Superhero comic books have provided me with some incredible lessons in life. Superheroes can be selfless, generous, helpful and resourceful individuals. They are flawed, just like the rest of us, but despite (and sometimes because of) those flaws, superheroes still manage to do good.
Once I had a friend who was having a hard time and I said “You can do it, you’re a superhero.” She replied “Oh no, that is much too much to ask of myself.” as if that was a bad thing to suggest… Ever since then I’ve always thought about all the ways in which trying to be a superhero is a great thing. How could anyone try to be less or (even weirder to me) ask less of themselves?
I believe there is more to the superhero metaphor than meets the eye and that reading between the lines can offer us support in living our own richer, more satisfying lives.
1. If you feel like an outsider, dress like one.
There is not a spandex wearing, multicolored superhero that doesn’t stand out. Even the most sedate of the costumed heroes – Batman – is pretty damn outrageous. These people know that they’re outsiders, that they function differently to most of society. Don’t try to fight that sense of alienation, dress up and celebrate that fact. Be blatantly different and enjoy it.
2. Choose your own identity.
Okay, so we know that Spider-Man didn’t actually sew his own suit (no matter what the movies might try to convince us of) and most of us aren’t going to get a surprise package from Reed Richards containing a suit made from unstable molecules. However, we can take a page from their books and choose our own costume, decide how we want the world to see us and dress accordingly.
3. Help people.
When the X-Men hear a distress call, they don’t avoid it in the hope that the Avengers will deal with it, they go see if they can help. If someone needs help, they offer it, the implication being that if people didn’t need help, they wouldn’t be asking. If we can others, we must, in whatever way we are able.
4. Work chooses you.
Superheroes have a skill (or a mutation or power) and it shapes the kind of superhero they become. Similarly, we can see what our strengths are and find work we will actually enjoy. This is not taking the easy route, it is taking the sane route. Do work you have a talent for.
5. Hone your tools.
If a superhero were too weak to fly or too miserable to get out of bed, what would they be? While most superheroes begin with some kind of superpower, that is just a leaping off point for a strict regimen of skills and exercises designed to enable them to do their job. We have to take care of our physical and emotional health, not only so that we can do our jobs and live productive lives, but so that we can help other people too.
6. Be good to each other.
Superheroes rarely kill. Despite the veneer that comic books have of being about simple, black and white issues, in actuality there’s an awareness that there are only shades of gray. Even the supervillian could be wrongly accused or just plain nuts. It is important never to act out of vengeance or anger. Watch out for people, be kind to them, be noble and understanding, even in the face of adversity. Stop people from doing harm, but do not harm them.
7. Go incognito.
One day, Superman made up Clark Kent. He created a clumsy, near-sighted alter ego to hide behind. No one is stopping us from creating our own identity (or even multiple identities.) Have a disguise, it could give you just as much freedom as it gives those superheroes. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation it is always possible to go incognito. There is no rule that says that you can only have one look, there is always the option of putting on your proverbial glasses and doing a Clark Kent.
8. Do your best.
Even the dorkiest of superheroes is trying to be superheroic. One of the things I liked about the Runaways when it first started was how hopeless they were, and yes simultaneously so completely earnest. They were young so they were extreme, but this is how superheroes are. By trying to be super, they get satisfaction from their work. Similarly, we can approach life with the aspiration to be better, to try to the best of our abilities and strive for greatness to create a more rewarding experience.
9. Be your own superhero.
For most superheroes there is no Professor X to teach them how to do what they do, but somehow they manage. Sometimes it is a huge struggle, sometimes they have to support each other, but more often than not, they’re the first of their kind and they have to forge their own path. One of the most important gifts that superheroes have given me is the lesson to look within myself and find my own journey through life, just as they have.
10. Doing good is it’s own reward.
No one pays Daredevil to throw himself around rooftops, he does it because it is the right thing to do. Nowadays there is a lot of talk of various heroes being hired by the government or funded by zillionaires, and I think that has more to do with the new hyper-reality that comics are trying to embrace… Whatever the reason, superheroes don’t pull on the proverbial cape looking for a reward, they protect others and fight crime because it is the right thing to do and they’ll feel better about themselves if they do. Money, success, recognition, thanks… these are all secondary to caring about other people and expressing that through our actions.
Fighting crime, helping the helpless, giving to the poor… these are things that superheroes do. By some definitions they are selfless (by others they are tortured souls seeking the right the wrongs that robbed them of their own happiness.) Whatever the motivations, they do good because it helps them to feel better and the same is true of everyone. Doing good feels good.