Sunday, April 22, 2007

Heroism: How do people become heroes?

From the Virginia Tech horror emerges the story of a 76 year old engineering professor, Jewish holocaust survivor
Liviu Librescu, who blocked the doorway, enabling his students to escape to safety through the window, while he himself was killed.

A colleague recalls
"It wouldn’t amaze me he would do such a thing," fellow engineering professor Muhammad Hajj said. "He’s that kind of person, willing to take care of others, protect others."

His body is to be buried in Israel.
Much ink is spilled over the question of what one would do oneself in similar circumstances. For what it is worth, people do not typically have time to learn new skills for confronting serious danger or dying. Most of us face danger the way we face other circumstances and die the way we live. That is one reason why the major religious traditions teach the importance of cultivating a good everyday character.

Here's Graeme Hamilton's National Post essay on courage, with some interesting comments from law prof William L. Miller, whose book The Mystery of Courage looks into such questions:
His research into courage led him to study soldiers' memoirs, particularly from the U.S. Civil War, and what he found is that it is difficult to predict who will behave courageously under fire. "One of the things that features very prominently in these memoirs is that people are always sizing up everyone else in the unit: 'Who's the courageous guy, and who's the coward?' There are some tendencies but they can never quite predict. The little nerdy accountant turns out to be a great soldier and the barroom brawler turns out to just crack when he hears gunfire."

Of course, it might have taken a signal act of courage for the little nerdy accountant to go have a beer when he knew the barroom brawler was around. We cannot judge only by outward appearance.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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