Socrates in School

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We live in a technological age. The eye is drawn to it, the mind bounces from stimulated
to stupefied by it, commercials guarantee that the latest gadget will simplify our lives and make them more fulfilling, and schools scramble to prove they are on the cutting edge. But what if it is all a bluff? What if we have been seduced to looking at the bottom line or the party line and have completely lost sight of the finish line? Professor Isaac Kandel, in the middle of the 20th century, lamented that education followed a “hollow doctrine” and was all but bereft “intellectual vitality or moral purpose.” Moreove, in the absence of strong guiding principles education celebrated “change for its own sake” (1). Maybe it is not change we need but a challenge. If it is a challenge one needs than the gadfly of Athens is an able presenter.

St. Socrates, pray for us

Erasmus wrote, “Saint Socrates, pray for us” (2). There are a multitude of possible prayers Socrates would likely say on our behalf…and a legion of prayers he would consider that I could not possibly fathom. Such a thought exercise may have a purpose but I believe it far more prudent to consider what I, as a teacher, would pray to Socrates for. What boon would I seek? The answer is simply to find the patience and words to awaken people (myself most definitely included) to the possibility of living from our learning minds.
Socrates theorized “the soul of every single man is also divided in three” (3, line 580d). Each aspect of the soul sought specific pleasures and led to the habits and actions of a particular kind of person. The three aspects of the soul are the learning, spirited, and one that has “many forms…but we named it…the desiring part…” (4, line 580e). The descriptions Socrates offers of each division and the corresponding pleasures can be quite instructive.

The Three Aspects of the Socratic Soul

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Desiring 

The desiring part of the soul seeks immediate gratification of desires. These desires can  be anything from sex to food. From alcohol to money. Socrates calls identifies the pleasure of this aspect as “gain loving” and even “money loving” (5, line 581a). The modern philosopher Jacob Needleman defines materialism as “a disease of the mind starved for ideas” (6). This mind, so barren of ideas that invigorate and intrigue, seeks vitality from material items and physical experiences separated from an emotional core or a community of friends.

It is also important to note that the desiring part seeks quick and easy answers as well. We live in an age of speed as well as technology, almost completely succumbing to the proposition that speed is good. Articles and books are written about the necessity of educators to meet this generation addiction to speed with activities that feed the addiction! Text them, twitter at them, post on-line now! Now! Now! Maybe, just maybe mind you, schools should stand for something more than being a mere mirror to society or a helpless piece of kelp tossed about by the waves of existing culture. Whatever happened to the beauty of a song being the silence that existed between the notes?

Spirited

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The spirited part of the soul was also referred to as “victory-loving” and “honor-loving” (7, line 581b). It is“wholly set on mastery, victory and good reputation” (8, line 581a). Now, our initial reaction to this might be…hell, yea! Victory! That’s where it’s at! Who wants to be the loser? Who doesn’t want the acclaim and accolades due the person of achievement and action? We’re number one! We’re number one! So, what’s the limitation here? 

The problem is this. The spirited part is “wholly set” on victory. It is most definitely not focused on the joy of the game but the outcome. Your value to the person of the spirited soul is dictated entirely by your capacity to bring victory. You are as valuable as your utility makes you. Don’t talk of human value here. What do you bring to the table? Period.

Steroids in baseball…spirited. Lance Armstrong…spirited.Kid kicked out of the  national scrabble tournament for cheating…spirited (9). High school coaches running up scores and middle aged athletes bragging about things they have never done…spirited. Putting others down to build yourself up…spirited. Image over substance…spirited. Party line over seeking truth…spirited. Well, maybe there is a problem with being ruled by the spirited part of the soul after all.

Learning 

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Socrates identified this part of the soul as “learning-loving” or “wisdom-loving” (10, line 581b). Y’know, the part of the souls schools try to awaken with rubrics and jargon heavy lesson plans. Socrates used the phrase “dragged away…by force along the rough, steep, upward way” to describe someone being moved to the point of experiencing their highest nature (11, line 515e). Dragged, as in someone was forcing the individual to progress. Catering won’t get it done. This part of the soul can only be awakened with patience, diligence, and effort.

We love these mentors in movies. Meet such a person in life and they likely annoy the crap out of us. Forgive me as I show my age here, but it is one thing to cheer for Mr. Miyagi. It would be quite another thing to put up with him in real life. Paint your own &*%$@^& fence!

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The Soul and Pleasure

 

Socrates stressed that each aspect of the soul sought, and experienced, pleasure. The true issue, as he saw it, was that the desiring part and the spirited part only saw value in the pleasure of their own domain. The learning part, however, sees pleasure in all of them but maintains a perspective that keeps that allows for balance and the hope of harmony. 

 The various aspects of the soul, however, don’t always work well together. For example one living intently from the spirited soul sees pleasure from money as vulgar but if learning doesn’t bring awards, notoriety, and acclaim then it is “smoke and nonsense”  (12, line 581d). I mean, if no one is telling you that you are the best then why do it? Meanwhile the desiring part wonders  if learning doesn’t get you paid…now….then what is the point? And, please, spare me your praise unless it comes with some kind of physical reward. (13, line 581d).

