Caretakers – the New Archetype of a Hero

Nurse wearing mask.

– A crisis like this can generate renewed social trust. It gives people a kind of collective learning, a shared experience of their dependence on others.

Brian Palmer, associate professor and anthropologist, has spent many years studying civil courage. In this time, when a virus spreads fear, inflicts stigmatization and allows democratic and undemocratic regimes to restrict the freedom of people, it is reassuring to hear him talk about courage, altruism and good leadership as being as contagious.

Brian Palmer points to a few different kinds of courage that this crisis has drawn our attention to. One of them is whistle-blowers. The doctor in China who first sounded the alarm in December: “Something terrible is happening here.” He was then arrested and taken into custody by the Chinese police and died of Covid-19.

– If his whistle-blowing had succeeded it is possible that the whole crisis would have been stopped, Palmer says.

Another kind of courage is that of health workers and people in essential services.

– In a crisis one often sees shifts in what kind of courage is celebrated in society. In the US, after 9/11, firefighters and rescue workers at the World Trade Center became a kind of prototype of courage and devotion to others. They became the archetype of a hero of that era.

Now, health workers, nurses and doctors as well as people in essential services, upholding the food and water supplies, keeping the public transportation running and taking care of the garbage are being celebrated as heroes.

– And correctly so. It is a marvelous moment, in many ways, in that this is a kind of heroism in the form of caring. Nurses and doctors have become the prototypical image of heroism.

When we hear the stories of courageous people and new archetypes of courage arise, it can change personal goals, says Brian Palmer. It is for example known that Raoul Wallenberg after he had watched the movie Pimpernel Smith, about a professor who rescues victims of Nazi persecution during World War II, told his half-sister Nina that he wanted to do something himself to help.

– Courage is almost as contagious as fear. The dreams of young people, what they want to become in the future may change – it may be more attractive to become a nurse or doctor than a stockbroker.

A crisis also affects what we look for and support in leadership, says Brian Palmer, and mentions the leadership of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, focused on empathy and care.

– Such leadership is what is now most celebrated.

Many people suffer these days, from illness, unemployment, loss of dear ones, isolation and uncertainty. But it is a time filled with meaning, in a shared purpose, in acts of altruism.

– We are flooded with meaning. We have no lack of meaning at all. We have lots of collective meaning. And that is a beautiful thing.

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Brian Palmer is a social anthropologist and scholar of religion at Uppsala University in Sweden. Previously he held the Torgny Segerstedt Guest Professorship at Gothenburg University, and before that he taught at Harvard. His courses there on civic courage and engagement attracted as many as 600 students per term, and in 2002 Brian was awarded the Levenson Prize as Harvard’s best lecturer.

Brian’s latest book, written together with Ola Larsmo, is 101 historiska hjältar (101 historical heroes). It was published in 2013 by Historiska media (Lund), followed by large softcover and paperback editions. English and Korean translations are being prepared.

The book Global Values 101 is based on Brian’s Harvard courses. His doctoral dissertation, also at Harvard, explored Swedish conceptions of solidarity. 

Photo: Sai-kit Cheung