Those of my readers who follow me on Twitter know that every month, I put on a Superman suit and take an amusing photograph to use for my AVI – i.e., Twitterspeak for a profile picture. The fun part of this exercise for me over the past year has not been taking the actual picture, since to be frank I hate having my picture taken and am decidedly not photogenic, but rather getting to play along with the superhero persona. In a man of my years, joking about a secret identity or kryptonite in my coffee may at first glance seem an example of the perpetual adolescence foisted upon those of us who are, loosely speaking, the children of the “Me Generation”. Yet there is a different purpose at work here, which has more to do with trying to get people to think about what Western culture taught us for centuries about right from wrong, childhood versus adulthood, and about being dominated by passions instead of being governed by reason.
The adult child phenomenon is not new, of course. It has been with us since the first cavewoman decided not to let her adult son go off and live in another cave once he had reached maturity. This type of delayed adulthood used to be ridiculed more regularly in the arts, such as in literature and cinema, backed up by a pan-societal scorning of such behavior. Today however, it seems we have been creating more examples of Lord Septimus and Johnny Cammareri, rather than discouraging men from following such a dead-end path.
What has been in effect the systematic emasculation of the Western male is an outgrowth of the type of parental coddling which began to take root in society in the 1980’s and ’90’s, and which continues to hold sway over our society at present. It insists, paradoxically, that all children are special, while simultaneously looking at children as the disposable products of sexual intercourse. It is a mindset which led, among other practices, to insisting that all children being given a prize for simply performing in a competitive event, even if they were absolutely terrible at whatever they were supposed to have been doing. It was only natural that out of such circumstances a type of genetic male would emerge who would not want to go out into the cold, cruel world, when it was so much nicer to stay home and read comic books, smoke weed, and play video games in your parents’ basement.
In my case however, being a superhero in social media is rather an effort to try to make people think in modern terms about ancient topics crucial to the survival of our civilization as a whole, such as virtue, human dignity, and standing up for those incapable of doing so for themselves. Woefully too often young adults, thanks to the poor state of education in most of the Western world at present, did not learn many of the ancient myths which lie at the foundations of our civilization, as our forbearers did. They have not gleaned the lessons to be learned from tales of badly behaved gods and brave, impetuous humans, which allowed children transitioning to responsible adulthood to come to discern what was right and wrong, what was worthy of praise and what was worthy of punishment. Whereas reasonably educated men of a century ago would have immediately understood someone being referred to as a Prometheus figure, today “Prometheus” only conjures up images of the latest installment of the “Alien” movie franchise.
In a contemporary context however, even if our shared cultural narrative of the past few thousand years has sunk below the radar, one thing that most of us experienced, even as educators abandoned the classics in favor of the touchy-feely, “everyone is special” nonsense of the past thirty years, was Saturday morning cartoons. We saw characters like Johnny Quest or Action Man or the members of the Justice League fighting against naked evil, in ways which echoed the ancient myths, even if we did not realize at the time that we were revisiting these old stories. These were not men who moved between shades of gray, but rather who recognized that there are indeed moral absolutes, good things and bad things, and behaved accordingly.
Today even these heroes have been tainted by the psychology of self-centered shoe-gazing, which is not only a disappointing state of affairs, but also antithetical to human experience. They are often little more than confused children riding around inside giant bodies. As the present incarnations of long-established superheroes have come to look more and more like the steroid-swollen monsters that now saunter around our professional athletic fields, without a care as to their own moral character or how their behavior will be perceived by the public – particularly the children who look up to them – we have seen our culture’s sense of moral absolutes commensurately shrinking.
In the myths, like in the old comic books and cartoons, there is always a transition from seemingly ordinary fellow to man of action, which is meant to parallel the transition from boyhood to manhood. That transition determines whether the protagonist becomes who he is meant to be, or whether he remains a background player in someone else’s story. In the process, two important changes have to take place to avoid the traps of relativism, indecision, and perpetual emotional infancy, for of course irrational children are ruled by fleeting whims and temporary emotions; rational adults learn how to control these impulses, and harness them to bring about good ends, or at the very least thwart evil purposes.
First, if you are willing to suffer through the transition, you will find that you are capable of far more than you thought possible. No matter what your resources, and no matter how easily you may be able to accomplish certain tasks or exhibit certain talents, it is in moments of crisis when you come to learn how very fragile the little plastic bubble you have created for yourself to live in happens to be. Indeed, returning to the underlying theme of this post, making this change is rather like removing one of those impossibly difficult plastic clamshells that are molded around action figures hanging on a display rack in a toy store. When that bubble bursts, and that packaging is cut away, you have to learn to cope with the world outside if you are going to be an adult, and not a child.
Second, if you do indeed survive that bursting of your bubble, you have a choice to make. You will have to decide whether you are willing to take a long, hard look at yourself, freed from all of that self-reflective cocoon you were enveloped in. You will have to come to see, not what you thought that you were, nor what others told you that you are, but rather who you actually are. That can be a very difficult process, particularly for those who have no grounding whatsoever in anything other than the legalized hedonism which our society has worshiped for some years now.
Yet the reward of taking on this challenge, stepping out of the comfortable, and doing a frank assessment of yourself, is that you will unquestionably be the better for it. You will be increasingly dissatisfied with and indeed incapable of going back to the way things were before. Once being safe and coddled is not only no longer possible, but no longer wanted, the actual man will and must appear. He cannot be sealed back into that comfortable package, once that package has been cut open and he has had a chance to examine himself closely in the light of day.
Myths and stories about ordinary men doing amazing things, whether they originate on the island of Ithaca or in the town of Smallville, are meant to encourage and warn. They ask us to try to be more than we believe – or have been told – we are capable of, and to choose to do good rather than follow evil. They serve as guideposts for those of us who do not wish to be babied our entire lives, neither by society nor the state. They strip away the enthronement of childish, incontinent aspects of human nature, so in the ascendancy at present, which ask us to sit by and do and say nothing, for fear of disturbing someone else’s phobia or fetish.
My hope is that the joking, spandex heroism I display in social media is something which causes you to sit up, take notice, and laugh. Yet I am also trying to get you to think, not only about who and what you are, but about whether the lessons and messages you have been fed by our contemporary society are actually true. Are you going to stand up and be counted, or are you going to go along to get along? For in the end I suspect you will discover, as I have, that the chimerical values of the present age are simply a means of keeping an entire population in perpetual docile, childish ignorance. And whatever it may appear on the outside, you cannot be a man, super or otherwise, unless you learn to reject that kind of relativism.
Setting up a test shot at the (messy) Fortress of Solitude