And schools, well, they certainly can proclaim high-minded ideals but what do they model? What part of soul is fed in education? In you classroom? In mine? Can you build a love of learning by feeding the other parts? What is the unspoken curriculum of the school your students walk through every day? Moreover, what kind of behaviors do we encourage young people to carry into adulthood? Socrates noted that too many people in a country who are dominated by desiring or spirited aspects of the soul leads to “war-like” men and “lover{s} of gain” and “money makers” incapable of appreciating love of wisdom and learning (14, line 583a).

Back to Erasmus: A simple prayer

St. Socrates pray for us that we may grope until we find a method of making love of learning appealing in its own right. That we live praiseworthy lives while not seeking praise. That we should laud only that which is worthy of lauding. That we be worthy of the victories we win and noble enough to bear the burden of the defeats we suffer. That we have the audacity to pursue wisdom and  compassion while, hopefully, leaving the paths we walk just a little better by our passing.

(1) Aeschliman, M. (2007). Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum. and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. Journal of Education, Vol 188.3, p 31.

(2) Erasmus, Ten Colloquies, trans. Craig R. Thompson (New York: MacMillan, 1986), 158.

(3) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Needleman, J. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York, Penguin, 2002), 6.

(7) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(8) ibid.

(9)I’m not making that up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/scrabble-player-caught-cheating_n_1778014.html

(10) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(11) ibid

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.

 

The Power of Words: Shire Edition

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I believe in the power of words. I suppose that would be a requirement for someone who writes and teaches. Don’t mistake power for omnipotence, for words can be quite limited in their reach. While the passion and sincerity of delivery truly matters so to does the disposition of the listener (or reader). Cynicism builds walls and egocentric dispositions destroy well intended messages. Even so, words have power so I would like to deliver a brief story in the hopes it brings a little extra life to a sterling passage from the great J.R.R. Tolkien.

New England was in the midst of a heat wave yesterday. It so happens that on this hot day I was preparing a breakfast buffet for my children. About three weeks ago my 12 year-old mentioned to me that we have not held a “dad buffet breakfast” in some time. She was correct. My oldest daughter is now married with a son. My oldest son is in college and, as anyone with a child in college can attest, such a situation can make you feel like your kid is exploring the galaxy on the USS Enterprise.

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She was undaunted and we were able to arrange event and did I cook! And did they eat! Breakfast potatoes on the grill with kielbasa and sausage. Loaded scramble eggs, strawberry crepes, cherry stuffed french toast, and bacon rounded out the menu. It was truly a lot of fun. It was fantastic having all my kids and grandson together in the house. After the meal we headed into the basement and played catch with my grandson and built with blocks while two of my kids strummed on their guitars.

Playtime can’t last forever and the kitchen needed cleaning. Cue the music! With Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, a little Ed Sheeran, and even Pink lending musical support the dishes didn’t stand a chance!

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As I washed some dishes with my kids on drying duty (we do dishes old school style) I found myself looking at the wooden plaque hanging over my sink. It’s inscription may be familiar to you.

If more of us valued food and cheer

and song above hoarded gold

it would be a merrier world.

So there I was laughing with my kids, listening to our music, and – somehow – enjoying the dishes. And before me were words from one of my favorite authors.

Take the words of this story as you will. All I know is this: the heat didn’t stand a chance of ruining the joy in that kitchen.

Be well, dear reader!

Until next time: Keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!

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Avengers: Endgame Through the Eyes of my Kids

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Hello! It has been quite some time since I’ve posted but nothing like the worldwide pop culture event that is Avengers: Endgame to bring me back to this site. There are so many angles I could approach this movie from but, for this post, I’ve decided to allow a glimpse of the movie through the eyes of a twelve year-old girl and a ten year-old boy with some commentary from their forty-eight year old father. Hopefully you enjoy the post as much as I enjoyed watching and discussing the movies with my children.

There are spoilers ahead but the Russo brothers lifted the spoiler ban so here we go!

Dad…that didn’t mean anything

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The above heading came courtesy of my son. Thor dropped Stormbreaker across Thanos’ neck, decapitating the titan and bringing forth a collective gasp from the audience (wait…what? I mean…wait…hey killed him in the first 15 minutes? Be honest, nobody in all their Endgame predictions had that on the table. Nobody.). The great thing about the scene, however, was my son pulling on my arm and whispering, “Dad…that didn’t mean anything.” When asked why he answered, “The gems are gone. Nobody is coming back.” I loved the fact that he instantly understood this fact for it showed he understood the moment and it enabled us to discuss later why Thor was, in his words, “super sad.” From there we delved into the idea that the beheading of Thanos was not actually a victory. It was, in fact, a stunning act of shallow revenge and powerless rage which allowed for a nice discussion about how problems can and can’t be solved. Empty anger rarely leads to satisfying results. Another wonderful aspect of this moment was discussing Thor’s depression with my son. As he put it, “But Thor’s super strong!” I agreed, but told him, “Even the strongest people can hurt real bad inside.” This seemed like a stunning revelation to my son and, while it did not make Thor his favorite Avenger, it definitely made for a powerful connection. What more do you need from a story?

