Tuesday, December 22, 2015

There are no Superheroes

We have this notion of greatness that keeps us from living our lives. Even those people who did great things, the trend now is to humanize them - not to take them down a peg, but to show they are real people. Think about the MLK movie that explored his affair a few years back; I hear there's a Mother Theresa movie in the works exploring the doubt she shared later in life. Yes, these heroes we exalt found themselves in usual circumstances and handled themselves remarkably well, but in the end they were just people - no different from you or me.

I think we latch onto these stories in pop culture as a way of encouraging one another. We hold up heroes and explore them as people to remind each other that we're all capable of great things. I'm not sure that practice is doing us any good - in fact, it might be doing us harm.

Oh, I think it's wonderful to explore and highlight the humanity of our heroes, but it shouldn't be to challenge us to greatness, it should be to challenge us to ordinariness. People who set out for greatness rarely achieve it, but those content to humbly focus on the life in front of them with full hearts often find themselves in the midst of great things.

Now, of course, talent will rise to the top - talented people, coupled with determination, emerge as people who get recognized, but it doesn't make them less human. They aren't superheros.

Perhaps there is a part of us that latches on to such people (or fictionalized superheroes) because we recognize a lack in us - talent, drive, determination that will likely keep us from being "top in our field." If so, then heroes become nothing but an escape, further removing us from the lives we actually lead.

I think there is some underlying drive in each of us to be superheros - we want to be separated from the rest and bathed in applause. Who wouldn't? It gets compounded by millenia of societal reinforcement, celebrating the best and brightest, smartest and strongest - we've come to just accept that some people, fitting particular categories, are just better than everyone else. They're heroes and we should aspire to be them or something like them. In reality, though, this only reinforces the position of power those labeled the heroes enjoy.

I'm not saying, "don't do great things," what I am questioning is how we define greatness. We tend to use exceptional categories, highlighting people who look least like everyone else. There is some merit there, I suppose, but it's easy to fall into the superhero trap working that way. I wonder if perhaps, as we measure greatness, the greatest thing we can do is to simply be present in your own life - and the greatness of this can only really be measured by the people around you (and can't be compared with much of anything).

Using this measure, it's easy to be exceptional, but very difficult to actually be excepted - to be singled out for larger fame. After all, they sell "World's Greatest Dad" mugs at every souvenir stand.*

How many lives get derailed by trying to be "something" - the best lawyer, the best athlete, the smartest guy in the room? When we make those things the focus of our lives, we miss out on our lives. This notion that fulfillment and satisfaction exist somewhere out there rather than right where you are is the key to doom. Peter Rollins often says, "I hope you achieve your dreams... so you can recognize they're not the answer to your problems."

This is seen no more truthfully than in the superhero myth - the notion that some people can do more and be more. It's the justification for a comparison society.* And while it seems like this only works out for those people who fare well in the comparison, we have to recognize it doesn't work so well for them either. We exalt people we admire to superhero status and in the process dehumanize them. They're no different than our super-villains - isn't that the point of these new Batman movies? No one wants to be the Joker, but we don't really want to be Batman either.

The solution is not to ignore great things; we need to see examples of real love, sacrifice, and commitment in our world. The solution is to celebrate greatness for its mundanity. Mother Theresa is all set to be St. Theresa of Calcutta here in a few months. She is a hero of mine. Her life accomplishments seem super-human, in all honesty - but if we look at her that way, we miss out on the real testimony she provides - "not great things, but small things with great love." You can be as successful in life as Mother Theresa and never get one column inch of press - you may not even be fully recognized by the members of your own family.

That's the rub, really. There are no superheroes. There are only humans. We should work to be good ones.

*There's a whole separate conversation here about comparison and how that works - clearly some people are better father's than others, but we really get into trouble when we try to rank everyone. Yes, it's easy to pick out the drunk who skips Christmas to gamble, but it's more difficult to parse rankings of greatness absent these obvious flaws. It's better to judge individuals by the needs of the relationship their in, rather than in comparison to others. Even if he's the only Dad on the planet, a drunk gambler is not going to do well on a performance review.

No comments: