Say that you had to create a superhero for yourself.
You could go with an obvious choice, from pop culture lore. Someone with preternatural strengths or abilities, God-like powers over their immediate environment, or unlimited financial resources. And most probably male. I mean, you'll get your Wonder Womans or your Black Widows, but odds are on they will be dressed in something tight and leather, otherwise how else can they remain strong but only in such a way as to still be sexually conquerable?
You could point out here that you have your Buffys of the world, and yeah, that's true. Buffy being a character I've always identified with, but not for the reasons you might imagine.
Because I'm no Buffy, I'll never be a Buffy, and I don't want to be, but I do carry the idea of her with me as an inspiration. In the first instance, sure, she was given amazing physical advantages that reduce any external threat, while not losing any femininity or identify. I can’t identify with that no matter how far I stretch my imagination. But the bit I can connect with is the fact that, the slayer identity, those powers, that responsibility, was not a choice she made but a set of circumstances that she was born into. As it is made clear again and again in the narrative of that show, being a slayer wasn’t something she aspired to or achieved, but a curse forced upon her by men with power that, despite having power, didn’t have the courage to fight demons themselves. They created a warrior for that; they created a slayer. A lot of Buffy’s character arc focuses around her coming to terms with that destiny, and eventually, finding a way to take charge of it. (Spoilers ahead, just FYI)
One of the main aspects of the metaphor of the slayer journey that always stood out to me was the concept of cost. That story was full of loss and adversity. Quite simply, butt loads of adversity. But for those fictional characters, the real challenges, the true villains, were never the demons outside of the door, but the people that knew them, the people they loved, the people that knew how to break, manipulate and annihilate them on a level that a simple punch from some zombie or another never could. Bigger than that, always, was the struggle each character had with themselves. The metaphor here is that we don’t choose our backgrounds, we don’t choose our influences. When we’re a kid we just accept the reality that is presented to us and learn to find a way to function within that. We don’t choose our scars, and we’re not responsible for them in the sense that, it wasn’t our fault, but we are responsible for it in the sense that, while we can’t change what was, we can change what is. This includes our strengths and it includes our damage. In fact, let’s face it, isn’t the source of our greatest strength usually our biggest weakness as well? I am empathic, painfully so, it seems. This is my biggest damage, the most powerful hook that holds me back, but it’s also my greatest strength, it’s the reason I have people who do love and support me in the manner they do, because I care about their perspective, their feelings, their wellbeing, I invest in people and they feel that. It’s powerful and it matters. But it also could be the death of my true self if I let it control me rather than the other way around. The question is how do you become a master of who you are, as opposed to a victim of it?
One of my favourite Buffy episodes is called Helpless. In this episode, on the eve of her 18th birthday, Buffy is unknowlingly prepared for a test through her Watcher, Giles (read- father figure) drugging her with some Mary Sue whatever that supresses her innate slayer abilities. Once she is weakened to normal 18 year old girl levels of physical strength, the plan is for her then to be locked in a nightmare house with a homicidal maniac goliath of a vampire, and expected to fight him to the death. Y’know, the usual right-of-passage sort of activity.
Giles feels deeply conflicted about doing this to Buffy behind her back, but he’s following his ‘programming’, which in this instance, means doing as he has been instructed to by the Watchers’ Council (the weird, dominating patriarchy of the slayer, that are for some reason, very British) because they tell him that this is part of his duty, how he should behave, and the bigger picture is that she will grow and learn from this experience. So here you could substitute the Watchers’ council for the expectations of society. In the end, Giles’s fears over Buffy coming to harm override his obligation to his employers and he breaks the code to warn Buffy and try to protect her. Giles breaks his programming because his instincts told him that what he was doing wasn’t right. Of course there are massive consequences to this, Buffy was a show about consequences. Despite awareness of the potential fallout, he follows the right path for him. Albeit post-drugging, so maybe not a perfect execution of self will, but it would have been a boring episode if he hadn’t, and to put it in loftier terms, the idea that there is never a point where we should stop and start doing the right thing rather than continuing down the wrong path is flawed. We were born to make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that you don’t keep trying until you get it right.