Dad, just so ya know, we’re suing Marvel

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This one comes from my daughter. The instant . . . I’m saying the INSTANT . . . Clint and Natasha arrived in Vormir she stated saying, “Ohnonononnono.” Again, the power of these stories to stick in the imagination from movie to movie was on full display and my daughter knew someone was being sacrificed for the Soul Stone. She held my arm the entire scene and my hand when Natasha plummeted to the bottom of the pit (They really had to show her dead at the bottom Dad?!Really??!).

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She understood why it had to happen but it didn’t stop her from declaring Marvel is being sued. Her proclamation for the pending law suit was based on a truly fantastic declaration, “She’s been my favorite since I was 8!” The MCU has become the campfire story of her childhood…that is simply wonderful.

HE’S BACK!

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This one is a combination of my younglings. I saw Endgame before taking them, both because I knew I wold want to see it twice and also to prep myself for moments when I would want to put my attention on them and not the screen. Spider-man’s return was a huge moment for both of them. As Spidey came through one of Dr. Strange’s space portals, my son grabbed my arm and looked up at me with pure joy. He pointed at the screen and whisper-yelled, “Dad! He’s back!” He was vibrating with excitement, the sorrow he felt watching Spidey disappear in Infinity War matched by jubilation. My daughter was smiling ear-to-ear, not speaking but staring at the screen with a huge grin. Faith rewarded.

She. Is. Awesome.

My daughter loved the charge of the female Marvel heroes. I think she wanted to join in and protect the gauntlet. One hero, however, stood above the rest  – the Scarlet Witch.

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“Dad,” she told me after the film, “she was beating Thanos all by herself! She just used her power and twisted him up. She’s awesome!” I informed my daughter that the Scarlet Witch was always a VERY powerful member of The Avengers. Not sure how many comic nerds are reading this but my daughter was intrigued to learn that, in the comics of my youth, Ultron was pretty much unstoppable and the only Avenger he truly feared was the Scarlet With. In fact she used her hex power to completely shatter Ultron in one classic tale.

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This just made my daughter even happier. I did not share with her that Wanda, in her grief and rage due to the loss of her children, becomes a force of devastation in some comic arcs. She can learn that later.

Honesty check: How many people thought this was going to be a section on Captain Marvel? Go ahead, admit it. It’s okay. To be clear, my daughter is a bit lukewarm on Captain Marvel. The reason: Wonder Woman! Scarlet Witch is powerful in a non-physical  manner. My daughter is a huge Wonder Woman fan so another super-strong woman didn’t impact her very much. Or, as she put it, “She’s cool and all, but no Wonder Woman.”

Also, and I found this hilarious, my daughter doesn’t like the name Carol. “Dad, she sounds like a soccer mom. Carol, did you bring the cookies? Carol, could you give Lisa a ride home. Carol, Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet, could you help us get it back?” Guess it’s hard to be the favorite super hero when you drive an SUV.

On your left

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This one was particularly meaningful for me. When Falcon said, “Cap. On your left.” in the movie I got some goosebumps. After the film, as we discussed how SPECTACULAR it was to see Spider-Man again I mentioned the phrase, “On your left.” The kids didn’t remember where that was from. I explained how, not only was it the first words Steve Rogers spoke to Sam Wilson but the phrase had become a simple saying packed with meaning. It means I’m always there for you. I’ve always got your back. You’re never alone and you can call me at anytime and I’ll be there for you. On you left.

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About a week after the film I was driving the kids to their mother’s house. One of the tough things about being a co-parenting divorced person (and, hell, being a parent in general) is you never know for sure if the lessons you teach are taking root. You hope the foundation being laid is strong and that you do enough for your kids. Anyway, my daughter was getting out of my car and I told her I love her and would see her soon (nice thing about 50/50 time split is I always see them soon). She replied in kind and paused a second as the door. She looked back in and said, “Hey Dad, on your left.”

Doesn’t get much better than that. So let me close this by saying to all four of my kids, and my grandson, on your left. Always and forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks, Stan

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By this point, I would think, anyone with an affinity for comics and superheroes is aware that Stan Lee died recently at the age of ninety-five. Today, December 28, would have been his ninety-sixth birthday. Sounds like the perfect day to remember and give thanks as we look forward to a new year of challenges and hopes.

Like so many people my life was touched by Stan Lee (1). The day Lee died I received a text from my twelve-year-old daughter which read, “STAN LEE DIED!!!!” I hesitated before answering, stunned not so much by the news as I already knew Lee had died, but of the thread flowing from his work through me and now touching my daughter. At forty-seven I have read the news of numerous celebrities and singers whose deaths gave me moments of pause and reflection, but never one who entrenched themselves in my life on such a fundamental level. Aware that I did not want to project my thoughts into my daughter I carefully responded to her with the following, “I know. I saw that. It’s so sad, but made me think how his characters brought me so much entertainment as a kid and he brought my kids entertainment, too. So, thanks for the gift, Stan Lee.”

