I won a pair of tickets to the two days of Comicon in Philly a few years ago, from a morning TV show. I took my nephew with me. At the time he was a teenager, fascinated by Lord of the Rings (and weren’t we all!) So I was excited to take him because I knew he would enjoy it. Comic books and the conventions held for fans (fan-aticals?) to converge and enjoy being dorks and nerds together are a celebration of the social outsider. Today people use the term “geeking out” because billionaire dorks like Bill Gates made being a social misfit “cool.” Well, at least the money part.
What has always made comic books magnetic for nerds, geeks, dorks – whatever your preferred adjective – is the idea of having greatness hidden inside of you that the society that rejects people like you cannot perceive, until something happens that requires power and authority that very few possess. It’s the escape into a world where the thing that makes you different, that most other people cannot recognize, understand, relate to or empathize with actually makes you very important.
Everybody has a superpower. But most of us will never discover our unique personal power, and for many reasons. Humans are much like some of our friends in the animal kingdom: we enjoy moving in packs. We were created for community and being part of a community means sharing common interests, beliefs, lifestyles and even biases. During puberty we want to downplay anything outward we think might alienate us from everybody else. I don’t believe that goes away in adulthood. We look to our immediate community or the environment around us otherwise for confirmation for what to think and believe. It is our nature. This “flattening” of the architecture of our personhood to avoid friction within our community, be it at work, at home or in our family, is one of the reasons most of us will never discover the superpower within us. Our uniqueness, even if it’s odd to most people, can actually be the source of our greatness, the source of the life force given to us to propel us fully into our purpose if we follow it. But we are taught from the very beginning of our lives to conform. We watch the look of embarrassment on our parents’ faces when our behavior as small children draws stares and jeres from other adults. We learn how important it is to be liked and how going against the grain can potentially cost people connected to us. Conforming requires that our presentation reflects the norms of the group. So anything that makes us too different is to be avoided at all costs.
Looking back now I realize that my superpower is my “eye” – I am very visual and intuitive. I see things in a different way than most people. I’m very proactive and insightful to the point that I’ve always been someone from whom friends solicited input on important things happening in their lives. I can discern a deeper level of meaning in things that allows me to break down ideas and situations in keen detail and communicate it clearly. My “eye”, creativity and proactive nature would reflect in my presentation in high school. Two incidents have stuck with me, as I think about how empowering it would have been if I had made a different choice.
I would travel to New York often to visit family and friends. At that time trends moved from one area of the country to another far more slowly than now, like everything else. Walking through a mall I found tights that had lace edges sewn in at the hem. I bought a pair in a tan color. I wore it to school the next Monday. I remember walking down the last block before crossing the street to get to the school. It seemed like every girl’s eye was on me, all looking down at my lace-edged tights. I wore them under a terra cotta dress that came with a brown belt. I really loved that look. But the stares I was getting from girls who wouldn’t speak a word to me made me feel like an alien. I remember the distinct impression of being an outsider, abnormal. I grew immediately self-conscious. I kept the tights on for two morning periods until I asked another girl what she thought of them. She said they looked weird and I should take them off. So that’s what I did. Almost two years later every girl was wearing them and when I mentioned to another girl that I had them before they became popular she repeatedly denied it just to be insulting.
The other experience that stays with me was when I started wearing a necktie with a shirt and fake reading glasses. I was ridiculed. I never wore it again. Once again, the following year another girl wore almost the exact same outfit and even a teacher complimented her. People admired her “different” style. The contrast in impressions was disheartening to me as a fifteen-year-old. I wondered what was wrong with me.
Little did I know that the difference was confidence. I was always going to be “different” than most of the other kids for a variety of reasons including my cultural background. My demeanor and appearance set me apart and it was hard to connect. But I wanted to fit in. Once I was hanging out with a group of kids on my block and one of them asked me why I wear silver and gold together. It was something I had never even thought about because it was normal in my culture. As a kid these things made me insecure, not proud, and the effect was being invisible.
My escape was not comic books but fashion magazines. I did not think of my passion for the art of framing a photograph, color, texture and pattern coordination and the way a picture could evoke an emotional response was something of value; having an “eye” for detail. Instead I tried to fit my square peg into a round hole and ended up going in circles in my early professional life.
At a field trip to the Art Museum the tour guide asked us a question that I no longer remember about the artifacts on display. What I do remember is answering the question with my eyes looking up at the metal suit of armor hanging on the wall above us; the guide saw me and told me I had a “good eye” and that I was correct.
Our superpower is often the thing about ourselves that we dismiss because it makes us different. But once we grow up and recognize that what we thought was embarrassing as children is actually what makes us special it’s important to join a community of like-minded people, either of our own making or that we can find if we look. We all want to be appreciated for our specialness. We know the truth of ourselves that burns inside of us but letting it out can be intimidating. Having people to turn to who understand where you’re coming from is so vitally important and much fulfilling than trying to be like everybody else.