We all have the capacity for tremendous courage. Risking his career and livelihood, Chiune Sugihara demonstrated such courage by disobeying orders and issuing thousands of visas to desperate Jews when he was the head of the Japanese consulate in Lithuania in 1939–40. It is estimated that Sugihara saved 6,000 lives.
As David Wolpe writes in this excellent op-ed in The New York Times, “Most of the world saw throngs of desperate foreigners. Sugihara saw human beings.”
There were many psychological biases and pressures that could have prevented Sugihara from this heroism. In-group/out-group thinking caused many in 1939 to see European Jews as “the other.” Psychic numbing prevents us from feeling empathy for large groups of victims. And pseudoinefficacy demotivates us when the scale of a problem is large.
Sugihara’s empathy overcame these biases, and his courage overcame the fear of reprisal from his superiors. Sugihara was fired and for years afterward worked menial jobs. But in 1968 his actions were discovered, and he was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1984.