So Much More than Entertainment…Even When I Didn’t Know it

 

After sending the text I instantly thought how it was so much more than entertainment. So much more. Carol Pearson, a teacher and student of archetypal psychology and myth, wrote, “Humans are storytelling creatures…we are sensitive to the tone of narratives lived around us and already (by age two) we have begun collecting thousands of images that resonate emotionally with us in some important way” (2). This was, perhaps, Lee’s greatest contribution. He provided mythic heroes and tales, morality plays and role models, for anyone (but in particular kids) who stepped into the mighty Marvel universe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the “images that resonated with me” came from Marvel Comics.

In high school the book 1984 made more sense to me when I imagined Dr. Doom pulling the strings of Big Brother. Hamlet can’t make up his mind? Are those doubts anything like Peter Parker struggling with the decision to remain Spider-Man or Ben Grimm’s struggle to accept his life as the Thing? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on the Hulk. Loyalty – Captain America. Courage – Black Panther! I mean, he has no super powers and yet he charges into combat with powerhouses like Ultron and Michael Korvac (3). Is Odin King Lear? I can’t lift Mjolnir but can I make strong stands like Thor? How do the X-Men keep persevering when people hate them so much? Come to think of it, why do people hate and can it be overcome?

These are not small questions or unimportant character traits to consider. I was given the opportunity to contemplate them at my level as a kid and, as an adult, I am amazed at the issues Stan Lee challenged me to wrestle with – even when I didn’t realize I was in the match! It is sometimes said the best learning is achieved when the student doesn’t see the lesson coming. There is curriculum and then the undercurrent of meaning that cannot be forced. I call them “lesson grenades” as they often “explode” well after a class session is over. At the age of Forty-seven and with twenty-four years of teaching experience I can say I learned more about constructing lessons that have the possibility of leaving a lasting impact from Stan Lee (and Tolkien, and Spielberg, and Lucas, and…) then I ever did from courses on education which were far more business than art. It is any wonder there is a soulless lack of wonder that often permeates schools?

Don’t be Fooled (or should I have said Hasty?)   

I can imagine there are people who would read the previous line (…soulless lack of wonder…) and be dismissive of it or find it too cynical for their taste. People tend to dichotomize the world into opposites; either you’re an optimist or pessimist, and never the twain shall meet!

It is this form of splitting the world that prevents growth and community. The middle path is the hardest to walk but also where enduring healing and sustainable progress is found.

I do not see the admittance of a “soulless lack of wonder” as pessimistic or cynical. I think it is far more accurate to view such a proclamation as a sign of cynical hope (or, perhaps, optimistic cynicism). No problem was ever solved by failing to admit its existence! Now, I am not in favor in seeing a problem just for the sake of pointing out flaws and casting blame. Such behavior exists somewhere on a scale between immature and reprehensible. Almost as reprehensible as ignoring problems or making molehills out of actual mountains. You see, mature negativity can only exist with a positive core.

Positive Psychology

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In a previous post (Don’t Say the H-Word) I introduced positive psychology. This school in the world of psychology is far more than merely having positive and healthy thoughts or donning rose colored glasses while spewing Pollyanna while the world is on fire. As Christopher Peterson noted, positive psychology does not “ignore or dismiss the very real problems that people experience” (4).

It does, however, focus on the strengths people possess and, more importantly, how to build those strengths to increase one’s fulfillment while buttressing them to overcome hardships. Positive psychologist “…realizes the value in growing through adversity” (5). Diener (2008) wrote a chapter for the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. His contribution evaluated the positive psychology of Marvel icon Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In his conclusion he praises Spider-Man as “an inspiring example of a person who rises to challenges on a consistent basis, and flourishes because he has the opportunity to use his greatest talents and strengths. He inspires all of us to harness our virtues…” (6).   

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Spider-Man is an apt exemplar for such an evaluation for almost no hero fails and rises quite so much as Spider-Man. Granted, you and I cannot lift  cars, stick to walls, or utilize spider-sense but Diener is not asking us to. He states, quite rightly, that we can “harness our virtues” like our fictional heroes. It is these virtues that enable Spider-Man to endure hardships.

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Perhaps the best example of Spider-Man failing (7) is when (in the iconic Amazing Spider-Man #122) his girlfriend Gwen Stacey is killed despite his efforts to save her. This scene was brought to the big screen thirty-one years later in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Super powers did not avail Peter in these scenes, but his humanity enabled him to endure the dark night and, eventually, rise to fight another day. It is what our humanity is supposed to do for us as well, even without Spider powers.

The Greatest of Super Powers

Two of the character strengths identified by positive psychology are hope and perseverance, traits Spider-Man has in abundance. In the long term they helped Spider-Man come to grips with the death of Gwen. Sometimes, however, life demands powerful bursts of energy that find their fuel in these twin traits.

One of Spider-Man’s earliest story arcs, found in Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1965-66) and written by Stan Lee, finds him desperately seeking a serum to save his beloved and ailing Aunt May. Naturally, a villain (Dr. Octopus) also has his eyes on the serum. After a battle with Octopus, Spider-Man finds himself pinned and seemingly helpless under a mountain of rubble, the serum mere feet away from him as his enemy has fled the collapsing building.  After initially despairing over his predicament, “I’ll never make it—I can’t–!”, Spidey digs in deep. Giving himself a pep-talk he declares, “Anyone can win a fight—when the odds — are easy! It’s when the going’s tough—when there seems to be no chance—that’s when—it counts!” With a final surge of energy Spider-Man throws off the rubble, accentuated by Lee’s exposition, “…from out of the pain — from out of the anguish — comes triumph!”

