When I was young I had superheroes for parents. To the rest of the world they appeared as their secret identities, Alison and Steve, but when they were around me, their true nature shined through. They knew everything. They protected me from harm. They saved me when I needed rescuing. They were invincible. They were Mom and Dad.
It is painful to grow up. My first real heartbreak was not from a boy. It was the day I looked at my parents and saw them as Alison and Steve, as two people, just people, with too many questions and too few answers. It was when I discovered that they were imperfect and vulnerable and ordinary. It was when all three of us came to understand that their days as superheroes were over, that they would have to turn in their masks and capes, that they would have to settle for these lesser human identities. It was heartbreaking for them too, I imagine.
It was inevitable, of course. Eventually we learn that our parents and teachers don’t know everything. At some point we become aware of their mortality, and our own. There comes a time when we all realize that no one can protect us, not really, not completely. Slowly the world unveils its hurtful truths. Slowly our innocence fades from us. Slowly we become these people, these ordinary people, with too many questions and too few answers. The heart is a muscle. Sometimes it aches.
Sometimes truths are hidden in an effort to protect one another. Sometimes lies are told. It’s easier, I suppose, but it’s more than that. They are hopeful lies. They come from loving someone so much that truth feels secondary to that love. I understand that there are things we don’t want to admit to ourselves. I understand even more that there are things we don’t want to admit to each other. We want to save others from knowing our pain. We want to protect them. We want to be superheroes.
But the thing about wanting to be a superhero is that we forget what that actually means. Superheroes are more than strength. They are more than their masks and capes. They are more than just their powers. We don’t love them because they’re perfect. We love them because they are also Clark Kent and Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. They are also sometimes imperfect and vulnerable and ordinary. They are also sometimes human. We love them because they are both, because these ordinary, imperfect people can transform into greatness. We love them because we can too.
And what I mean by greatness is not perfection or invincibility or immortality. What I mean by greatness is the time when we are at our most human, those moments we are brave enough to follow our intuitions, those moments of courageous self-expression, those moments when our hearts break open to the world. Sometimes greatness is about sharing the dark, imperfect pieces of ourselves. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is to speak our truth, no matter how ugly or painful we think it might be.
Hiding it away doesn’t protect anyone. Hiding it away means that no one gets saved.
It isn’t selfish to share our suffering. It’s selfish to never allow anyone to love us enough to share it. Honesty is an act of love. We have to care about ourselves enough to realize our own truths. We have to care about others enough to tell them. We have to embrace the complex whole of our identities if we ever hope to transform into something more.
It is painful to grow up. It is painful to transform. It is painful to earn that mask and cape. But it is wonderful sometimes to be just human, just ordinary and vulnerable and imperfect, just like everyone else. And it is wonderful sometimes to watch the people you love speak their truths, embrace their complexity, emerge from the experience as someone more powerful and heroic and super. And it is wonderful sometimes, isn’t it? To step out of the darkness and realize that you too, can fly.