Has anyone noticed how in entertainment we are being inundated by (apparently) women, men and children who flaunt an unbelievable array of superior capabilities? Or perhaps they are creatures that only look like humans; some of them do morph rather easily. But I feel swamped every time I turn on the television or examine the new line up of bestsellers. I search for those ordinary decent human beings who achieve humble but worthwhile goals. I am more often faced with either unhealthy, i.e., dangerously flawed characters or secretly altered ones who now command vast and potent powers. The thing is, I really am interested in regular people making their way through the beautiful and daunting landscape of life. I don’t need superhuman examples of prowess. I seek the well-functioning, ever evolving essential Human Being.
Not that this pop phenomenon is new. Comic book, fantasy and sci-fi authors, CGI masters–writers and graphic artists who are world builders of a unique sort–have been giving us fantastic tales for well over a century. And before that, we had mighty mythology based on demigods who were compelled to act out otherworldly feats of bravery and skill. I am sure there have always been stories demonstrating what we humans would like to possess–more fearlessness, strength, power, cleverness if not outright brilliance, the ability to first and last succeed and so on. It may lie in our make-up to desire more than what and who we are from birth. As Homo sapiens, we have need of that drive toward invention, a grasp of problem solving. So there seems an internal itch for most people, a restlessness, perhaps a dissatisfaction that motivates us to strive for something better. And thus, to become greater and more effective. And often, more important. Who hasn’t thought of or plotted for the glory of victorious moments?
The superhuman landscape used to be populated with primarily men who could outrun, outsmart and out-kill everyone else. Destruction seems the byword. Women have gradually begun to further assert their own place within this artificial matrix of amazing powers. We were once given the Six Million Dollar Man to admire but I loved that Bionic Woman in the nineteen seventies. How I cheered her on as she used a supercharged mind and body to make things right! And Wonder Woman, well, she was a whole other symbol of woman rising; her outfit was stunning, as well. And then children began to display unusual skills in stories and shows. Check out any Saturday morning cartoon and accompanying ads and you’ll see what I mean. They love the idea of being stronger, faster and indestructible as much as teens and adults do. Even small people like to win, be on top, and think they want or need to be “king/queen of the hill.” Cue raised wooden sword and a flimsy paper crown. I admit I liked dress-up and being queen, too.
But what have we gained from this long history of unusually skilled, oddly gifted, characters that we loved or loathed? I wonder how it has impacted our individual and collective psyches in the end. Afterall, the standards these beings set are quite unreasonable.
Is it all taken in the spirit of light entertainment– or are we working out our deepest fears and desires via these heroic personages? Likely some of both. We are given, after all, that impulse to overcome adversity and large brains with which to resolve conflict like no other creatures on earth. We can already do marvelous things with our limber bodies, gross and fine motor control, our collective senses, and an ability to heal from serious trauma and illness, to even transform physically and mentally. But if we could be better equipped, more innovative, stronger and more courageous–then we could accomplish so much more, we think. Even save the world, maybe. Hence the fantasy human, the more perfect specimen. Meantime, these superheroes I find on the screen and in books seem primarily to destroy, maim, kill, take ultimate control–in the name of an ideology, a dream, a ruler of some perfect kingdom where all will be well once more after all obstacles are removed. Or so the story goes.
I propose that the skills we have been designing and idolizing are, if not entirely wrong ones, far less important, if at all. How much of what we yearn for the most has to do with an everlasting perfection of Divine Spirit/God/Creator/Higher Power? And what if we already have capabilities that can change the world, save others, create a greater vision? Isn’t it possible we are emphasizing the physical realm far more than is necessary, even to the point of neglecting our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?
On my walk today, several everyday human powers came to the fore on my thinking. I thought about what has changed my own life from one that was once imperiled to one that became much more empowered. There are countless stories of individuals who have been more inspiring than I could hope to be. But I have discovered through trial and error and rigorous self-evaluation that there are some things I cannot manage without. They do not include excellent ongoing health or award-winning physical prowess, though those would be lovely. Money is not on the list, nor even a huge circle of friends. And this isn’t about the basic needs, though I am well aware that the lack of food, shelter, health care and safety alter lives in ways that can be dire, even life threatening. Instead, they are powers of heart and soul that we can tap to render powerless those poisons that harm human life in ways as devastating as illness, hunger, and violence.
1. Empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy, that feeling that I can know what you are undergoing because I, too, am human, and I, too, have felt diverse emotions and had myriad experiences. They may not be the same as yours, but I can put myself in your place for a moment and feel your anger or your pain, your longing or joy. Empathy allows me to identify with what your life experience, motives and situations. I may then sympathize with you and commiserate with you–but first empathy has to be present to enable me to respect your experience and recognize it as valid and real for you. I need strong empathy for others to begin to connect to them and to be caring in even simple ways. Otherwise, relationships are shallow, transitory, without mutual appreciation and I give little to nothing of my understanding or concern. Empathy, then, empowers us to be more considerate and responsive human beings. It helps us reach across large divides of socioeconomic and cultural differences. It keeps us from falling prey to our worst selves and has the power to mediate peace and generate great goodwill.
2. Compassion, after which the word mercy entered my mind. It also is attached to empathy. Without compassion I would not be moved to assist anyone, would not be willing to overcome reticence and take a risk to be there for others in their distress. I would not care when someone else is suffering because it would not be seen as my problem. Compassion enlarges our understanding and strengthens our hearts. It moves people to interact in ways that offer solace as well as time and energy. But it can also be what keeps us from reacting impulsively and unfairly to others, to say things that are undermining and hurtful. When you have compassion, you sense another’s sensitive spots and feel suffering and so, respond sympathetically. You choose to be gentle and helpful because you desire the same and want others to experience life that way, too. Compassion moves from your heart to another’s and creates a vitally important bridge. But do not mistake it for a softness that is weak. Rather, it strengthens your character and shores up bravery.
