Contemplating the Hero

This post is taken from a sermon given on June 16th, 2019

When I was a kid, I had a huge crush on Superman.  The one played by Christopher Reeve.   I think I was in fifth grade when the movie came out…there was something about his character:  This good looking, boyish, muscled guy—with a piercingly blue eyes and a certain strength of character, ready to sweep in to save unsuspecting victims from their impending doom. 

Looking back, I wondered what it was that drew me to this character—why was it that I couldn’t get this character out of my head?  I had a true fifth grade crush! 

Was it the power he wielded? Was it the muscles? Was it the wry smile he flashed before flying into the wild blue yonder?

No, I don’t think so.  What I remember being so captivated by, was the scene where Lex Luthor put kryptonite around his neck, bringing Superman to his knees.

That sounds masochistic, doesn’t it? 

Well, as I continue to ponder this question, I think my fascination had more to do with Superman’s willingness to take the risks necessary to do the right thing, which often meant becoming vulnerable.  Kryptonite signified this vulnerability.

As we know, Chris Reeve later suffered a horse riding accident which left him a quadriplegic, and dependent on a ventilator—a situation of real-life magnitude where he showed tremendous strength and grit in tremendous hardship.  You don’t get much more vulnerable than he was…yet he developed the Reeve Center for Spinal Cord Injury Research.  A true hero, after all.  Strength in vulnerability all the way to the end.

This year, it was almost impossible to not get wrapped up in the fervor around the movie “The Avengers”.  Adult boys everywhere flocked to this movie…showtimes were sold out for weeks in advance.  My own hubby bought an “Avengers” T-shirt to don for the occasion of seeing the movie with a friend.  What is it, I’ve always wondered…WHY is it that men everywhere are drawn to this kind of stuff?

In narrative and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  

CHANGE and TRANSFORMATION

In the story of Iron Man, Tony Stark begins as a selfish genius weapon maker, who, in a time of crisis, makes something he realizes can truly help the world.  Stark shows valor as he hides his creation from folks who would exploit it for evil.  Eventually, he identifies, publicly, with his heroic alter ego, stating “I am Iron Man”.  With this, he becomes a sort of cocky son-of-a-gun with a tendency toward over-indulgence and questionable behaviors.  

In time, Tony goes through a transformation into a selfless hero when he sacrifices himself to save the world..    However, as he survives this sacrifice, Stark’s selflessness becomes an obsession, as he becomes a sort of workaholic and his relationships begin to suffer.   At last, when forced to save the day without his “Iron Man” suit, he finally realizes that it is he, not the suit, that is the hero.  

Stark has the most important skill and power of the human beings:  Intelligence and money.   Eventually he must deal with the legacy he will leave behind which started with his father.   Once referred to as the Merchant of Death, Stark struggles to change his legacy into something good.   In Iron Man 3, Tony begins to confront the toll his life has taken on him, and the post-traumatic-stress that has believes he now suffers—understanding the reason for the creation of his “armor” (suit) in the first place.    His comment “You need to look strong” is something men everywhere identify with.   AM I RIGHT??  CAN I GET AN AMEN??

The central scene in the movie SPIDERMAN, which I used to show on “confirmation” retreats to ignite discussion, shows the last conversation had between Peter Parker and his uncle Ben, in the car before Uncle Ben was killed.   When Peter confides in his uncle about the powers he discovers he has, he is given the advice:  “With great power comes great responsibility.”   Truths central to everyday life. 

Seems simple, but it’s not.  WHY NOT?

As I strive to understand human nature, particularly nowadays, the ego takes center stage.   Without becoming too political, I think I can suffice to say that we’ve come into an age where “getting over”, “winning” and even taking pride in an ability to work the system is praised.  We don’t hear much about the GOLDEN RULE anymore, but we certainly are witness to a lot of self-promotion.   

Characters like Tony Stark reveal this tendency.   But “old fashioned” themes such as truth, dignity, valor, commitment, self-sacrifice, and integrity win out EVERY. TIME.   

Growing up in my hometown of Sheboygan, my dad was a gifted athlete.  He is currently in the “hall of fame” for his contribution to softball and is looked up to in the community.  As a kid, I think I took this for granted.  He was the guy who folks Relied upon to hit the ball over the fence.   

I remember well, the pressure he would feel if the team was down a point or two and he was up to bat.  All the outfielders would back up, folks on the bleachers would rumble, folks would cheer.    A lot of those times, he WOULD hit it out of the park.  We would win the game!  But not always.  The pressure he felt to be “the one” to win the game took its toll.   His esteem suffered as a result, especially as he got older and was probably not as strong as he used to be.  Eventually, dad struggled with clinical depression.

By the time I reached middle school he quit playing ball.  Still, he was given the nick name “gentle ben” (a name he never liked) signifying the temperament he had:  A big, strong guy, with a soft heart.    As a kid, I was proud of this.  I was proud of him

Yet, to this day—still an athlete at heart, my dad will get down on himself if he isn’t up to par (pun intended) on the golf course, or if he doesn’t perform as well as he feels he should.   He is like so many of us, deriving a sense of worth by what we DO, rather than WHO we are. 

I remember in high school, one day, my dad made a comment about all of the trophies on the shelves in the basement.  “All of those trophies…” he said, “they really don’t mean that much to me anymore.” (pause)  “You know what WOULD mean a lot to me?  A ‘good person’ award.  That would mean more than anything.” 

That Father’s Day, my sister and I would give him a bronze-colored trophy.  On it was inscribed:  “GOOD PERSON AWARD”  Love, your girls.    I still remember the tears in his eyes as he opened that gift and read the inscription.  It remains on the mantle above the fireplace in their home to this day.

SO…..Today is my birthday.  (Yes, 51…ugh).   I was BORN on Father’s Day (And I’m the oldest, so the reason my dad became a father.).  At our wedding reception, my dad got lots of laughs as he shared how he “crapped his pants” from anxiety while my mother was giving birth to me.   (I on the other hand, wanted to crawl under the table from embarrassment.)

“With great power comes great responsibility”. 

Parenting is a huge responsibility. 

Mentoring is a huge responsibility.

Caregiving in any form, is a huge responsibility. 

Running a business and making ETHICAL decisions is a huge responsibility.

Making a choice to be compassionate to others, rather than self-centered is a choice, and one that the HERO makes again and again, story after story.

Many of us….fathers or not–Male, female, or non-binary, are not even aware of the potential power that we do have embodied within who we are.   Like an auger, the courage to tap into our own vulnerability unearths great power and great wisdom.   YES the things legacies are made of.

The invitation is always there.  EVERY HERO somehow embraces it.

How will we use our power? 

My invitation today, is to consider the byproducts of embracing your own “heroism.” Think about those affected by your ability to transcend the “self” and embrace the woundedness of the world we live within.

True STRENGTH comes from within.  Not from the need to prove our worth.

Author Brene’ Brown states: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” 

What is your armor? Who is the person behind the mask? 

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