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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #95, 8/25/2007

The Superhero Handbook

Chapter 1

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

NOTE: This is an OLD version of an essay that am currently expanding into a book. Go HERE for the latest version and all the currently available chapters.

Congratulations on the acquisition of your new super powers. By now, you have probably had a chance to try them out. It can be a heady feeling to stop speeding freight trains on their tracks, fly around the world at supersonic speed and be known and adored by millions. It feels good to rescue people in distress, and it feels even better when they recognize you for it.

But you may have also seen the dark side of your craft. No matter how many people you rescue, there will always be millions you can't save. It is a simple fact of life: No superhero can be two places at the same time. If you save one child from a runaway truck, then you can't simultaneously be saving another one on the other side of the world who is facing a similar peril. One of these children has to die, and because you have the power, you have to decide which one it must be.

The fact that you have super powers does not mean that your powers are infinite. If you have 100 times the strength of an average man, you still have that limitation. You can pick up small cars but probably not fully laden trucks. You still have to obey the laws of physics, even if they have been stretched a bit in your case. You can't do more than what your super powers allow, and if you try and fail, you could end up making things worse than they already are.

You also face social complications every time you intervene. If you race around the city saving children from runaway trucks, pretty soon people will start expecting that of you. When one kid gets run over because another one needed saving at the same time, who is everyone going to blame? You! You're the one who has to explain to a grieving mother why her son or daughter had to die when everyone knows you were capable of saving them.

Some days it seems like a superhero can't win. You wake up in the morning with some idealism and hope, but by the end of the day, you're drained. All day long, you're racing around desperately trying to save people, but in the big picture nothing seems to change. There are some clients you end up saving again and again. They never seem to learn, because they've got you to protect them.

Saving people can make them dependent on you and prevent them from seeking their own solutions. Sure, it feels good to stop a dam from breaking, but the real solution is to design a better dam, and maybe one has to burst for that lesson to hit home. As a superhero, you always have to be aware of the long-term effects of everything you do. Sometimes, a small disaster right now is the only way to prevent an even bigger one later one, and by intervening in the small one, you may be guaranteeing something worse.

When you got into the superhero business, you probably thought you were just going to be saving people. You didn't think you would be bogged down in administration and politics. The technical skill of saving people is only the starting point, the big question is who you should save and who you shouldn't when your resources are limited, and this can get very complicated.

Like it or not, you have been forced to become a philosopher, a forecaster and a systems analyst. Regardless of the nature of your super powers, your bread-and-butter business is deciding right from wrong under tense and ambiguous circumstances. The real test of your success is not the number of people you save right now but the long-term effects of your actions for your entire community and even all of humanity.

The expectations of the public tend to be unrealistic. When people know your powers are great, they assume that you can do anything. They expect you to be "super" all the time without even a day off, and they have little tolerance for your mistakes and limitations. When you are a superhero, everyone wants a piece of you. They want you to be there for them, solving their own personal problems, and when you can't be, jealousies and anger start kicking in. People who you can't help may start working against you. Law enforcement officers, politicians and other people in power will resent your special skills and their own loss of control and will inevitably try to restrict you. Over time, being a known superhero is like painting a big target on your back that everyone can shoot at.

You can see why so many superheroes choose anonymity as their first defense. The whole Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy can be very expensive to maintain, but no superhero wants to be handling too many unsolicited calls. You can't be rescuing everybody all the time, so to protect yourself and your special skills, you have to erect some barriers between you and the public. To survive, you have to make yourself a little hard to get, without cutting yourself off completely. People need to be solving their own problems whenever possible, and you don't want to be offering them a too-easy substitute.

It feels good to be adored. "SUPERHERO SAVES THE DAY," is a headline we all love to see, but the glow of publicity wears off quickly. When you you get down to work in whatever your field may be, you are probably going to be hated as much as loved. To be a superhero is to be forced to make the hard and painful decisions that no one else wants to. More than anyone else, you have to see the big picture and not get bogged down in details or the feelings of the moment.

Some people will live and others will die based on your decisions, and if that isn't humbling, it should be. Superhero work isn't easy. Never was, never will be, in spite of its glamorization in the public media. To a certain extent, no one is ever going to understand what you do. People may worship you or fear you, but they will probably never grasp the difficult conflicts you are going through. Even when people love you, they are loving an illusion, a perfect superhero who exists only in their heads. Sadly, they will never really see the man or woman behind the cape.

Superheroism is a lonely business. If you get into it for social satisfaction, you probably won't find it. The most you can hope for is some sort of intellectual satisfaction — the private knowledge that you did the best you could under difficult circumstances and that the world is marginally better as a result.

Just saving people is never enough. You have to save them wisely. Just as importantly, you have to not save them when a greater long-term good is served. This is the most difficult part to understand and accept.

When one passenger train is careening headlong toward another, the hardest thing in the world is to stand back and let it happen, but sometimes that's what you have to do.

To Be Continued...

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