Tuesday, March 20, 2012 |
When a crisis occurs, and everything is happening too fast, what kind of person will step up and take charge to make sure things get done? What kind of person runs away? Are good Samaritans a thing of the past?
Thirty years ago, an Air Florida jet crashed into the Potomac River, killing almost everyone on board. As a few survivors struggled in the water, a rescue helicopter dangled a rope for them to climb to safety. One of those survivors, who became known as "the man in the water," grabbed hold of that lifeline only to pass it to others. By the time it was lowered once more, Arland Williams had slipped under the waves.
As part of a program examining taking responsibility in times of catastrophe, Tapestry host Mary Hynes spoke to John Izzo, author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything. When asked about Williams, Izzo called him "a hero in the truest sense of the word. You know, I'm always daunted by the capacity of human beings for self-sacrifice... it's quite inspiring in a way, and it does kind of raise the question of why do some people step up in that way and others don't."
Izzo believes that the capacity for such self-sacrifice is in everyone. "That hero is waiting within us, and you know, I don't think we really understand why some people naturally do that, but we do know that every one of us has some of those heroic moments."
As an example, Izzo told the story of one of the subjects profiled in his book. Vancouver's Ken Lyotier "was a homeless alcoholic who literally made his life diving dumpsters, and he wound up seeing the incredible waste of things that were thrown out and not recycled," he said. "And he was complaining one day at a drop-in centre and a United Church minister on the Downtown Eastside, said, "Well, that's great, Ken, but what would you do about it?'" Izzo added that it's "a great question if you want to get someone in a place of responsibility when you hear them ranting."
Lyotier's reply? "I would have a day when we would invite people to bring all the things that can't be recycled, and we'd pay people for that and show how much we're wasting." The minister responded with an offer: "Our church will give you $1,500 to do that, but you have to organize it."
"Two homeless people in Vancouver organized a day when hundreds and hundreds of people came to bring bottles that couldn't be recycled," Izzo recounted. "Two months later, the B.C. government promised to expand the recycling program."
According to Izzo, one of the ways we allow ourselves not to step up is by believing that heroic actions are the purview of only "people of extraordinary valor." But to him, making a difference is as simple as "not looking to anyone else as the epicentre of change," but asking ourselves what we can do about a situation.
Izzo acknowledged that this kind of stepping up and taking personal responsibility is perhaps not as common as it once was. He cited a study done on what's called "locus of control." Some people believe that external factors (e.g., destiny, fate) have control over them, while internally focused people believe they create their own reality. Research has revealed that "university students in North America are about four times more externally focused, in terms of what they think creates reality for them and for the world, than they were 40 years ago," he explained. "So I think we have in fact become more of a victim society."
Izzo speculated that there are several factors at work, including pop psychology, which leads us to blame certain factors for the way we are, and the sheer scale of problems like global warming, which makes us feel powerless. When researching Stepping Up, Izzo found that the most common reason people had for not stepping up was the notion that as only one person, they wouldn't make a difference.
But to Izzo, taking responsibililty isn't just good for society, it's good for the individual. "To me, it's incredibly empowering when you stop worrying about what anyone else can do except for yourself," he said. He pointed out that research has shown that people who are externally focused are more likely to be depressed, have worse relationships, less success in their careers and poorer health.
"To me it's not so much about step up because it's good for the world, though it is, but step up because you'll actually be happier if you just take control of what you can do."
(Mary Hynes talked further with John Izzo later in the program. To listen to the whole show, go to the Tapestry website.)
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