Christmas at home means mainly one thing for me: the time I can spend with my four young nephews. After they have crawled under every bed and couch, fought numerous times with each other and made up again, stormed from room to room firing muskets and waving swords, and eaten countless sweets at a speed that cannot be monitored, we end up together on the carpet telling stories. Some of these stories we create ourselves. But the boys’ eyes shine – and peace finally settles in – when I start recounting the origins of the superheroes (admittedly, as presented in the recent blockbuster movies). I am a fan of the Marvel movies myself, and I appreciate the plots’ twists, the archetypal Hero’s Journey structure, and the treat offered to a woman’s eyes. However, after the frequent repetitions over the past few weeks, I realized that the superheroes have given me some priceless lessons which, enhanced by the handsomeness and the continually improving special effects, remain indelible and, hence, powerful.
- Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The whole Spiderman concept has been developed around this phrase, voiced by Uncle Ben to Peter Parker. Reinforced by the uncle’s death early in the story, the phrase keeps echoing in the hero’s – and our – mind, gaining momentum and showing the way for the use of the recently acquired super-powers.
Every day I am reminded that I have also been gifted with special powers, even if I cannot jump on walls or fight villains with my might. Yet, I carry the legacy of the past, the dreams and achievements of those who paved the way for me, and the light of divinity in my soul, and these are powers the importance of which is not to be diminished or taken for granted. So, every time I see how blessed I have been with all I have been given, I recall this phrase from Spiderman: because I have the responsibility to preserve these gifts, use them wisely, enrich them, and carry them forward for the ones who are to come after me. This responsibility practically determines my life’s purpose, and the moment I manage to rise above fear, I have drawn another line in defining who I truly am.
- Batman: “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
This is the advice Bruce Wayne’s father leaves as a legacy to his son, again a bit before his death (interesting how in tales some of the most important messages are underlined by the death of those who speak them, or how short-lived are the guardians in a hero’s life).
Although on the surface, the significance of the message lies indeed in learning to get up after a downfall, I find fascinating what preceded the phrase and, actually, inspired it. As one might recall, young Bruce had fallen into a well, where he encountered a part of himself he did not know and which defined him ever since: his fear of bats. Similarly, in any self-discovery process on the challenging road towards homecoming, we frequently have to dive into deep wells to retrieve lost parts of our soul. These forgotten parts of ourselves never lie on the surface and are never easy to see. They are hidden in depths that are not frequented even by spirits and feed on darkness and fear. It takes courage – or an unexpected call for adventure – to dive into such uncharted territory and rise again, carrying to the light a piece which, no matter how frightening in the beginning, will complete and define us. So, many times, when I feel lost or frustrated by a lack of vision, I know I have to go down into the well of my psyche again, stay silent, and fight the new Balrog that demands to be acknowledged and saved from obscurity.
- Thor: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, should possess the power of Thor.”
The phrase, whispered by Odin Allfather as he grasps the hammer out of his son’s hands and expels him onto the Earth, gets engraved on the Mjolnir and helps define Thor – who is not just another superhero but a semi-God, raised to be a good Kind and a fearless guardian of the Nine Realms. Despite his good heart and supposedly well-meant intentions, Thor is deprived of his power and needs to find again his way up to divine immortality from the earthly mortal status into which he has fallen. Because, after all, Thor is neither an individual nor a name: it is a power entrusted in each one of us, and we need not only to become worthy of it but, above all, to remain worthy. Lack of respect and arrogance are often punished in tales, as a reminder that they represent illusions and ego, even if masked under admirable motives and earnest objectives. It is only through humility and purity that real power can emerge, and this is valid for everyone, even for semi-gods.
- Iron Man: “The truth is, I am Iron Man.”
My nephews know I am a big fan of Iron Man (with or without the suit, especially without.) Among other things, he was the first hero to acknowledge in public his identity, even though he was advised to keep a low profile and hide behind the mask. Unlike other heroes, like Captain America, who have a public face because they act as the manifestation of an ideal and a symbol, or Thor, who, since he is not living permanently on Earth, do not feel the need for the protection of a mask, Tony Stark, in his notorious arrogance, cannot accept to hide his biggest creation: his new self. And, in this, he is the first hero that consciously takes ownership of who he is. True, the origin of such action is based on ego; however, it paves the only way towards real growth. Iron Man has to fight many personal challenges, but duality in his identity is never one of them. He is quite proud of who he has become and quite adamant as to who he wants to be. Lack of self-confidence is not part of his character, and this comes only by owning who he truly is and fully embracing it. His action is careless though courageous – like the hero himself – and definitely needs more refinement and spiritual sophistication. Still, only through pride and ownership can we overcome fear and develop our identity. After all, if we do not fully accept who we are, how can we support the higher purpose we claim – as superheroes – that we wish to serve.