Weathered blue thermals, a bath towel cape, and red fruit-of-the-looms.
I was 6 years old, Halloween was days away, and I was ready. I looked in the mirror and saw Superman. My shoulders shot back and my chest puffed out.
Giddy, I bolted out of the house and leapt (flew) from the rusted tailgate of my dad’s Chevy. After all, only an amateurish fool would venture into the fray in an untested costume.
I was deep into my rigorous evaluation when a couple of blue-hairs came power-walking by, laughing at me. To be clear, these bitter old crones weren’t tittering at my cuteness. They were openly mocking me.
Suddenly, Superman vanished. I became acutely aware of who I really was: a shy 6 year old wearing his skivvies outside his old, ripped pj’s. I shrank back behind the pickup bed.
But then it hit me. I was Superman, and Superman isn’t swayed by the jeers of onlookers. Nothing can shake his confidence, certainly not Blanche and Rose swooshing by in their nylon tracksuits.
He can fly for christ’s sake.
It was the first of many times I drew strength from my heroes.
Like all kids, I was drawn to superheroes. I made my own comic books and action figures. At a very young age, I had a keen understanding of their values and principles, even if I couldn’t articulate it. Looking back, I shaped much of my adolescent world view according to what I learned from Superheroes.
You could say that I was impressionable. I’d say that I still am.
And you are, too.
How’d you feel after seeing 300 for the first time? Like goddamned King Leonidas himself, I bet. You swaggered out of the theater, shoulders back and elbows flared like Connor McGregor, your gait confident and your gaze steeled. And if you’re being honest, part of you was just dying to stomp-kick someone in the chest.
After watching Braveheart, were you not ready to consume the British with lightening bolts from your eyes, and fireballs from your arse? Of course you were.
The point is, we’re all influenced by heroes. And this is a good thing.
Just ask renowned author and modern philosopher Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Or, better yet (since Campbell died 30 years ago), read Chris Matakas’ article on the significance of storytelling. *Link below
Naturally, we’re drawn to the heroes with whom we most identify. We see ourselves in them- or them in ourselves- and learn to navigate the world better by their actions, values, and morals. They teach us how to be strong, how to respond to hardship, how to look great in tights.
The great stoic Seneca would say they are the measuring stick with which we straighten the crooked.
But of course Superheroes aren’t real, right? Their world is make-believe; it’s limited. They don’t have to navigate their way through the twisted webs of our world. They don’t have to play the long game, or pay taxes.
When we’re young, we don’t dwell on this.
The gift of youth is that we lack the cynicism and skepticism to see our hero’s shortcomings. They can do no wrong in our eyes; indestructible and infallible. Unscathed by let-downs and disappointment, we’re blind to the fact that Wolverine- or dad- has a drinking problem.
But when we’re young our word is as limited as that of our superhero’s, so the more altruistic the facade of our mentors- no matter how unrealistic- the better.
Then we cross over The Bridge into adulthood, and our heroes hang up their capes. They’re found not soaring the skies and scaling walls, but oftentimes in the pages of books, on podiums and stages, or at the heads of long tables made of rich mahogany.
Some wear black belts.
The point is this: we never cease to be impressionable. We’re always seeking heroes, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
In the weeks after I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, I spoke and wrote in long unbroken sentences and saw the world around me as the cold and unforgiving and beautiful thing that it is and knew it couldn’t last because nothing does after all. Then I stopped.
Unlike Superheroes, our mentors are imperfect. But that’s a good thing. By now, we’ve learned that the world is not black and white, that there’s in fact a whole lotta gray- like 48, even 49 shades of it. We’ve learned that you can be incredibly flawed and still be a good person; we forgive them their shortcomings.
We get better at filtering our influences, and learn to better understand ourselves by studying the heroes we choose.
Never forget that the ability to emulate purposefully is a skill. Not to blindly worship, but to emulate. To willfully accept the influence of a carefully selected mentor, to benefit from their wisdom, experience, and charisma. Mentors are, in a sense, the shortcut. They expedite the process, shorten the learning curve.
They are not just important, they are essential.
After all, without Uncle Ben there’d be no Spiderman.
For more on Joseph Campbell and the importance of heroes and storytelling: