Hope and Other Superpowers
ONE ORIGIN STORIES
Who wouldn’t want to be Peter Parker? Sure, being bitten by a radioactive spider had to hurt like hell initially, but you have to admit the resulting upside was pretty sweet: the ability to climb walls, sense incoming danger, shoot webs from his wrists, and catapult himself across rooftops during rush hour—what’s not to love about that? For most of us, our teenage years were a prolonged, stumbling, hormone-addled mess, so a brief moment of subatomic agony would have been well worth the benefits it afforded in expediency alone. If you’re going to go through the dizzying arrival of puberty anyway, at least the transformation could be quick, dramatic, and awe-inspiring. Peter was one of the lucky ones. His metamorphosis happened in one brilliant, cataclysmic
instant—instead of over a few brutal years of awkwardness, heartbreak, and bad skin. Unlike most of us, he received the payoff in a matter of breathtaking seconds. He didn’t have to wait to become amazing or hope he’d one day be super. Meanwhile, if you’re anything like me, you probably feel like you’re still patiently waiting and hoping for heroic things to happen in you.
That’s why we all love to see superheroes being born in pages or on-screen. There’s something magical about those beginnings that moves us. Whether they’re bitten by a radioactive spider, injected with a secret government superserum, implanted with a steel skeleton, or overexposed to hulkifying gamma rays, every great hero has an amazing origin story, a precise moment when he or she is called upon by circumstance, fate, or providence to do something extraordinary, something meaningful, something altogether history-shifting. It’s thrilling to watch human beings mutating from nondescript, regular schlubs like you and me into the monumental stuff of legend, to see them struggle to comprehend the gravity of the moment, to recognize the responsibility of access to such great power—and ultimately to run, swing, or fly headlong into their destiny. Over and over again we line up to breathe in these mythologies, because we love the idea of being thrust into stratospheric glory instead of being stuck here on the ground with the rest of the mere mortals and gawking bystanders. We inhabit daily lives that tend to feel decidedly nonsuper, a repetitive cycle of mundane tasks and soul-draining busywork made of laundry loads, traffic jams, and dental appointments, and as we get older it becomes a lot easier to hope vicariously through someone else’s story than our own. We gradually lose our ability to dream.
Children don’t usually struggle with such effortless imagination and boundless optimism. My eight-year-old daughter, Selah, certainly doesn’t. I’d call her primary superpower explosiveness. She ricochets through this life full speed and wide open, bouncing through her days fueled by a combustible cocktail of joy, confidence, expectancy, and Skittles. She fully believes that she’s unstoppable, and she’s not alone. Most children are peerless superheroes—just ask them. Sit down with a group of second graders and wonder out loud, “Who here is a dancer?” and every hand will go up. Ask, “Are there any artists in the room?” Each will volunteer with unabashed enthusiasm. Interrogate them further: “How many of you are supersmart?” To a child, they will gladly cop to their brilliance without a trace of arrogance, seemingly fully aware of their infinite capacity to do beautiful things and blissfully ignorant of any weaknesses. Ask the same question of a group of teenagers or adults, and you will get a decidedly different response: an array of caveats and qualifiers and self-critical comments. You’ll see people avoiding eye contact and internally disqualifying themselves. That’s because over time, we experience enough failure and rejection, we hear enough about our flaws and deficiencies, until we finally concede that this is our true identity, that whatever we are now is the best we can hope for. We begin to hear in our heads the voices of our critics and adversaries, of deceased parents, ex-spouses, and former bosses, and we ratify the gaslighter’s lie that we are far less than spectacular. This is why embracing your inherent and abiding superness isn’t about figuring out how to become anything but about realizing what you’ve forgotten about yourself since you were young, the truth you’ve lost along the way about who you are, what you’re made of, and your capacity
to be great. Like my daughter, you, too, were designed to live wide open and to dance and sing and dream wildly. You simply need to remember the ass-kicking glory you were made for and to prepare yourself for the ever-present opportunities you have to still be super.
Every hero is pulled into significance differently. Batman rises from the ashes of his parents’ murder to defend a crime-riddled Gotham. Wonder Woman feels compelled to come to the aid of outnumbered Allied soldiers facing the Third Reich, after being cared for by one of them. Black Panther fully claims his birthright as king after realizing his nation’s former missteps. Spider-Man is transformed after recognizing the great responsibility accompanying his great power. Black Widow is moved to make amends for her deadly assassin’s past. They all become undeniably heroic, yet in ways and circumstances that look nothing alike and with completely unique motivations. In the same way, you and I will each receive a one of a kind, time-sensitive invitation to step into a better version of ourselves: a personal tragedy, a national crisis, a cause that moves us, or a desire to use a gift for the good of others. This is the beauty of our origin stories: they are completely personalized. They are unprecedented occasions. We become specifically heroic as we move to answer a call that we alone can answer—because we are the only ones able to hear it.
