with them. The most effective way to keep a needy person needy is to treat them like a needy person. The most effective way to “de-victimize” someone is to include them in a tribe of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

Perhaps the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valour and ethos. In fact, anyone who would choose to be a hero must begin by identifying a victim. Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.“ (Harper, 2004, p. 1) Or, in the damning words of Eric Hoffer,

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (Hoffer, 1951, p. 14-15)

Reconsider what it means to help others. Are your altruistic actions founded on the doctrine of heroism: “I will save you”? Alternatively, instead of being a hero, what does it mean in your context to be a builder of common unity? (That is, after all, what community is all about, right?) What would it look like if you were to ‘commune with’ others instead of trying to ‘rescue’ them?

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The Success of Friendship

A few years ago I was innocently reading a book at Chapters when I found myself distracted by the front cover of Life & Style Weekly. This magazine evidently does, um, rigorous investigative journalism in order to inform its readers about the private lives of famous people.

The cover story: Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox (reportedly best friends in “real life” since the beginning of Friends on television) were feuding; their friendship was apparently falling apart. (Boys mess up everything.) In a side column, a helpful editor at Life & Style pointed out that of the six stars of the Friends sitcom, none of them were actually friends anymore. (This was a few years back now, so maybe they are all friends again now? I’m not sure. I am clearly not very well cultured in this respect. I welcome any updates from pop savvy readers.) Literally. The Friends cast were no longer speaking to each other? Ironic, no?

This raises a question: was Friends actually a success? It was certainly a success in terms of revenue (each cast member was paid one million dollars per episode for the tenth and eleventh season of the show), but the paradox seems to be that Friends was a miserable failure at friendship itself.

In Red Moon Rising, Pete Grieg is asked by a young entrepreneur how he defines success:

“Where do you want to be in five years’ time?” he asked.

“Five years from now,” I stammered, “I guess we want to be friends. Still friends. And we want to be dreaming together. Still dreaming.” ((Pete Greig, Dave Roberts, Red Moon Rising (Orlando, FL: Relevant Books, 2003), p. 252))

That kind of response is not going to score very high on a Harvard business exam. It does, however, tap into something fundamentally human within us — something that often seems to be overshadowed by our cult-like worship of status and acquisition. The irony is that even though we have a profoundly deep/intrinsic physiological/psychological orientation towards companionship/camaraderie with other humans, most of us do not think that “In five years I will have deeper connections with my current circle of relationships” as categorically “successful.”

Why not? Why not make friendship a primary objective for our lives? Evolutionarily, biologically, and philosophically it even makes sense…

I’ll tell you why: it is a brutal and all-too revealing mechanism by which to measure ourselves. Let’s be honest: if we started defining our “individual success” by the quality and depth of our relationships, most of us would have to undergo such an overhaul in priorities and time management that few of us would still be recognizable. But perhaps this is what many of us innately desire for our lives.

I once heard someone pose the question: “When you are on your deathbed, what really matters then?” I have yet to come up with a better answer than the one they proposed: “Only two things matter: who you loved and who loved you.” As business leaders, activists, authors, artists, whoever we are, I think we stand to gain by embracing friendship as a vision for qualifying “success in life.”

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In Praise of Private Correspondence

Increasingly I get the sense that public, social media conversations are simply unmoderated panel discussions. These large-scale, thoroughly transparent, forum-like discussions surely have their place, but of late I have been finding great value in emails/DM/private dialogues and exchanges, which seem far more akin to actual conversations; less concerned about posturing a public persona or establishing a stance that will land “on the record”. I think, fundamentally, what we are searching for in communication is correspondence itself: a sense that the wavelengths of our meanings are, in fact, intersecting.

In this age that champions transparency, this confession may at first be scandalous: if you ask me a question on a public forum and then again during a private coffee date, you may very well receive two different answers from me. Not necessarily contradictory answers, but different answers just the same. Simply put, we comport ourselves differently in our living rooms than we do in the sphere of the town square. The public eye bears consequence: it changes what we say and do. It must. Our closest loved ones know this better than anyone. Assuming ourselves to behave identically in every social context is not to suppose some great sense moral character or integrity — it is self-delusional.

Thus I imagine the stream and medium of private correspondence as characteristically different than a public forum. Sharing ideas in the closure of a limited, trusted space fosters a transmission of thought patently different than the exchanges at the city gates. Not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in quality and importance, but simply different, and yet equal in necessity.

Of course, immense worth lies in the matter of our public discourses — and we ought to heighten the breadth (and depth) of forums that are open to every voice and participant… But not at the expense of curtailing direct interactions with audiences of one. For here I seem more obliged to ruminate, and perhaps less compelled to perform.

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