Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interlinked pieces that will be posted under the unifying title and category of Your Superhero Origin. Originally, it was intended to a book, and essentially it still is. I initially had plans to self-publish this book, both for the desired speed of self-publishing and for being able to have maximum creative control over every aspect right down to the cover design. For numerous reasons I won’t go into here, I had stopped working on the book and put it aside for what’s become almost two years now. Again for various reasons, I have chosen to now go back, take the draft that I had been working on, cut it up into article-length chunks, revise where necessary (which is pretty much everywhere), and publish it here on Pop Mythology as a series of posts, taking as much time as I need for these newly revised chunks of my “book” to be reasonably good.
A couple of additional points to make before I get to it:
- While most Pop Mythology / Hero Wisdom content always contains images to break up the monotony of text, these Superhero Origin posts will not for the simple reason that I just won’t have the time to hunt around for so many images on top of my day job and other responsibilities, including being the editor of this site. So no pictures but hopefully the text will be worth slogging through. 🙂
- While these posts will be published here intermittently as an interlinked series, for the sake of simplicity I will use the term “book” when referring to the work as a whole, just as I did while working on the original draft. It’s too cumbersome to have to repeatedly self-refer to these writings as “this series of articles.”)
- As I personally prefer the usage of “superhero” and “superpower” over “super hero” and “super power,” that is how I will use them here. Yes, “superhero” is technically a trademarked term jointly owned by Marvel and DC, but no one really cares anymore.
Your Superhero Origin: Transforming Suffering Into Superpowers
This book is about superheroes.
It’s not so much about the superheroes you know and love like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest, though I will certainly be discussing these characters at length. It is, rather, mostly about a certain superhero that you may or may not recognize as being a superhero.
For many, especially those who love superheroes (and nowadays that’s almost everyone), the idea of being a superhero in real life is one of the ultimate fantasies. As per its title, the aim of this book will be nothing less than to inspire you to take one step beyond reading about and admiring fictional superheroes and actually becoming one, to take the substance of your own real life and use it to weave the narrative of your own superhero origin. We will do this together in the only way that it’s actually possible in reality, for we cannot and never will be able to actually fly, climb walls, or be invulnerable regardless of what some of the more zealous transhumanists out there may promise. If what we want above all are literal superpowers, then the world of superheroes must unfortunately remain in the realm of our imaginations. But as I will argue in this book, superpowers—and for that matter colorful spandex costumes, secret identities, secret hideouts—and all the other imaginative motifs and imagery that appear in superhero comics and films, represent so much more than what they appear to be on the surface.
While this book is about superheroes, more specifically it is about the superhero origin story. And once again, while I’ll be using plenty of examples from comics and other superhero media to illustrate my ideas, the superhero origin I will ultimately be talking about is your very own. That origin may have already happened. It may be happening. Or it may not have happened yet. Whichever the case may be, the goal of this book is to help you consciously approach that past, present, or future time in your life as a superhero origin story with the intended outcome of taking certain specific and practical steps that will, hopefully, add an extra dimension of meaning and fulfillment in your life.
Being a fan of depth psychology, you will find me often talking about events that occur on both conscious and unconscious levels. And I believe that whether you are conscious of it not, you are most certainly a superhero—or, at least, you have the very real potential within you to be one, and this potential manifests outwardly as superhero fiction and symbolism via the shaman-like channeling of comics writers and artists. But we are living in times when it will not be enough to simply recognize that we have potential, or to let it remain latent within we. We must claim these symbols, own them, transmute them into tangible actions in the real world. In other words, we must consciously choose to be or become superheroes. Unconscious potential alone will not and cannot save us, just like superheroes witnessing a crime on the street cannot save the day if they don’t remove their civilian disguise and reveal the superhero hidden underneath.
Why is it so critical that we consciously claim the archetype of the superhero and find ways to willfully live out that archetype in our daily lives? I believe that now is a time of critical importance for our American society and, indeed, globally for the entire human race. Among many who care deeply about the long-term welfare of the world, there is a certain underlying sense of urgency, conscious or not, that we are reaching a sort of crossroads in which we must collectively decide something. We must decide whether we will together create a sustainable world composed of sustainable societies or pass the point-of-no-return. And when I say “sustainable” I mean it in numerous ways. There is the obvious ecological sense of the word, but I also mean it in terms of our mental and physical health, individually and collectively, for it is within the realm of the mind and emotions where most of humanity’s problems germinate and proliferate outwards into the outer problems that we recognize as social and ecological problems. And certainly there are many of these: climate change, gun violence, growing political divisiveness, economic downturns, rising suicide rates, and so many, many others. Although I surely could, I don’t need to fill this space with facts and studies intended to convince anyone of the severity of the problems that we face as individuals, communities, cities, states, countries, and ultimately, as one world. Given the extraordinarily divisive nature of politics today (and rest assured this book will not go into politics directly), it’s likely we will not all agree what our biggest societal problems are. But whatever we think those biggest problems are, it’s also likely that we feel there is a certain, heretofore unparalleled urgency to them.
Take, for instance, one problem that many in the scientific community agree as being gravely urgent, that of the continuing escalation of our ecological crisis. Many scientists believe that if we do not do enough about this as a species soon, we will very quickly pass the point of no return. Some, like Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner, British chemist James Lovelock, and social scientist Mayer Hillman adamantly believe we are already past that point (though for the sake of encouraging action versus resignation, I prefer to place my faith with the scientists who say we do have time remaining yet, even if it is not a lot). And even if the ones who say it’s too late are right, there are still philosophical arguments for why we should refuse to resign ourselves to passivity or inaction and continue to take action as if we did have time.
