Sunday, June 21, 2009

Your inner superhero

The plot for our movie yesterday concerned a nerdly guy in a dead-end job who struggles with delusions of grandeur. In thinking about it afterward, I find myself wondering if we don't all -- at some level, anyway -- have delusions of grandeur. There is that piece in each of us that longs to be a superman, to right injustice and triumph over evil. And part of the process of maturing, or becoming civilized, is learning when and how to act on those impulses.

Part of why the hero of this movie was so sort of embarrassingly sad was because he actually believed he could make a difference, even though the rest of his fellow employees completely ignored his efforts on their behalf -- and, in fact, he couldn't even come up with a believable superhero outfit (and we all know clothes make the man, right?).

What if the superhero voice is NOT a voice we should extinguish in ourselves? What if the loss -- or burying -- of that voice coincides with the loss of innocence and hope? And I'm not so much talking here about the part of you that thinks it would be cool to wear lycra suits and fly; I'm more talking about the part of you that still believes it could make the world a better place.

I heard a story Friday night about a man, a physician in his 80's, who has devoted the latter years of his life to making medical texts available -- in appropriate languages -- to health practitioners in developing nations. "See?" said the friend who was telling me this man's story. "It IS possible for one man to make a difference."

Today I had lunch with a friend who went to a memorial service yesterday for a friend who, still in her 40's with two teenagers, passed away after a 9-year struggle with cancer. "There were over 600 people at that service," she said, "this woman touched SO MANY lives: it was amazing." My friend went on to tell me that she'd finally been given a plot in the community garden, and she shared how life-affirming she found being part of that community of gardeners, and working with the soil, and then she told me there's one person in that garden who just grows vegetables, solely for the purpose of sharing them with the local food bank.

Everywhere we look there are superheroes, but their heroism doesn't necessarily come clothed in lycra tights and a cape. For some it is their job to speak up; for others the job is to feed people or provide services, or maybe just to allow people to help them. But for all superheroes there must come a moment of presence, or awareness; a moment when you realize there is a need that you might possibly fill. And then there must be a choice: should I take this on? Do I care? What do I bring to the task? Am I capable? Is this worth my time?

But the most important question, I think, might be... WHY? Why does this call me, why am I drawn to this? Because if the answer is ever along the lines of "because it will make me look good" or "because people will like me" or "because I'll feel better about myself" then you're probably not on the right track. Because those voices all come from the ego, that part of us that so longs to be special, to be different, to be important -- and any results that come from those sorts of efforts are pretty much guaranteed to leave us looking like this poor guy in his sheet cape, his hand-lettered t-shirt, upside down mask and baggy Walmart shorts.

Yes, you may have positioned yourself perfectly against the light, as if you were a god come down to save the situation. But the rest of us can still see the truth, which is made even more glaringly obvious by your actions. Yes, the original impulse may have been admirable. But in the end, all comes to dust: best to find what you were born to do and do it quietly, rather than to find a way to save -- and thereby impress -- the world. I find myself, thinking now about our efforts yesterday, realizing that we bore witness, yet again, to Shakespeare's immortal words in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

I'm sure I've told this story before, but I will never forget the time Ray Kroc, the founder of MacDonalds, came to speak to the students at the Tuck School of Business. "What should I do to make the most money?" asked one of the students at the close of his speech. "Whatever you do -- if you want to be successful," replied Kroc, "will probably take lots and lots of hard work, and still there will be no guarantees of success. So do something you love. That way, even if you haven't been successful, you will still have enjoyed your life."

If you find that superhero impulse rising up in you, take a minute; stop and evaluate. Why do I want to do this? What am I REALLY trying to accomplish here? Am I just hoping to succeed at something? Am I just trying to look good? Am I willing to cope with the potential for failure? And am I willing to risk looking like a complete idiot? Or am I doing this because I might honestly enjoy the work?

Don't extinguish your superhero: it could be the voice of hope, of what you were called to do. But be careful: don't let your longing for recognition take over. And the single best indicator of whether you're called to do is probably this: will you just absolutely love what you're doing? Then go for it!


Laurie Brandriet Keller said...

Have always enjoyed your writing and photos. Do you know my childhood friend, Polly Longworth, from Bainbridge Island? She has a son named Reggie and I can't remember her husbands name. Just wondering since it's a small community. Have a great week! said...

Hmm. Polly and Reggie don't ring any bells -- but I'll keep my ears open!