Mercy is only an act of extreme compassion. It may be a little dangerous to experience because it can mean putting one’s own self on the line, doing what is unpopular when others may be unable to see the value in such a compassionate response. You may hold the power to do otherwise, to be inclement in your action, yet you choose not to be. It may mean that the person has been deemed undeserving of such care and acceptance by others yet you are still moved to offer both and abundantly. Mercy alleviates terrible misery and offers freedom from harsh judgment and a punishing response; it accepts another person or situation as they are, with deep kindness.
3. Forgiveness, without which there is little hope for ourselves or the world. To be unforgiving means that anger and resentments are stockpiled. It indicates we think we are right and others are wrong and they need to be punished somehow. The old angers take up room in our souls and minds and crowd out potential for growth. They keep us stuck, grind us down. Have you been around someone who is resentful of something that may have happened twenty years ago? It lives in their bodies: hunched shoulders, tight mouth, frown lines. They move as if ready or even looking for a fight. They are marked by discord because they cannot let go of what someone said or did or what did not happen as they believed should. They blame and conspire to get even or get revenge. Without forgiveness, they will never know serenity or lasting joy. One foot is in the past and the present is spoiled, the future a repeat.
When we forgive, we are freed of the toxic state that drove us into a wilderness and kept us hostage to loneliness. Hanging onto old hurts and wrongdoings sours life and impedes becoming effective individuals. It weakens us to keep close and hate the thing that wounded us. At its worst, a lack of forgiveness ignites rage that is taken out on others, intentionally or mistakenly. Forgiving is letting go and letting God–or time or other circumstances we will never know about–take care of things. It means not worrying at all about who deserves what. Learning to take responsibility for our present lives and be engaged in this moment. And all this includes forgiving one’s self. And then moving on.
4. Hope. Without hope people would not get up every day and get on with the work and risks of making and living a life. It’s just hard being human in so many ways. We all experience setbacks and losses and if there is not hope, despair can seep in and spread like a slow flood. Then it is difficult if not impossible to see good coming of any efforts. People do finally stop trying. They can die–emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. Or they numb themselves further with addictions and distractions. Hope is the power that changes a viewpoint from bleak to brighter. If we don’t have it within ourselves we must seek until we find it, as it will transform everything.
Offering hope is one powerful key to serious change. It renews energy. It offers solutions. If held out to someone, it indicates that you care enough to see a reason for him or her to keep trying, keep believing life can be even a bit better, even much more so. Hope is a lifeline that can lift one person up out of the quagmire of self-destruction and self-loathing. It can take fear and make it obedient to a new courage. It assesses trouble and then infuses it with the healing of greater possibilities. Hope is a light, carrying us from the stormy seas of human living to that obdurate lighthouse which reassures us there is a safe place for us to land. And to start again.
5. Gratitude. Without it we humans cannot appreciate all that we have. And if we are not appreciative, we are surly and anxious and tend to get lost. Flailing about in the bottomless well of complaints. Gratitude–for one small thing each day if that is all we can come up with–reminds us what counts most and what we do have. Not what we don’t have–it will always be something we do not yet or may never have. Unhappy with your life? Sit down and write a list of what you can appreciate. It might be the camellias starting to bloom. It may be your neighbor’s two little dogs that don’t bark all day and night. It could be that fact that you can open your cupboard and find enough food for a week. Or it might be that you can make another choice, do one thing different, find a new path because you have a mind and a will that enable you to do so. The power of appreciation and gratitude is that you find out you have blessings you just forgot. Next option: share what you have with someone who could use a boost, too, and see how much more gratitude you reap. Be prepared to feel refreshed and ready to do more good. Like taking expensive vitamins but much better.
6. Resilience. That’s right, we human beings were born with the ability to recover over and over, to bounce back from punishing times. To recreate ourselves, if necessary. Resilience means we have elasticity; we can be pushed and pulled and even broken down and still we can get back to our innermost heart and soul and start again. We do not take failure easily, do not stay down for the count if we can help it. But if there is not a way to overcome at the moment, we tend to think we just have to wait out the bad times, gather all our strength and be ready for change when it becomes possible. We persevere and find a way through or around impediments in our lives. We take stock of ourselves–resources, energies– and our attitude becomes regenerative. And that means we overcome and make things happen even when it seems it cannot be. Our will and our minds and hearts seek triumph and completion. I believe we all harbor a profound, inherent love of life, will do all we can to enhance and enjoy it. So we will not be defeated for long, not if we have breath and a smidgen of hope. It all works that much better when we pool our collective skills and gifts. There is power in one, yes, but there is more creativity, wisdom and strength in adding to that one. Not to mention companionship, a boon to any good thing.
So there you have it, my thoughts on a few amazing powers we already have. We may forget them in the hectic mad dash of our daily living. I could write for hours more about the unique, life changing ways and talents we human beings have. And it also hit me when I looked at the list and realized that nearly every human power is rooted in, of course, love. I guess I thought it had already been made obvious by naming compassion, mercy and empathy, hope and forgiveness, gratitude and resilience.
Love. It means I want to do good things, even a great deal of them, for me and for you–and always, only the best that I can do even if that is not quite up to snuff sometimes. This is my aspiration, in any case. It is what I want for my children and grandchildren. Not to emulate some fantastic, overdressed, frighteningly overbearing and willful “superhero”. Just to be the extraordinary ordinary human being that we have always been meant to be. We are already heroes, my friends, waiting to happen.