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.

Don’t Say the “H-Word”

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The Netflix series The Defenders opens with a brief exchange between a cynical and often petulant Jessica Jones and her much more upbeat and optimistic adoptive-sister Trish Walker (1).

Trish: “You’re not comfortable with what you’ve become, Jessica. You are now a full-fledged su..”

Jessica: “Don’t say the ‘H’ word.”

Jessica was still adjusting to the notoriety  she had earned by ending a reign of terror orchestrated by a psychopathic man with the power to control minds. This man, Kilgrave, was bereft of conscience and would use his mind control powers to punish, often with death, slights to his ego as simple as a waiter misspeaking. Jessica’s reluctance to be called ‘hero’ is quite common, easily found in both pop culture and our lives.

Consider a scene for the movie Gladiator.  Lucilla, sister of the tyrannical Emperor Commodus, visits Maximus Decimus Meridius in his prison cell. Lucilla is organizing a group of conspirators to dispose of Commodus and return Rome to its past glory. Maximus, who had recently vowed, quite publically, to avenge the murder of his family by killing Commodus, is chained to a wall. His aid, however, is essential to Lucilla. As she explains her vision Maximus recoils, eventually snarling, “I am a slave. What possible difference can I make?”

Maximus, bound by actual chains, felt incapable of taking meaningful action. Jessica’s chains, while invisible, kept her from simply accepting the good she had done (2). Trish teases her by noting, “Only you could take that big, personal victory and turn it into a defeat.” People can, like Jessica Jones, insist others not describe them with the  “h-word” while others, like Maximus, resign themselves to the idea they are incapable of making a difference. Either way, Aunt May would not be proud.

Why hide from the ‘H-word’?

It is commonly said that people do not readily accept the idea of being a hero because of humility. I do not doubt this is true. There is rarely a singular reason for the people’s behavior. There is often a pie chart of reasons and motivations for our actions. Beyond humility what might cause one to reject the “H-word”?  Perhaps the idea of being a hero is difficult because it is such a big concept. A responsibility? Perhaps it is a concept that challenges our self-image. I am sure there is someone reading this that had a hero, or at least someone he or she looked, or still looks, up to. Someone admired. Is it difficult to imagine another human being thinking so well of you? Is it hard to fathom, even accept, what they see? Beyond self-image is there a fearful element to being heroic?

Over two-thousand years ago Buddha taught, “The wise man tells you where you have fallen and where you yet may fall – invaluable secrets!” He included in this maxim the assertion, “The world may hate {the wise man}” (3).  One may hate the wise man? Why wouldn’t we be more thankful for this aid? The American psychologist Abraham Maslow can help clarify this phenomenon.  

Maslow noted that animosity towards heroic figures (or Buddha’s “wise man”) was quite “common” as he wrote, “The commonly seen hatred or resentment of or jealousy of goodness, truth, beauty, health, or intelligence is largely determined by threat of loss of self-esteem…Every superior person confronts us with our own shortcoming” (4). We live in culture where we can find constant examples of people decrying others for “judging” or “shaming” them. There are, without a doubt, people who cast insults and aspersions about far too casually. They exemplify Maslow’s “commonly seen hatred…” Such actions ought to be decried. There are also times when constructive criticism is rejected and the person offering such aid is labels everything from cynical to the sophomoric phrase “hater.” Honesty, however, demands a confession. I know I have on occasion rejected the critique of others merely to avoid self-reflection and the pain of confronting shortcomings. Can I be the only one to have done so?  

Returning to the idea of the hero, I do not doubt that some resistance to being called hero is the admirable trait of humility.  However, do some individuals resist the label of hero (Jessica Jones) or the call to the heroic quest (Maximus) precisely because of an awareness of personal shortcomings? Worse, could they possess a tendency to overemphasize a weakness and fail to see their own strengths? The ‘h-word’ does not require perfection. Perhaps if we temper our understanding we can more comfortably embrace the mantle of hero.

Coming to grips with the ‘H-word”

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, believes the word hero needs to be demystified. He contends most heroes are everyday people who perform an extraordinary act. He seeks to exemplify these individual so we become more effective at recognizing everyday heroes. Before heroic action takes place, however, preparation begins. Part of the goal of the HIP is to prepare people to be a “hero in waiting” or a “hero in training.” This means people can be taught or exposed to heroic exemplars and develop the capacity to envision themselves as heroic. In so doing they will be more likely to act heroically when the moment arises. Dr. Zimbardo emphasizes the idea that heroic may just be, in essence, a moment when he says, “it may happen only once in your life” (5).  