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This scene, which has been homaged in Spider-Man comics through the years, was brought to the big screen in the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). While I was not alive when the moment was first rendered in 1966 I was well aware of it as I sat, and relished, watching it play out (with my kids) in the movie theater.

There is another trait at work in this scene. In the original story from 1966 Spider-Man notes the presence of love that is driving his efforts, proclaiming, “I’ll do it, Aunt May! I won’t fail you!” Homages to the scene have him pinpointing his wife (Mary Jane), his unborn children, and the memory of his Uncle Ben as the source of his drive (8). Of course, they all have one thing in common – love. Love drives Spider-Man to his greatest victories. Without it he would not be the hero he is. Perhaps his greatest super power is ours as well.

Back to the Beginning

If it seems we have gotten a little away for Stan Lee with this foray into positive psychology and Spider-Man you can rest assured we have not. He’s been with us all along. One of the driving forces of my teaching is the Buddhist adage, “Remember the lesson, forget the teacher.” I’ve been told by truly valued colleagues that this is likely impossible as students, even over time, tend to remember the teachers who taught them memorable lessons. This is likely true but it does not change the fact that I strive to teach lessons that are so much bigger than me. So much more important.

Spider-Man, and the power of love and hope, is but one of Stan Lee’s lessons so when we discuss Spidey, we are discussing Mr. Lee. He’s there, in his creation. Offering inspiration and guidance. So allow me to say, “Thanks, Stan. You’re the best teacher I ever had.”

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This story, thankfully, does not end with me. My daughter responded to the my text with the following message. “Yeah. I didn’t grow up with the comics but without the comics we wouldn’t have marvel movies. And the movies have had a big impact on my life. So thanks for the gift Stan Lee.”

See you next time, true believers!

Excelsior!     

  

Notes

  1. I think necessary to note that almost every word I wrote in this essay could be applicable to the great Jack Kirby, who collaborates with Stan Lee for years as they combined their creative powers to build Marvel Comics. Kirby died in 1994, well before I had this website or, frankly, any real insight. So, even though the title of this essay thanks Stan, Jack Kirby’s presence is a prevalent force throughout.
  2. Pearson, C and Marr, H. “Introduction to Archetypes: A Companion for Understanding and Using the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator Instrument” (2002). Center for Applications of Psychological Types, Inc.
  3. So, any dedicated comic geeks reading this who remember the “Korvac Saga” from the late 1970’s?
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not
  5. Rosenberg, R and Canzoneri, J (Editors), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (2008). p 73
  6. ibid. p 74
  7. Okay…fine…second best. Sorry Uncle Ben.
  8. As noted, in the first version of this scene Aunt May was the source of inspiration. The homages and their sources of inspiration are as follows: MJ as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 168 and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Kids as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 229. Uncle Ben as inspiration in Amazing Spider-Man 365.

When the Midnight Demons Come Calling

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

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Thus sang Bradley Cooper in the powerful reimagining of A Star is Born. (Beware – spoilers coming. If you haven’t seen the movie you will want to stop reading). Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a singer/song-writer who is an alcoholic struggling with the reality that is best days may well be behind him. During a night out drinking he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana and helps catapult her into stardom even as the two build an intense, loving if not flawed and co-dependent relationship. Jackson and Ally both have doubts and demons – from less than ideal childhoods to lingering fears of inadequacy – that they share with each other and strive to overcome. In the end, Maine succumbs to his demons and commits suicide.

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One could say that he was pushed to the decision by Rez Gavron, Ally’s controlling and condescending manager. Rez confronts Jackson, accusing him of holding Ally back. Ally, Rez assures the recovering alcoholic, would be better off without him. When Ally lies to Jackson about why she canceled a leg of her tour he decides to kill himself. An inconsolable Ally blames herself. The audience can blame whomever they want, but Rez’s verbal attack could be viewed as a triggering event. His words, however, would have no impact if they were not reinforced by Jackson’s demons.

You might know those demons. Those fears and doubts that emerge from their daytime hiding places to plague the soul when one is alone. The demons that lurk in your mind and lend power to the criticisms of others. They augment negative messages and reduce what should be the powerful support of friends to gossamer threads. Ally’s grief, to a degree, is fueled by such doubts. Thankfully she has the strength to listen to Jackson’s older brother.

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Bobby, played by Sam Elliot, explains to Ally that Jackson’s death was of his own making, not hers. Bobby has a point. The Jackson’s downward spiral began long before Ally came along. I would like to suggest that perhaps…and this may be stretch…but perhaps Jackson could have begun the process of reversing his downfall if he had learned to employ a little fuck you therapy.