On November 9, 2016, one of my calls came quite literally overnight. I’d spent the early morning hours following the presidential election fielding messages that began pouring in from all sorts of people in acute crisis, men and women seeing what felt like their most terrifying nightmares springing to life. As quickly as I could reply to one, dozens more came in. The scale and velocity of the
pain were overwhelming—and continue to be. Later that morning, while it was still dark, without having slept more than a few scattered moments, I sat down and composed a blog post called “Here’s Why We Grieve Today,” hoping to synthesize the heaviness people had been sharing with me, the sense of loss and missed opportunity so many were feeling and trying to process. By the end of the day, two and a half million people had read the post—and by Friday of that week nearly four million. I began to realize that this was an opportunity to help people from a distance. I could walk with them as they grieved by giving voice to their confusion, fear, and anguish. I could put words to people’s pain, I could loudly advocate for those who were being marginalized, and I could openly resist a corrupt power that was gaining traction. Even in the sadness that I and so many others felt in those hours, I found solace in realizing that my years as a pastor and activist and writer and social media presence had all left me uniquely positioned and prepared to help people in that precise moment. My platform and my words could be weapons used to push back against the terrors—and I was grateful to be drafted into battle.
I wasn’t alone in the fight either. After the 2016 election, millions of Americans responded to what was their worst-case scenario by allowing it to catalyze them into a level of activism and engagement they’d never imagined themselves capable of. A generation of ordinary superheroes was born, as people used whatever they had at their disposal to defend the country they loved and the issues that burdened them. But we see similar opportunities for metamorphosis much closer to home—the loss of loved ones or career changes or unexpected illness or needs in our community. Adversity (ours or others’) is always an invitation to be transformed, and like it or not
we can find plenty of that the longer we’re here. The suffering we see in the world, the divisions in our nation, the disappointments we accrue, and the struggles of parenting, marriage, and career are all potential places where either our defeat can be finalized—or our destiny clarified. They can be sources of growing bitterness or spaces for cultivating hope. The difference between the two is often a matter of the lenses we view these moments with, and the small choices we make in a million seemingly unremarkable moments.
Though we’d probably prefer it, we rarely discover the heroic mettle within us until we reach what we believe to be the limits of our ability and tolerance for pain. And that is one of the difficult ironies of this life: tragedy is an opportunity to become something we couldn’t become in any other way. The Christian tradition calls this “rejoicing in trials”: the awareness in the moment that present difficulty is infinitely valuable and uniquely formative. In layman’s terms, it just means to be glad when you’re getting the shit kicked out of you because that shit-kicking is rebuilding you in beautiful ways despite the bruises and gashes you sustain. Whenever Fantastic Four team member (and talking pile of orange rocks) the Thing has endured enough pummeling from his adversaries and is ready to turn the tables, he shouts his famous rallying cry: “It’s clobberin’ time!” and proceeds to lay waste to the bad guys. Yet that victorious, redemptive moment never comes until he has been sufficiently throttled himself.
For me, life came clobberin’ four years ago, when my father died very suddenly while on a vacation cruise. When I got the call from my younger brother with the news of his passing, I dropped to the ground in front of our house and felt the world cave in around
me. As my tears fell onto the grass beneath me, I was as helpless and broken as I’d ever been, a full-blown Armageddon exploding inside my head. Later that week, I sat across from my dear friend Brenda in a crowded coffee shop. Encouragement is Brenda’s greatest superpower, among many. Through the thick haze of my grief, I remember her looking into my tear-blurred, bloodshot eyes and saying, “John, this is going to give you a layer of compassion that you’ve never had. You’ll understand people’s pain in a deeper way than ever before, and you’ll be able to help them.” It wasn’t much consolation then, but she was right, because that’s how grief and sorrow and all varieties of emotional catastrophe work: you never really get it until you’re grieving or hurting or struggling. There’s no way to comprehend real loss other than to walk through it—and once you have, you want to walk with others because you understand how terribly exhausting it is to endure alone.
Just a few days after losing my father I started writing about my grief on my blog. I did it primarily to try to retain my sanity, but soon realized that it was encouraging other people who were also in the thick blackness of what I began to refer to as the Grief Valley. Their solidarity from a distance, in turn, helped lift me through those days, and it gave me some measure of solace to know that something productive was coming out of my profound pain. I ended up documenting that first year on the blog and have continued recording the things I’ve learned along the way about the attrition of loss. I’ve since led retreats on grief, counseled hundreds of people, and reached millions of others through writing—all by doing nothing more than telling my story and showing my scars.
Brenda knew what she was talking about. She knew the
productive nature of suffering and that time and distance would help me—as it will surely help you—figure out how to channel defeats and deaths into something life-affirming. And that’s a key lesson to embrace as you try to be the kind of person the world needs, the kind who can save the world; the adversity you’ve endured and the battles you’ve weathered, as terrible as they are in real time, are necessary to call you to a deeper place of compassion and kindness than you would otherwise be capable of.
