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Thursday
May182000

Perils of the Superman Cape

[Beliefnet, May 18, 2000]

Way back in 1969, my husband was one of the hundreds of thousands who went to Woodstock —the original one. He says all he remembers is "lying on the ground a lot."   

 

I didn’t go; I was too young. But I listened diligently to the three-record set, and wished I had been there. It all sounded so heroic: Joan Baez’s talk about draft resistance, Arlo Guthrie’s celebration of drug smuggling, references to "the pigs" that conjured an Establishment bent on oppression.

 

In midair above the record player a community was forming. I wanted to be part of it. The music was great, but what really drew me was the idealism: oppose the war, resist repression, reject conformity for creativity and freedom. One morning I was driving to high school and realized, "I can be a hippie!" — that it was a self-appointed state. At last I belonged.

 

The urgency of these causes is what energized me. I think. Actually, the causes turned out to be interchangeable. After a year or so, nobody pretended that drugs had positive spiritual-artistic effects; we had carted too many of our friends to the emergency room. Free love sounded good, but had a disconcerting tendency to make girls cry. Other causes were handy, though. I set up a feminist "consciousness-raising" group, fought abortion laws, and intimidated my customers at the campus lunch counter out of eating their non-union lettuce.

 

This crusading persona was the perfect solution to adolescent confusion and angst. Suddenly I felt like a hero, strong and wise and true. I was liberated to be the absolutely wonderful person I truly was.

 

That’s what I thought, anyway. In truth, I was turning into a self-righteous, self-dramatizing prig. I could have easily done this on my own, but the seeds of attitude lofted about in the wake of Woodstock found fertile soil in my teenaged psyche.

 

It wasn’t the causes the energized us; the causes came and went. When they went, what was left behind was good old narcissism, the most durable fuel known to humankind. What remained was attitude, a delicious self-admiring gaze, wondering at the expansiveness of one’s own valor. I imagine a small boy with a pillowcase pinned to his shoulders like a Superman cape, standing on his bed so he can see himself in the bureau mirror.

 

It’s astonishing how this little germ of attitude grew and spread. Joan Baez describes a prison hunger strike with only the faintest edge of smugness in her voice; 30 years later everyone is a self-made hero. For the weighty and powerful, particularly entertainment royalty, it comes by pulling a long face and deploring some pipsqueak bigot, even an imaginary one, on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. For us smaller folks, it’s easily had by slapping a “World Peace” bumpersticker on your car, or by buying computer paper stamped “Save the Earth!”

 

It’s an intoxicating costume. For one thing, the Superman cape works like an invisibility cloak in reverse: put it on and you can’t see your own faults. Instead, you see everyone else’s with lightning clarity, and presume the authority to judge them.

 

What’s more, Superman-cape attitude has no natural enemies. If opposition arises (and secretly you hope it will) that just proves that you threaten the powers-that-be. An episode of opposition gives you a delicious opportunity to display your valor. Self-criticism or awareness of one’s own flaws is impossible, because external criticism reinforces your conviction that you’re right.

 

This self-appointed heroism has become our culture’s most common personal style. That creates some logical problems, since we can hardly be standing valiantly against the crowd when the crowd is packed in around us tight as sardines.

 

Fortunately, this attitude is not much troubled by logic. We bravely support all those unpopular causes championed by the most powerful institutions of media, entertainment, and academe. Being a brave defender of unpopular causes is a whole lot easier, now that most recognizable causes are fabulously popular. Furrowed brow, steely gaze, all that, in the docile safety of conformity.

 

Spiritually, the Superman cape brings great danger. It blinds us to our own faults, so exhilarated are we by the faults of others. We develop contempt for others, and describe them and their beliefs in the language of insult. We can become addicted to anger, an explosive and thrilling emotion. I have heard speakers actually urge their audiences to "stay angry," as if this were a constructive state. The saying is true: anger is an acid that destroys its container. It leads us to see our opponents as sub-human, as not deserving of rights. It leads us to see ourselves as perfect, heroic, immortal.

 

Fortunately, we are not immortal. We are on a planet together hurtling through space, and we have only this lifetime to love one another. The Superman costume is like the shirt of Nessus, a wedding gift to Hercules that was supposedly charged with supernatural power. In reality, it was saturated with poison. He could not peel it off as it burned away his skin.

 

Is there an alternative to this poisonous self-valorizing? Can we instead cultivate humility? Can we recognize our own faults? Can we treat enemies with love?

 

Imagine we faced literal oppression: that we had lost World War II, and German military police stood on every corner, and our taxes went to Berlin. Any soldier could legally force a citizen to carry his pack a mile.

 

Would we voluntarily carry it a second mile? If struck on the cheek, would we turn the other cheek to be struck again? Would we pray for those who tortured us to death, and offer forgiveness?

 

Heck no, I’m not serious. We know what happened to the last guy who suggested all that.

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