Many gifted and talented people often find themselves struggling with intense feelings of alienation at one time or another. For some, those feelings never really go away (like me, for instance: I shall be a geek and a freak to my dying day).
Often, at the root of this is having a certain kind of talent, interest area, temperament or sensibility that tends to set them apart from their peers. Let’s say a certain young man has an inordinate passion for Dungeons & Dragons or something of that sort. He would, of course, be treated as a geek and a loser by many of his peers and schoolmates. But maybe that young man will grow up to be a designer of highly imaginative games that provide much joy and entertainment to people. Or consider a woman who is so hypersensitive that she can discern divine beauty in things that most people don’t even notice, and yet she can barely even go outside due to the sensory overload of urban life, so she stays inside and paints all day. And her paintings go on to inspire many.
Need a real life example? Just look at Lady GaGa. In high school she was an insecure and self-proclaimed “eccentric freak” whom people used to tease. Now look at her. She’s only, like, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. And the sweet irony is that it’s not her “normalcy” that makes her so huge; it’s her eccentricity. Everywhere she goes she tells other young and insecure kids to love themselves and is their shining beacon of hope. It doesn’t matter that they don’t all grow up to be mega-celebrities like her. What matters is that they are inspired to search for their own unique beauty and gifts.
On and on the examples could go, encompassing ethnic heritage, sexuality, your past, personality and temperament, etc. A certain aspect of yourself makes you feel like an alien or a freak – misunderstood, unappreciated, unloved. But the very same thing can, with nurturing and commitment, also make you great and powerful.
Kal-El, also known by his earthly name of Clark Kent, would empathize. You see, he’s literally an alien, and before he comes to understand the full nature and implications of his alien nature, the years of his youth are full of confusion, isolation and angst. Little does he yet realize that the thing that makes him an outcast is the thing that will make him the greatest ass-kicker the world of fiction has ever seen.
How does he emerge out of this funk? (And how, by extension, will you?)
Finding Your Fortress of Solitude
The Fortress of Solitude.
The Fortress of Solitude is a secret, safe haven built just for Kal-El by his father Jor-El before he died. Clark discovers it in his teens, and it is here where he meets a holographic projection of his father and asks the question that we all secretly ask in the deepest regions of our being: “Who am I?”
The geeky details of the Fortress of Solitude in the Superman movies aren’t important; it’s the symbolic purpose the Fortress serves.
The Fortress is where we go deep within ourselves to ask our most pressing questions. What am I meant to do? Why do I feel so different? What gift is buried inside my pain that I could use to better the world somehow? In our case, we won’t be so lucky as to have a hologram of Marlon Brando give us the answer straight away. We have to do the work.
The most important answers are to be found within, not without, and every great sage and philosopher throughout history has known this. Certain clues and pointers can be discovered in the outside world, but, ultimately, to make sense of it all, we have to put the pieces together within. And this can only be done in relative peace and solitude, or at least as much as you’re able to find.
The key thing to realize is that the Fortress of Solitude is available to us all. Not the particular one that Superman used, but our own private, individual one. But it does not manifest itself to us. We have to find it. Indeed, we may even have to create it.
The Fortress exists within you. An actual physical place – a place in nature, a sacred place like a church or temple, or even just your room – can help, but all that’s really important is that you be left to yourself in peace and quiet. In my case, I find that my room fits this purpose quite well. No need to go anywhere. An internal state of equanimity and composure is what I’m after. If there’s too much noise around my room, then I might go to a quiet café or library with my notepad.
If you’re one of the very rare people who can attain mental equinimity in a crowded place, then that’s great. Some people might also want to imagine or visualize a certain kind of place in their minds. Whatever works. For most people, a certain amount of actual, physical solitude is necessary to attain that state of unruffled composure. For how will you make sense of all the non-stop stimuli you’re bombarded with (external people, places, things and events vis-à-vis your internal thoughts and feelings) if you don’t temporarily reduce the intensity of it?
Why Solitude Should Not Be Feared
The problem is that people are afraid of solitude, of being alone, for various and valid reasons. But great minds ranging from Isaac Newton to Franz Kafka to German philosopher Wittgenstein have all testified that their work was only made possible by extensive solitude during which they could think, understand and create with focused concentration. Kafka once wrote:
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
There is a lot of Christian symbolism in the Superman films and comics and this is no accident. According to the canonical gospels, even Jesus did not ascend to his full spiritual power until he had endured forty days and nights of seclusion and meditation in the dessert.
Having undergone extensive solitude in various periods throughout my life, I have to honestly admit that it is not easy. But I believe it is worth it. Unrelieved isolation, of course, can become unhealthy. There comes a time when you have to move and act upon your insights. You have to know when to emerge from the Fortress, just like Superman does.
When he first enters the Fortress, Clark has the look of the confused, frustrated and frightened boy that he is. When he emerges, it is with the look of steely determination and confidence; the look of a man with crystal-clear clarity and in complete control of his own destiny. He knows what he must do.
This, in a more real-world way, can essentially happen to you too. But remember that stories compresses time and space so that what appears to take Superman a few minutes on the screen may take you years of false starts and detours (as it did me). Don’t worry, fret or be discouraged if you don’t make an instantaneous transformation into the “super” you. That never happens, anyway.
The other thing to remember with the Superman archetype is that even after you have realized what it is you must do and have embraced your destiny, you will still, at times, waver, hesitate and be tempted to quit. One of the main reasons for this will likely be exhaustion coupled with loneliness and a desire to have a “normal” life – normal work life, love life, etc., that is not burdened by the great sacrifices your gift/curse demands.
This is what essentially happens to Superman in Superman II. There’s actually nothing wrong with this, and if you should choose to give up one part of your life to more fully experience another, that is your choice and right. But, as with Superman, you may eventually feel the call to return to your gift/curse. There is no right or wrong choice, only to be true to the choice once you have made it. If you’re always agonizing over the choice, then you’ll never be able to commit fully to either and you’ll be always be ineffective at both.
I learned this the hard way. Perhaps, in the end, so does everyone.
“Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.” — Jor-El (father of Kal-El, aka Superman)
Works Referenced: Superman (1978), Superman II (1980)
- That which makes you feel different and alienated from the world can also be that which gives you your unique power.
- Find and create your own personal “fortress of solitude.”
- The temptation to abdicate the gifts that you have to offer humanity in your desire to live a “normal” life.
- Turn on John Williams’ soaring, soul-freeing orchestral score for the Superman films. Turn it up. I mean, really turn that s**t up. Imagine this is the sound of the cosmos itself cheering you on. You are not weak. You are not a loser. You are powerful, not in some mystical, imaginative way but in a very real and practical way.