Ironically, similar moments of total desperation are an absolute blast to read in a book or see on the big screen. We love it when our caped crusaders are pushed to the very brink of obliteration, to the very last thread of their final rope, because that makes their coming victory all the more thrilling. We see all that they’ve endured, and it makes us root for them even harder, and the celebration in the closing minutes becomes all the more jubilant. But in real life, we never see these times as climactic narrative pivot points or necessary character-defining moments set to music. We rarely find ourselves in the middle of everything hitting the fan and think, “This is going to make an awesome story! This is going to help people one day!” We almost never experience pain and imagine what it is producing in us other than discomfort, and we certainly don’t welcome it like a dear friend arriving on our doorstep, or see it as an incubator for our best selves.
And that may be the initial switch that needs to take place in us as we embrace our superhumanness during days that feel oppressively heavy. Maybe we need to take some time to purposefully rewind and chart the past moments of our lives—recording every crushing defeat, every failed venture, every aha moment, every broken
relationship, every wonderful surprise—and to take stock of how these experiences have uniquely prepared and strengthened us. Not only that, but we can see in the rearview mirror how we’ve cultivated values and honed skills and acquired resources in the process. We can be encouraged that yes, we are qualified, because we’ve paid our dues over time and in tears and through trials. My friend Ed calls this a crossroads map, the retrospective look at all we’ve endured so that we can spot and acknowledge what it’s done within us. If we can see the redemptive value of all the horrible things we’ve walked through to this second, maybe it can help us the next time we face a trial or feel forsaken. Rather than simply going through something painful or witnessing tragedy and falling apart, we can pause to consider how it might be shaping us. We can be aware that we are being forged in the fire of present struggle. We can begin transforming our disappointments and frustrations into calling even as we grieve them. It means we can see others’ burdens and move to alleviate them. It means we can unapologetically give voice to concealed dreams we’ve been carrying around in silence. It means we can walk boldly into the day believing we have something to give the world that it needs and that no one else is capable of giving. It means we can be heroic in more than just our daydreams but in our real nightmares, too.
When I was a kid in a suburban small town in central New York, my father owned a shoe store, which was sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a dance studio. The pungent smell of the pant presses from the former and the staccato rhythms on the hardwood floor from the latter are both deeply embedded in me as sense memories. Behind the old brick building that housed all three
businesses was an odd section of the earlier structure that was only about four feet off the ground but had the appearance of a finished rooftop—complete with shingles, exhaust vents, and ivy-covered walls with an attached steel fire escape. It was something straight out of a Technicolor Marvel monthly, just waiting for heroes to be drawn into. This was my stage, the place I spent countless afternoons, picturing myself in blue and red spandex, swinging in from an adjacent building and laying a beatdown on Doctor Octopus, all the while delivering punch lines to no one in particular. In those moments I was no longer an ordinary, awkward fourth grader who hated broccoli, geometry, and my stiff church pants—I was a web-slinging, wall-crawling, wisecracking wonder, saving the day and rescuing the girl from the bad guys and the peril they generated. For a few moments after school (and several hours on the weekend) I stepped into the pages of a comic book and became the hero the planet needed. I temporarily transformed (if only in my mind) into the superhuman world-saver I wished I really was all the time. Having not yet been assaulted by an irradiated arachnid, I settled for the next best thing: I regularly pretended as if I had been.
I think you know what that feels like, that periodic fantasizing where you get to be more than you currently are, if only for a couple of hours. From time to time, every single one of us daydreams about being something and someone else, about transcending our ordinary selves. But what if you didn’t need to borrow a fictional story for secondhand significance? What if you just needed to rewind and remember how important a story you’re part of and how extraordinary you already are?
Friend, if you’re breathing and your heart is working, there’s
a really good chance that your origin story is already in progress. Transformation is taking place, and this is super news for the hurting world you’re standing on. The wild, courageous child nestled deep within you is telling you that there is still time left for you to save the day, that all is not lost, that somebody does give enough of a damn to change the outcome. And he or she is right—all is not lost, because you are still here and there is still time. You have 86,400 seconds in this day alone, and every single one of those small slivers of daylight is another reason to believe that you are more powerful than you realize. This is where the plot starts to twist—with you, right here, right now.
And this isn’t true just for our individual journeys, but for the communities in which we live and work and worship. These dark days might be calling us all to dream again. This urgency many of us are feeling right now—this internal unrest at all that seems wrong—might be a sacred voice imploring us to entertain our latent, buried aspirations once more and to connect with like-hearted people to do the work we believe needs doing. Maybe there are muscles that we’ve let atrophy that we can begin to use again—compassion and generosity and creativity—in ways that we alone possess and that we can bring to bear on the rather disheartening mess in front of us, in our homes, on the news, in our neighborhoods, on our social media feeds.
I believe the daydream is still a real possibility for you, no matter how unqualified or past your prime or screwed up you feel. I know there is the remnant of a defiant hero still kicking inside you. I feel it within me, too. Four decades after my afternoon rooftop reveries, that wide-open, fearless fourth-grade boy imagining
himself courageous is still residing here in the center of my chest, and every so often he rattles me alive when I lose hope. He is still aspiring to the heroic, still stumbling toward greatness, still wired to save the world and praying for hostile radioactive spiders on the back of his hand. Look down at your feet. This is the place you start. In the seconds it is taking you to read these words, you are becoming something super.