The upshot of this is that Buffy does find herself in the nightmare scenario with that monster. Alone, feeling weak and afraid, and without any of her normal resources to back her up. She’s also feeling betrayed, and convinced that without her super powers, she will not cope with a fight of this magnitude, she won’t win, because she’s not powerful. Or at least, she believes herself not to be. Now, this person, right here, who of us can’t connect with this person, this truth? In the real world we don’t have super human strength, we don’t have a Batmobile or an Iron Man suit or a nifty God hammer - we just have us. But this is what the story is telling us, that I didn’t fully realise until I lived it myself, because that’s just the way life and experience works – when you have no choices, when you have no power, when you have no hope, is the moment when you have to find in yourself all of the chances, all of the power, and all of the hope. You have to fight. Live or die, those are fundamentally the only choices we ever have. And I don’t just mean die in a literal sense, there are a million ways for your true self to die, or even to never fully realise. The pain of facing up to who we are, our vulnerability and our darkness and our hate and our anger and our loss, is so fucking huge, that we could spend a lifetime running from it. We can distract, and numb ourselves and cover it all up with ‘good is good enough’, but if a part of who we really are is still there, and I believe that it always will be, you find that all of those things don’t patch up the grating pain of not being who you are, not doing what you want to, not being with who you want to, whatever it is. It doesn’t go away, it just becomes more apparent. This makes the other choice no less hard. The other choice, is the eye of the storm. I can’t lie to you, or myself, and say that it’s anything other than exactly as hard as you imagine it to be, worse, even, but it’s true. The only point that matters here is that it’s true – it’s you.
I read some quote recently that said you only need 20 seconds of courage to change your life. I believed it, it seemed to make sense. But it’s bullshit, as it turns out. You don’t need 20 seconds, because those 20 seconds will end and then where are you? Even 20 hours of courage, that’s all good, but those hours will still come to end, and where are you then, more importantly who are you then? No, what you need is courage all the time, every day, indefinitely.
Everyone wants to be rescued at some point. I think that’s a normal and natural reaction to have in some situations. Who doesn’t want a superhero with strengths you simply don’t possess to swoop down and take you away from danger, from heartache, from loss? But if that happens, then you’re no less vulnerable than you were the day before. More so, in fact, because you may feel in that hypothetical scenario that the only option you ever have is to be reliant upon external rescue, and what happens when the rescue doesn’t come next time?
In the story where Buffy was helpless, she had to think her way out of danger. She had to be resourceful and brave and fight harder than she ever had to in any other scenario, not because the foe was greater, but because she was stripped of all the tenets she believed she needed to be powerful. Of course the lesson here is, true power comes from your resilience and your willingness to fight. The choice to live against the odds, the choice to find your own path through the darkness.
You have to become your own hero.
And who is better equipped to be your own hero, really? Who knows you better, who you are, what you want, where you’ve been, how you feel, and how hard it’s been for you? Who does? Nobody. I’ve always been able to find incredible resources when fighting on behalf of people I love, because that’s my power – empathy. I just never showed that same care, that same fight, that same concern, those same resources, for myself. Because I never believed I was worth the same care, the same concern, the same resources. It’s not my fault I ended up that way, but it is my responsibility to do something about it now that I recognise it and understand just how faulty and damaged that programming is.
But change is a gradual process, you don’t just wake up one day fixed and fighting fit, ready to launch headlong into the next challenge, the next test of character. Change is hard-earned. It’s earned with tears and pain and blood and loss. Change happens when you have no choice not to anymore. What I’m still guilty of, what I still hold myself to, and what KO’d me in the first round of getting to the me-that-needs-to-be, is the continual concern of what people I love think of me. Do they feel like I did this right, or that right? Would they have done better, would they have been stronger? Why am I still so crippled by love and guilt and trying to make things okay for every person around me except me? What I need to do, what I actually need to do, above all else, is convince myself as to why the best hero I could have on my side right now, is me.