Excuse me? Did you say…

Yup. Sometimes people need to employ a little fuck you therapy to their lives. To be clear, I don’t mean Jackson should have shouted, “Fuck you!” at Rez. In fact, that would not have worked at all (even if it would have felt good to witness). In the end, Jackson still would have committed suicide. You see, Rez’s words only had the power to cause pain because Jackson believed them. Deeply. His soul was receptive to the sharp criticism of a man who essentially hated him.  The words fed his doubts and fears, amplifying them to the point that only one path could be seen by the beleaguered singer. It is truly a tragic moment in the film.

The fuck you that Jackson needed wasn’t an immature expression of rage designed to protect his ego and hide his shattered sense of self from prying eyes. You know, the way we usually use the phrase. But there might just be a quiet use of the phrase that promotes healing rather than spreading anger and reinforcing delusion.

Calling Sean Maguire

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In Good Will Hunting we encounter the brilliant but…shall we say…difficult and anti-social Will Hunting played by Matt Damon. Will, through the patient guidance of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, comes to grips with his abusive past, transcends his attachment disorder, and willingly takes the risk of pursuing a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Skylar. During the breakthrough therapy session – the “It’s not your fault” scene – Will weeps and hugs Sean. As the camera pulls out Sean whispers, “Fuck them, okay?”

I love that line. That moment. That idea. The whispered use of “Fuck them” was and is fantastic. Both Will and Sean had suffered physical abuse as children. One can only imagine what the midnight demons used to torture these two characters. We can try to outthink our demons – and I definitely believe talk therapy can be helpful – but racing thoughts at two in the morning can’t be subdued by more thinking. Alone at night there are sometimes no friends to comfort or loved ones to offer hope. Anger is nothing more than a tattered cloth failing to contain fear while tears burn rather than baptize. But, what if the knowledge that friends are part of your life, your mind is ultimately your own, and where anger fails the earned pride of having fought the good fight enables a moment of calm? Perhaps in that calm there is a moment where one can look at the demons with mature strength and just whisper a forceful “Fuck you.” Perhaps on occasion we need a little vulgarity to find our peace and to stand with confidence before our dark fears, our midnight demons (1).

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Still

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In the Walking Dead (Episode 12: Season 4) Daryl and Beth engage in a memorable moment of what we are calling fuck you therapy. The unusual paring brought us one of the best episodes in that show’s run. Both characters are stung by the death of Hershel, Beth’s father. Beth suggests they have some drinks and, after initially declining, Daryl drinks some of the moonshine he supplied for his younger companion. The drinking leads initially to arguing and insults but, ultimately, hearts are opened as grief is shared. Daryl does not merely share his guilt (he feels he should have saved Hershel) but also divulges information about his difficult childhood with his brother Merle.  A calmer conversation ends with Beth suggesting the duo burn down the dilapidated house they had holed up in as a form of letting go of the past. The house is consumed by flames and the friends salute the flames with their middle fingers. Fuck you, painful past.

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Midnight demons often get their strength from past pains that we struggle to let go of, as if the pain is necessary to our identity. Jungian analyst Carol Pearson contends that one of the archetypes that helps us grow is the destroyer. When used without skill or in an immature manner the destroyer’s energy causes us to lash out, harming ourselves and our loved ones. When used with acumen, however, the destroyer archetype allows us to break unnecessary chains that bind us to past pain, allowing us to move forward unfettered. Well before Jungian archetypal psychology another great thinker counseled all who would listen to let go of the past – the Buddha.

Buddha and Fuck You Therapy

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Okay…I hear ya. Now I’m just being ridiculous. The Buddha never said “Fuck you” to people. That is likely true, but he surely advocated the difficult step of letting go of your attachment to the past. The very first chapter of The Dhammapada includes the verse,      ” ‘He was angry with me,he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” Think about the way such a line could strike one’s ears. Buddha is not saying you have negative thoughts for no reason for you were “attacked” or “robbed.” He is saying, however, nurturing that pain binds one in chords of hate. We must sever our bonds with our pain – actually break them not merely claim to have done so –  if we hope to be free from hate. To be free from the Midnight Demons. 

Before we move on from Buddha there is another aspect of Buddhism that will be useful. Many people have a tendency to split reality into categories that makes life understandable (my side good/yours bad) but ultimately does not allow for the richness or totality of life to be felt. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as a religion of undisturbed peace and tranquility. While that is the final goal, it is also a tradition of effort with a deep understanding of the human condition. The wrathful buddhas of the Tantric tradition remind us that some Buddhist thought has a more direct approach to what we sometimes categorize as negative emotions.

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The wrathful buddhas are ferocious beings with intense passions that absorb hostile emotions in order to dispense them. Only by embracing the darkness do we ultimately transcend it. While Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) wold not have said, “Fuck you” to the midnight demons the wrathful buddhas are portrayed as ferocious entities (picture Wolverine in one of his berserker states) that battle evil at its own level. A couple cusses are well within their realm.

Brining it Home

The dark side of fame, a therapist’s office, a zombie apocalypse, and Buddhism have all made an appearance to help vanquish our midnight demons. I would like to close with a brief story to ground this conversation. 