Whether we actually have time or not, I believe that nothing short of a widespread shift in the way we live our lives and the values that we prioritize will suffice in maximizing the chances of our future sustainability in the holistic ways (mental, physical, social, ecological) that I mentioned earlier. But part of the problem is that we do not just face profound societal problems. Many of us also face significant personal challenges. If we are not facing them now then perhaps we did so in the recent past. Or perhaps we will do so in the not-too-distant future. Sooner or later we are bound to. It is the nature of being a human being living in society.
Why are these personal challenges a problem when it comes to the matter of our urgent social problems? It is because too often our personal challenges become roadblocks that prevent us from doing as much as we can to contribute to solving our collective crises. And that, in turn, is a problem because we will need as many people as possible, contributing as much as possible, if we are to get through this uncertain period in the development of our species.
One of the problems with suffering at the personal and individual level (as opposed to the collective level) is that it tends to entrap people in the sense of being an isolated particle separate from everything else—of being locked in a private hell that they cannot break out of, and that others likewise cannot break into, leading to isolation and self-absorption. In much of the modern, developed world where the sense of the “self” is narrow and limited enough as it is, when you have a highly individualistic culture like the U.S., this tendency to feel trapped inside a self separate from everything else can become greatly exacerbated. It can cause people to close themselves off to the world. Their own private suffering becomes their entire world, their entire plane of conscious awareness. But even though our personal pain and suffering is inarguably important (I am not suggesting in the slightest that it isn’t), it is arguably not quite as urgent as our collective problems. Moreover, in the grand scheme of things the dichotomy between self and society is a false one, and because it is a false one the solution must simultaneously take both the suffering of self and other into consideration. What unfortunately happens sometimes is that our personal suffering can distract us from the collective suffering of the world and the important responsibility we all share in alleviating that suffering. This isn’t at all to say that individualism per se is “bad”; in certain ways I am quite the individualist myself. It is simply to say that like all human traits there is a dark side to individualism if it is not consciously kept in balance.
Unfortunately, this sense of being a separate self disconnected from everything else is the exact opposite of what we need right now as a society and as a world. Given the severity of our problems, if we are to truly thrive as a species—indeed, if we are to survive—we will need nothing less than for greater amounts of people to realize that what is bad for others is bad for ourselves, and that what causes suffering to others will in some way, directly or indirectly, eventually affect us too whether we realize it or not.
This book arose out of the single most difficult period of my life—a period full of seemingly non-stop adversities going far beyond the usual everyday challenges and stresses that ordinarily confront us. I chose to wrote it because I wanted to share the insights and conviction that grew out of this suffering, which is that our private suffering, no matter how severe, does not need to make us feel disconnected from the world nor neglect or abandon our responsibilities to it. It does not need to make us become so entrenched in our own pain that we become blind and deaf to the pain of others around us. In fact, when approached a certain way, individual suffering can become a catalyst for a personal transformation in which my suffering becomes the world’s suffering and the world’s suffering becomes my own. Seeing this unity of shared suffering, I am thus compelled to take the kind of action that will not only heal myself but will contribute to the healing of the communities I am a part of and, by extension, of the world. And in many ways that I will discuss, superhero stories are allegories of this transformative process, offering gems of wisdom that can light the way out of the blackest nights of despondence into the brightest days of hope, redemption, and transcendence.
The earliest draft of this book was more autobiographical, and went into more detail about the process through which the adversities I have faced in recent years have led to a radical transformation of who I am and how I wish to live my life. However, this ended up making the overall length of the draft too long. Given how busy people are nowadays, I realized that if I was to expect anyone to spend time reading this material, the least I could do from my end, aside from making it interesting, would be to make it as succinct as possible. I will therefore only share personal examples if and when they genuinely help elucidate certain ideas. But I promise you that everything in this book comes from lived experience, a fair amount of personal experimentation and trial-and-error, and the mentorship of a life-altering teacher figure (whom I’ll talk about later). The arguments that I’ll be making in this book will not be abstract conceptualizing. You may not necessarily like or agree with what I have to say, but you will not be able to say that it is ivory abstraction. Many of the words you will see here were written from within the very depths of a personal hell. And if you are presently in a hell of your own, while I cannot promise anything, all I can say is that this material I’ll be offering has helped me personally. And I figure that if it helped me, then perhaps it will help one or two others out there as well.
By now you may be wondering what all this has to do with superhero stories. The answer is that it has everything to do with them. Superhero stories are an allegory for the ways in which an individual’s personal pain and suffering can become a catalyst for an awakening of conscience and potential. They are not just superficial allegories. They actually hold the answer—or at least some of the answers—to the conundrum of the suffering of the individual vis-à-vis the suffering of the world. Superhero origin stories are by no means the only vessel holding the answer. For as long as humans have communicated ideas, the same answer has reappeared in innumerable forms across innumerable media spanning millennia of art, mythology, religion, philosophy, and, in more modern times, psychology and anthropology. But for reasons I’ll be discussing throughout this book, superhero stories are uniquely equipped to speak to people in compelling ways that appeal to their modern sensibilities while, at the same time, reaching deep into their consciousness and stirring something primordial and ancient, just like the best of humanity’s mythical and artistic traditions have always done. Plus, they are fun. And in these difficult and troubled times we need our transformative archetypes to be fun.
And, if nothing else, I hope this book will be fun for you as well.
Next post: The works of the Superhero Origin Canon