What we can learn from superheroes

Myths, religions and comic books

“Man looks for a superman in the fantastic reality of heaven [but finds] nothing there but the reflection of himself.”— Karl Marx

Superheroes. They’ve been around for millennia. For thousands of years, people have elevated the stories of men (mostly) to the status of superheroes.

From one of our oldest recorded champions, the Sumerian Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu (a little like our first Batman and Robin), to Jesus Christ Superstar (2,000 years ago and more recently on Broadway), The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (a grocery list of superhuman abilities you can develop born out of Indian Vedic philosophy) and the Buddha touching the earth to witness his enlightenment (caused an earthquake apparently), we obsess and repeat to ourselves stories of transcendent might overcoming impossible odds. What’s the implicit message?

We’re insecure. We feel small. We reject the finitude of our lives. Please tell us again that we are equal in scale and power to the universe, to cosmic forces.

Desperately, we want to delude ourselves that we are more than we actually are; we run from what is present, from our ephemeral human lives. Superhero worship is part and parcel with escapism. Conversely, the limits of a single frail life measured against the cosmos and stretch of endless time: That is real humility.

I also love superheroes. I admit it, my main role-model growing up was Spider-Man. He was a pariah, a nerd, an orphan, an outsider who fit with no group. But he was brilliant and lucky and had a huge heart. A radioactive bite gave him the ability to lift a car overhead, to dodge bullets and swing through the air between skyscrapers like no character of myth or religion could ever imagine. His motto was “with great power comes great responsibility,” a way of living I still admire. I wanted so much to be more than this fragile little homo sapien.

But I’m not Spider-Man. I am a human being with a short life, doing my best to suck the marrow from my cosmic blip of existence on a dust mote on an outer arm of the Milky Way. I’m not The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man or The Wolverine or any of my other favorites.

I have known people I deeply respect, admire, love — some of whom really are heroes — but none of them could or even tried to produce the miracles of our ancient mythologies. They were unburdened from such a hope (like flying unaided, juggling elephants or raising the dead). They derive strength from every small kindness they manifest in the world each day. Those who make a big difference, they sometimes look rather plain. Their stories aren’t always sexy or epic.

Thoughts of human limits do not rob my life of meaning nor cause me to despair. It’s a relief to accept these limits. As we all do, I continue to discover and create all sorts of meaning. I find joy in experiencing the world just as it is, hiking a coastal trail, eating truffle pasta, conversing with a loved one from the heart. Doing my best to be present to what’s happening here and now beats all the crafted fantasies or nightmares I might imagine.

Ironically, when we accept our finitude is when we lose our chase after imagined super-human heights and gain the focus and grounding to achieve powerful things for each other. When the pursuit of fantasies ends is when the building of realities can begin. Like building a school for open inquiry. Or building a hospital.

We may soon develop technologies that accelerate our evolution into realms once considered superhuman. Already, anyone with a cell phone can access ALL of public human knowledge in about 6 seconds or less. Most questions you can think of, you can answer. We have a tiny taste of the omniscience we once imagined. World travel is within reach for middle class people in the developed world, unimaginable not long ago. As a species, we have beaten back illness and overrun this planet far beyond it’s carrying capacity, spending down the biosphere’s “savings accounts” of oil, fisheries, forests, etc..

To handle our growing might, our emergence into superhuman possibilities that were previously distractions, delusions, it’s time our species grows up. Maturity comes through education (access to knowledge), through dignity, having enough to eat and drink, the encouragement of learning and unimpeded exploration.

There are about 7 billion world views out there. We gloss over their diversity with categories like religion, political affiliation, ethnicity, even gender. Most of these perspectives are confined by the tyrannies of “should,” the yolks of inherited dogmas that insist we must live by a single either/or choice. Those two choices are: 1) Accept the understandings you were spoon fed and benefit from the incredible fulfillment of belonging in a community with crystal clear lifelong expectations. 2) Question everything, discover and flesh out your own world view, explore the world beyond the ideas you were born into and be cast out as a pariah from your community for your free thinking. Another frame for describing these two attitudes is Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s Growth or Fixed Mindsets.

Of course, this is a false choice. We are earthlings, just one of millions of species of earthlings. We’re not superheroes, though they can exemplify our aspirations. Every corner of human ideas and understandings are each of our birthright, and we can learn as much or as little as we like. You get to decide what makes the most sense to you, in the light of your own experiences. You can pick and choose.

Make your own path. Embrace the frailty and boundaries of your subjective brain. Make peace with your limits, and in doing so perhaps transcend them.

Title Photo Credit: flickr