So, Chrissy, let’s get to it.
Yeah, you’re clumsy, man. You’re clumsy, and lazy and short sighted (literally and figuratively), you’re reactive and take things too personally, you still care far too much about people pleasing and avoiding confrontation, you’re not as smart as you’d like to be or as pretty or as tall or as slim, and, y’know, the million billion other things that you’re not and never will be.
But here’s what you are.
You are someone who can move to a foreign country, not know the language or the culture, experience racism and resistance at every point of your journey in that country, and come out flying, and I mean goddamn flying. You have integrity and humour, an ability to find love and joy and human connection in the darkest of circumstances. You are resourceful and capable and able to go through some pretty incredible changes of focus, environment, and circumstances and still approach everything as you. You don’t blame other people for your problems or your insecurities, you understand that you’re not the focus of anyone else’s life, nor should be, but you like yourself enough to understand on a deep level that you are liked. You give of yourself and your emotions not because of some weird deep seated obligation to but because you love people and that’s okay. You respond well to constructive feedback and when someone invests in you, it makes a massive and positive difference. You’re kind and considerate and loyal and funny and if *I* were in a tight spot, there are not many other people that I would want on my side.
Yeah, I still need to be better in a bazillion ways, you can always do better as a person, and should always want to, but I’m the one who decides how far that extends, whether it’s relevant and what my short comings may be (with a little help from my friends of course) I don’t need someone to keep my ego in check, or rather, the person that has to do that, is me and me alone.
I’ve surprised myself with what a convincing argument I’ve made there, I guess the time was right to give myself this pep talk. And if for even a split second you don’t think that you are capable of being a superhero for your own sake, not just for your family or your friends or your kids, look at what you’ve done, think about what you’ve faced. You know all of those moments, the moments of pain and loneliness and alarming clarity, the fear and the confusion, you were there with yourself through all of it, nobody knows what you’ve faced better than you. And just look at all you’ve done, think about the people you’ve made smile, the difference you’ve made to your own life and to the lives of those around you. I’ve had plenty of people say to me ‘oh I couldn’t do what you’ve done’ in reference to living in Vietnam, or even living in literally the most laidback and comforting environment I’ve ever experienced – New Zealand. And I know that every single one of those people is completely wrong for saying it. I know this, because I did it. I was so scared dudes, so goddamn scared of being me. But you is what you become when you have no other choice. And trust me when I say, you will fly.
I wish I could say that things will get easier, they won’t. I wish I could say there is a simpler solution to all of your problems, but there just isn’t. When you take the red pill, you see everything for what it is, but that doesn’t mean you don’t carry the baggage of the reality you believed in before, and you don’t end up with amazing Kung fu skills like Neo – which, let’s face it, make the whole ‘life as a battery’ reality a little easier to swallow. The truth is your perception will change but you reality won’t, unless you make it. Learning that you can make that change is empowering as fuck. Following through with it and really believing in the idea that you will, well, that’s a completely different and much harder story. You will fail, you will stumble and fall many times before you’re completely you, but that’s 100% okay, as long as you keep getting up again and doing it differently next time. No one knows how hard it is for you, but you know, and luckily for you, you have the very best and most equipped superhero you will ever have on your side – you.
I’ve seen Chrissy the idiot for a long time, I’ve been embarrassed by her and self-conscious of her and endlessly apologetic for her. I’ve also seen Chrissy the critic, who has a vested interest in making me unhappy and playing out faulty self-harming programming and is excellent at recruiting external parties to her fucked up cause. But today, finally, I see Chrissy the superhero. And now that she is manifested I have to throw my belief and weight behind her, make her real and concrete and not just some fleeting concept that I am liable to lose in the cold light of morning. You don’t need 20 seconds of courage, you need a lifetime, that’s the point.
So, dudes, that’s my sermon in a nutshell, it’s time to power up our superheroes, which is exactly as daunting as it sounds. But also, we’ve got this, and I have feeling that the more we believe in our super powers, the more powerful we will become.