Students often tell me that they can’t imagine me as a kid. I guess it must be my size — it is hard to imagine me as small. Some are polite and suggest that it’s because of how I think. “Sir, have you ever been angsty, emo, or shallow?” You bet.
But they actually miss the most obvious sign, the clearest hint of what I could have been like. It’s staring them at the face whenever they talk to me; they can even see it glint from a distance. That Superman pendant I wear stands for exactly what it is — Superman. He’s been with me since I was a little boy, and clearly he’s an imaginary friend I haven’t really outgrown.
The basics of the story I believe I’ve established elsewhere. Superman The Movie was the first film I ever remember seeing. I began collecting Superman comics when he died (and I was just in third grade). Then in 2004, For Tomorrow, a different take on Superman that was essentially a story of loss and powerlessness, spoke to me in a real profound level.
Fortunately, two recently concluded stories about the Man of Steel can help me illustrate what I’ve always understood about the character; I have just never found the words. So allow me to share.
Both are origin stories. One is set in the current continuity while the other is an alternative take. Thematically, they are consistent and speak to the same times.
In the pages of Superman: Secret Origin #6, the final issue of the mini-series by Geoff Johns and super-artist Gary Frank, we have this. As Superman is cornered by Metallo, the people of Metropolis rush to Superman’s defense. But then this happens:
“I am not it. You are. All of you are.”
Then here’s another take. In the just released graphic novel Superman Earth One, a young Clark Kent struggles with who the question of who he wants to be versus who he ought to be. This is a dilemma not too different from what we encounter today.
It’s a reminder of what I can do, what I must do, and what more I can be. As these pages from Superman Earth One illustrate, Clark Kent could have done other things that would have given him more prestige, wealth, and even power. But he eventually went the path that paid little (an apt metaphor for me then) and expected even more from him (ditto).
A former student of mine and now a good friend charges me with having a Superman complex. Well, allow me to respond to that. I teach my students that When they see the Buddha, they kill the Buddha. They know exactly what this means: the Buddha himself shunned hero worship and instead taught people to look inwards — just like what Superman does in that first page I shared. I’m under no illusions that I’m here to save everyone. But through my work I want to empower others to look inward and be their own forces of change in the world. In that regard, yes, I have a Superman complex. 🙂
Interestingly, there are times when I don’t wear the pendant. Often, these are the times when I just want to be anonymous and fade into the background — much like a Clark Kent. But when the pendant is on, I know I have to give my best. No, I don’t become someone else; I just do everything I can, maximize my abilities, and be as much as a positive force in the world I can be.
Thus in this sense, I’m no different from that 5-year old kid who saw Christopher Reeve in red, blue, and yellow tights and believed that a man can fly. The only difference now is that I understand flight need not be physical or literal, but moreover spiritual and aspirational.