“There is no correct path in life. You will lose your way many times. What’s important is that you find your way back to the brave girl you always were. Be wise. Be strong.” –Alura Zor-El
For as far back as we can trace the existence of language, human beings have told themselves stories: stories about how the world came into being, what lied beyond the world, how the gods created all things seen and unseen. Mostly, they told themselves stories about themselves—who they were and what their place in the world was. Collectively these formed what I’ll call the story of the tribe. The story of the tribe was the glue that held the tribe together and provided the meaning they needed to persevere in inhospitable environments.
Then, gradually, with the dawn of the modern era and increasingly onward, there came a shift. People still told themselves the story of the tribe in different ways (“land of the free and the home of the brave”) but they also began telling themselves another kind of story—I’ll call this the story of the self. Now, at least in post-industrial societies, the story of the self has largely supplanted the story of the tribe as the predominant narrative that most people live by. (Hey, don’t go away, I promise to talk about Supergirl in just a sec.)
The tribal stories had an advantage in that they were grounded in the past. Having already happened, nothing that could happen in the present or future could undermine these stories. Even the advent of science could not negate the stories’ importance. Those who cared about these stories were able to keep them relevant by approaching them symbolically and therefore still “true” no matter what discoveries science made. And the simplicity and vagueness with which the stories were told also allowed them to adapt their meaning to whatever the future would bring.
Like tribal stories, many stories of the self are also grounded in the past. The events of our lives leave behind a chaotic tangle which, by looking backward, we can use to weave a coherent narrative of meaning. But we also tell ourselves many self-stories about our futures. It is these stories of the self regarding the future that we’ll be focusing on in this article.
Self-stories about the future do not have the advantages that tribal stories about the past did. Their first vulnerability is that they are just that—stories about the future. The problem is when the future arrives, it very often does not live up to the stories. The second vulnerability is that these stories tend to be ultra-specific: I must go to Harvard. I must get into medical school. I must become a doctor. I must find and get married to my soul mate. And along with being ultra-specific, the stories take place in reality. I don’t mean they are realistic because often they are not. But we imagine that the stories will take place in reality. Your story of becoming a doctor, for instance, is not supposed to be symbolic. It is supposed to be both literal and specific—becoming a nurse or physician’s assistant simply will not do. You must become a doctor.
But what happens when, for whatever combination of reasons, that story does not come true by the time it is supposed to? For most people, this causes significant distress. Let’s say you then adjust the story so that it allows for another five or ten years to keep trying. What if it still doesn’t happen? Worse, what if it never even had a chance of happening?
This is essentially what happens to Kara Zor-El in Supergirl, the TV show, which is soon to launch its second season after having moved from CBS to the CW. In Season 1 we saw Supergirl’s origin, loosely based on the versions depicted in the 2005-2011 comic series as written by Joseph Loeb and the New 52 as written by Mike Johnson and Michael Green. **Minor Season 1 spoilers ahead** In this version of the origin, Kara’s birth parents put her in a spaceship to escape the destruction of Krypton, just like the parents of her baby cousin, Kal-El, did. As Kara was biologically older than her cousin at the time, her parents entrusted her with the task of protecting the baby Kal-El once she arrived on Earth. At a tender and impressionable young age she is thus assigned a story that she is bound by familial duty and by the very gravity of her situation to live up to: Kal-El and I are the only survivors of our planet. But he is just a baby. As his older cousin I must protect and watch over him.
Alas, this story was not to be. The force of Krypton’s explosion knocks Kara’s ship off its course and sends it into the Phantom Zone where she ends up in suspended animation for 24 years. By luck her ship eventually gets out and makes its way to Earth. Kara, still a child, wakes up to find that her once-baby cousin is now a fully grown man, and not just any man at that. Supes, wanting his cousin to have the same kind of nurturing that he had, finds an adoptive family for her and quietly looks after her from afar. Kara pretty much sums it up when, in Episode 1 of Season 1, she says, “I didn’t have a mission anymore.”
It would be disorienting enough to wake up from suspended animation to find that 24 years have passed and the story you were supposed to live—being Superman’s protector—has been stripped away from you. Not only that, but once you grow up and become Supergirl, your “baby” cousin ends up being your protector, not the other way around. It’s the exact opposite of what you quite literally dreamed for 24 years it would be. That’s not just disorienting; it’s downright traumatic. It undermines the very identity, the only identity, that you have known. And without a coherent sense of identity, what are you? This is why, in the early episodes of Season 1, Kara sometimes reacts harshly to people when they try to help her. That’s not how it was supposed to work. She was supposed to help them.
Unfortunately, Kara finds that even when she tries to live like a regular Earth human, her plans still don’t quite work out. “I went to work at Catco,” she tells Alex, her adoptive sister, “because I thought working in a media company run by a powerful woman [Cat Grant] who actually shapes the way people think would be the way that I could make a difference. But instead I just fish layouts and coffee.”
It is this collision between expectations and reality that we see the adult Kara struggle with throughout Season 1 of Supergirl. It was an intentional creative choice to make Kara a millennial in the show’s timeline. Her struggles, in both symbolic and literal ways, movingly reflect the same struggles that many real life millennials face. She feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, and all the more so because she failed to live up to the story that she and her parents fully believed she would, though not by her own fault. Reality just knocked her ship off course. As it so often does. Ship happens.
Millennials are not the only ones to tell themselves stories. As I started this article out by saying, humanity has been doing that for… well, millennia. And millennials are not the only ones who struggle with the frequent clash between reality and expectations. In fact, no quality that the millennial generation is often unfairly pigeonholed with is uniquely their own. Despite what older generations might like to think, people are the same in any era—they just face different challenges and respond to them as people in their situation would. If the confusion and frustration that millennials express seem particularly pronounced then this is, as with Supergirl, through no intrinsic shortcoming of their own. They grew up having certain stories told to them constantly by their families, institutions and the media. You can do and be anything. The sky’s the limit.
“You will do extraordinary things,” Kara’s mother says to her before launching her off into the unknown. And yet despite all her strength and power Kara could not prevent her ship from getting knocked off course. Likewise, despite all the talent and passion that young people go out into the world with, reality is often like the unsympathetic sun that burned Icarus’s wings when he tried to fly too high. And who wouldn’t feel disappointed after getting burned like that?
Millennial or not, if you can relate to this, there is a way to grow back your wings—two ways, actually, both of which I’ll share with you.
1.The power of telling new stories
Supergirl herself shows you the first way. It involves letting go of the old stories that you told yourself (or that others told you) about your future and telling yourself new ones. If you have a hard time letting go, then start by questioning them. Question the stories that your culture, your teachers, your parents—whomever—told you about career, success, life and happiness. You heard these stories so often for so long that at some point you started believing that they were accurate reflections of reality and that they emerged from your own truest, deepest self (even though the idea of your “true self” is also a story). Question the stories long enough, critically enough, and they start to lose their grip on you.
Kara comes to eventually accept that no matter how much she may not like it, her reality does not live up to the story that she and her parents told about herself. She goes through an understandable period of confusion, but instead of getting stuck she begins to tell herself new stories. And these, in turn, bring back a renewed sense of life’s possibilities. It doesn’t happen overnight, and these new stories are most definitely works-in-progress, but they enable to her to accomplish things that, perhaps, she never would have if everything had worked out the way she had planned. And when journalist Cat Grant, while interviewing her, dismissively says, “I feel like I’ve heard this story before” (referring to Superman’s life story), Supergirl is able to confidently fire back, “This is MY story.” (S01E03) She has earned the right to say that.
So learn from her. Clinging to old narratives that didn’t play out the way you hoped will only prolong your turmoil. But the answer isn’t to stop telling stories because this is something that we humans have always done and couldn’t stop even if we wanted to. Keep telling yourself stories; just tell yourself new ones. Tell yourself whatever stories motivate you enough to not give up on life. But avoid the following three types of self-defeating stories: the ones that involve negative self worth (I’m not talented enough), the ones that assign blame (It’s all X and Y’s fault), and the ones that set unrealistic or overly demanding goals (though only you can decide what those are given your unique situation).
2. The power of stories that are fake as hell (or: I am Supergirl)
The second way to grow back wings is something that I myself do to cope with my own persistently uncooperative reality. You may or may not find it helpful but I share it in the hopes that you find it more helpful than not.
Learn from the stories of the tribe that we used to tell ourselves about our past. Remember I said that by being so generalized and based in fantasy—that is, symbolic—these stories were virtually immune to whatever the future could bring. I also said that our stories about our individual selves were vulnerable to the future because they were so ultra-specific and based in reality, even though reality cares nothing for our stories and will rarely conform to them.
So in addition to the first tip about telling new stories, you can also try telling yourself stories that are more symbolic like the old tribal stories were (and I stress the word “old” because our modern tribal stories suffer from the same kind of over-literal interpretations that our self-stories suffer from). By making your stories of the self more symbolic, nothing that could happen will be able to undermine them because, unlike the typical reality-based stories of the self, symbolic stories are not meant to be realistic or specific to begin with. They are intended, rather, to affirm general principles which can remain true no matter what happens in real life.
So, for example, tell yourself stories like the following:
My name is Kara Zor-El. I was once traveling in a spaceship towards my appointed destiny when life knocked me off my trajectory. I spent many years lost, experienced much pain and anguish, but was able to overcome this and create a new set of goals for myself, goals that became just as meaningful as my old ones, if not more. And as I soar out towards a future that remains as dangerous and unpredictable as ever, I am bulletproof and without fear. Because I know that if I was able to overcome my pain and find a new direction once, I can—I will—do so again in the future.
I am Supergirl. And this is MY story.
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