Their website also informs us that, “Heroism can be learned, can be taught, can be modeled, and can be a quality of being to which we all should aspire.” The Heroic Imagination project also posits that heroism is an “intentional action in service to others in need or to humanity by defending a moral cause, without personal gain and with awareness of likely personal costs” (6).

It would appear much of what I do falls in line with Dr. Zimbardo. I believe there is indeed a heroic imagination that can be strengthened by exposure to heroes and heroic qualities. Where we may part company slightly is our choice of fuel. He accentuates holding up unknown and hidden heroes among us as models. I tend to hold up historic and fictional exemplars in an effort to inspire heroic visions. The reason I do this is quite personal. My heroic imagination is fueled by big stories and fictional tales. The psychologist James Hillman taught, “Extraordinary people excite; they guide; they warn; standing, as they do, in the corridors of imagination…they help us carry what comes to us as it came to them” (7). Standing in the corridors of imagination. Perhaps by visiting that corridor we become worthy of occupying that sacred space.

There is, however, one particular phrase used by Dr. Zimbardo that causes me to feel hesitant. The HIP declares heroism can be a “quality of being to which we can all aspire” (8). I do not envision heroism as a quality of being. I am more inclined to see certain qualities of being, certain virtues, as essential to becoming a hero. One becomes a hero via action. Heroic actions don’t arise from heroism, they arise from specific qualities.

Say the ‘H-word!”

Psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have performed extensive research in the realm of positive psychology. Peterson and Seligman’s work frees us from a parochial world view and allows us to glimpse the often elusive unifying factors that the human family does possess. They sought to identify virtues that were valued in every culture.  To accomplish this feat they studied a massive swath of literature from across the globe. Their research included, but was not limited to, religious texts, fictional tales, myths, and philosophic treatises. A list of twenty-four virtues was produced. Since then researchers interested in positive psychology have brought the list to communities as divergent as college students in the United States and tribal villages in Kenya. One such researcher, Robert Biswas-Diener, has found people in these diverse cultures recognize the virtues listed and hope their children will develop them. The list includes the following virtues:

Honesty               Judgment         Creativity         

 Love of Learning                         Prudence        

 Kindness             Perspective      Forgiveness   

Perseverance      Spirituality       Humility             

Love                      Curiosity           Fairness               

Gratitude              Humor             Social IQ              

Hope                      Bravery            Zest              

Self-Regulation                              Leadership                               

Teamwork        

Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence (9)

I look at this list and I see the well-spring from whence heroic action arises as well as the lenses through which we see our heroes. Whether Jessica Jones cares to admit it she confronted a psychopath who, in the past, took control of her mind (bravery). As in all heroic quests she faced stumbling blocks and endured set-backs (perseverance). While surly and cynical, she allowed allies to assist her on her journey (teamwork) and guided them to final victory (leadership). She made some questionable decisions along the way (a lack of judgment and prudence) and, in the end, cannot see herself as heroic because of the damage she caused (a lack of self-forgiveness). Heroes need not be perfect and we can root for the character to evolve, to strengthen areas of weakness, and become more accepting of the mantle of hero.

It is not just fictional characters, but real life people who need to become more comfortable with this shift. Not only does a hero not need to be perfect, their heroic deed need not be terribly dramatic. If a teacher rouses love of learning in a student or approaches their craft in such a way that a student’s perspective is widened and their creativity deepened, has that teacher not performed a heroic deed?

I have colleagues whom I know would balk at being called hero. Yet I also know this; teachers can be terribly nostalgic. Many of them have a shoe box or drawer where thank you notes from past students are stored. Many of these messages are heartfelt letters illuminating the virtues the teacher personifies and expressions of gratitude for some unique service rendered. I am fortunate to have met some of the people with whom I work. The notes of appreciation they receive from students are well deserved. My search for heroes need not take me much farther than a walk down the hall. Perhaps, wherever you roam you just may, if you’re not careful, accidentally bump into a hero or two as well.     

 

  1. Jessica Jones appears in her own show, Jessica Jones, and The Defenders. The exchange between Jessica and Trish occurs in the first episode of The Defenders.
  2. The idea of chains binding people in philosophy is quite common. Two examples would be Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s axiom, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”
  3.  Thomas Byrom (translator), Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston, Shambhala, 1993), p. 23.
  4. Abraham Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd ed.) (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968), p. 196.
  5. The information from Dr. Zimbardo comes from the following websites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsFEV35tWsg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWQq0E8ENSc, and http://heroicimagination.org/
  6. Ibid.
  7. James Hillman, The Souls Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York, Warner Books, 1996), p. 32.
  8. http://heroicimagination.org/
  9. Information regarding this list of virtues and positive psychology please go to https://www.viacharacter.org/www/