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My oldest son used to attend a parkour gym. He would train and work on skills that he would bring to the concrete jungle he and some friends ran through. His instructor had a phrase he would share with his students when they were holding onto fear instead of trusting their bodies and their skills. I remember the first time Logan sheepishly shared the phrase with me, unsure how I would respond. It was a fine phrase and I hope he follows this advice the rest of his life. “Sometimes,” his coach told him, “ya just gotta say fuck it and chuck it.” Nike’s PG-13 “Just do it” has nothing on parkour!

Thanks for reading everybody. Do me a favor. If your Midnight Demons come out to play tell ’em I said, “Fuck you.”

(1) I must confess, it was difficult to use this movie because of Robin Williams’ own tragic death. I decided to do so because the film’s powerful message of healing is still valid despite the sorrow of the loss of the great Robin Williams.

Perseverance: TheUndercurrent of Success

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A few months back I offered some thoughts on courage. Tonight I’ve decided to take a look at perseverance. How many people give up when the road gets too long or doubts overwhelm us? On a personal level I wonder how often I have failed, not because of a lack of talent, but because of the inability to persevere? No success story ever occurred without perseverance. Hopefully this essay serves as a reminder of the necessity to battle on even when hope is obscured.

Perseverance

Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know of several thousand things that won’t work.

-Thomas Edison (1)

We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…

-Nelson Mandela (2)

If one has not been a ronin at least seven times, he will not be a true retainer. Seven times down, eight times up.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (3)

Badlands!You gotta live ‘em every day.                                                                                            Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay!                                                          Keep pushin’ till it’s understood                                                                                                      And these badlands start treatin’ us good.

-Bruce Springsteen from the song Badlands” (4)

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  1. One of the unfortunate mindsets I see students (and, sadly, adults)  adopt is the idea that people from different places, times, and cultures can’t share much in common. Humanity, when we allow it, overrides many barriers. What commonalities do we see in the message from the 19th century inventor (Edison) and the 20th-21st century songwriter (Springsteen)?
  2. It may be difficult to picture a 17th century samurai at a rock concert, but what message is Springsteen communicating that Tsunetomo would agree with?
  3. How do the quotes on perseverance provide support to the virtue of courage?
  4. Can you recall a time when you lived Tsunetomo’s quote? What emotions and thoughts do you have looking back on this chapter of your life? What was the source of your ability to persevere?
  5. Read the following passage spoken by the character Samwise Gamgee in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Does it strike you in a personal way or merely as a(n) interesting, good, etc message?

 

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, but they didn’t. They kept goin’.

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Perseverance

 

If courage does guarantee other qualities, it can only do so with a healthy dose of perseverance. Many of life’s challenges take more than raw courage to overcome. Courage may start you on a journey, but the willingness…the ability…to persevere keeps us going. Few of the meaningful challenges of life are easily overcome. Some struggles last for years. We fight the good fight and we fall, because we are human and have all the weaknesses that accompany that condition. But when you fall, and fear threatens to overwhelm you, do you stay down? Do you convince yourself that you have gone far enough because some progress has been made? This is not to say that when you fall along a journey you have to jump up and move forward with frantic energy, ignoring the pain of failing. To pause to lick one’s wounds is not the same as giving up. To attend to the damage done by the hardships of life is necessary for few injuries heal without attention. Still, if you can persevere you may find yourself capable of looking back on the trips and stumbles of your life with a sense of humor as Thomas Edison did, laughing about the numerous ways you learned how not to do things.

When in the middle of a difficult time, however, we often don’t feel like laughing or we, perhaps, we aren’t tuned in to the humor of life. The weight we carry seems unbearable and taking just one more step seems beyond our scope. At times like this the words of the Roman philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca strike us like truth, “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live” (5).  Courage exists, even when we don’t see it clearly.   Courage fuels our persevere, propelling us forward. My mind, yet again, turns to Frederick Douglass, his life a greater lesson than even his profound words.

An Amazing Journey

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Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He escaped slavery in 1838, but that victory was only the beginning of his life’s story. By the time of his death he had become one of the most prominent men in America. He became publisher of various newspapers, including The North Star. He not only focused on slavery, but on woman’s rights as well. He published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. His writing and lecturing skills made him one of the most effective abolitionists of his day. These talents made his a sought after lecturer in Europe as well as in the Northern section on the United States. When the Civil War began he found himself in correspondence with president Lincoln. When Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected he sought Douglass’ council on an important issue – how to make the Emancipation Proclamation permanent enough to survive him losing the presidency. The point became moot when Lincoln won, but it offers clarity to the fact that Lincoln admired Douglass. As Douglass’ life progressed he became involved in freedman’s rights, became ambassador to Haiti, and spoke in favor of Irish home rule. Advocate, publisher, writer, lecturer, statesman and humanitarian. Many a title can be attributed to Fredrick Douglass, but that is not the key to appreciating this great man.

To look at all Douglass accomplished is impressive in and of itself. To gaze upon these deeds with the backdrop of his first twenty years is all the more inspiring. Born a slave he started his life in the most crushing of situations. No chance for an education. The structures of society, both in the North and South, creating obstacles the like no one in America faces today. Yet he struggled and persevered. Could he have possibly have known what he would one day accomplish while he was sneaking towards freedom? Was the ambassadorship to Haiti in his mind? The correspondence with a President? Douglass did not know what he would one day become. He just knew, as did hundreds of other runaway slaves, what he did not want to be anymore. It is impossible to know what can happen when we forget to quit, when we forget to give in to our fears.

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Of Fears and Failure (and perseverance)

But fears can be powerful adversaries, ones that cause us to cease our efforts. They creep into our minds, especially when we realize just how hard some of our goals are to accomplish. We fall. We fail. We say or do the wrong thing at the most unfortunate moment. We wonder, are our efforts worth all this frustration? Bruce Springsteen shouts to us that it is. His song Badlands is an anthem to perseverance. It’ll be hard to move forward, sometimes the effort will, as he points out, break our hearts. His advice is to  “keep pushin’” because someday the tides will turn.

As Samwise spoke so wisely, “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come.”  These words are insightful. The use of the word “even” communicates the fact that, to many of us, it feels as if bad times will never end. This despair can be powerful, but “even darkness must pass”. You don’t know what your efforts will bring, but standing still leaves you where you are. We must take some responsibility for the coming of Samwise’s “new day.”

Positive thinking alone would not have enabled the two hobbits to reach the heart of Mount Doom. They had to move forward, to persevere through the difficult journey that they took up due to their courage. Their fictional struggles reflect the real world wisdom of Fredrick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning” (6).

Granted (and thankfully) most of us will not have to struggle for our physical freedom, but our personal struggles can never end in success if we are not willing to work (“plowing up the ground”) or endure frightful elements of a struggle (“thunder and lightning”). Be brave and persevere, my friends. You don’t actually know where it will take you.

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Character Challenge: Find a goal you have, but gave up on. Did you give up because you lost interest? If this is truly the case, mind you, you ought to feel good about your decision. I contemplated switching majors in college, but upon evaluating the change did not. The main motivator in my decision not to change was my interest in history. However, some goals we actually want but quit because we deem them too difficult. These are the focus point of this challenge. For younger people: do you wish you made the honor roll but decided the work was too much? Was making varsity too intimidating so you stopped working out because it “didn’t matter anyway?” For adults: still thinking about a new degree? A new job? Write down the goal and the excuses you use to justify not chasing it. Are they impossible to overcome or just daunting? Can you accept, now that you are looking at your words, not pursuing this goal? Make a decision and good luck.

 

Endnotes

(1)  Meadowcroft, William H. The Boy’s Life of Edison. (New York, Harper & Brothers,  1911),  p 301.

(2) Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. (New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,  2000), p. 460.

(3) Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure. (New York, Kodansha International, 1979), p 54. Translated by William Scott Wilson.

(4) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(5) Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 78). This letter can be found at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_78

(6)Frederick Douglass (1857). “West India Emancipation” speech can be found at http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress

 

Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style

Hello everybody. This post comes to you curtesy of my daughter and The Avengers: Infinity War. We left the movie and she was very upset! I would not categorize it as sad per se, but upset.

Time to pause this writing for the spoilers alert!!!!!!

Not big time spoilers but still:  SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

As I was saying, she was more like, “Where’s a ship to take me to Nidavellir so I can get a weapon to help the Avengers fight Thanos” upset! I’m not sure but she might have some Asgardian blood pumping in her veins!

Well, I had no ship to help her on her quest but I did have knowledge. Specifically, I had knowledge of her current favorite song, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. So, as we were driving home, I told her, “I know what the Avengers need” and played her anthem. She smiled and shook her head. As the song ended she asked me to play it again. Before doing so I told her we should write a special version of the song for The Avengers. She thought that a fine idea but told me to just do it. “And you’re a teacher,” she stated. “So you have to do your homework!” We made a pinky promise over the shards of Mjolnir and the deal was sealed!

So, with all apologies and respect to Steve Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain, here’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style”!!

Here’s a link if you want to hear Journey dong it right!!! 

 

“Don’t Stop Believin'”
Updated for Avengers: The Infinity War

Just a billionaire
Livin’ life without a care
With Nick Fury he formed

the Avengers

Just a mad Titan
With a genocidal bend
He seeks power to kill half of

 the universe

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A doctor with an anger issue
A brave man of years he’s seen a few
They’ll need some help to win the day
The list goes on and on, and on, and on

Heroes gather
Striving to prevent the end
Their powers tested
In the fight

Wizards, soldiers
Taking chances that most would shun
Hoping somehow to bring light.

Natasha has so much skill
Please don’t be too mad at Quill
Can Thor ignite a dying star
Just one more time

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 Thanos came, to the Earth
T’Challa again proved his worth
Wakanda you will never end
You’ll go on and on and on and on

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Banner confused

What happened to my green skin?

Rhodey and Falcon

Take flight

 

Wanda, Vision

Trying to stop the devastation

Heroes fading from sight

 
Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

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Thanks for reading everybody. If you’ve gotten this far you probably already know this but it’s worth saying. Movies may not be true but they can be real, as real as the struggles we all face everyday. Songs may be over the top, but inspiration should be a part of our personal utility belts as we face our challenges. So, let me say, keep fighting the good fight with all thy might!

See you next time!