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Along the Way
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Network television has finally got it right with its new series Heroes!

            Every Monday evening at 9:00pm I can be found in front of the television watching Heroes. My youngest son and I shout with excitement when the story takes some unexpected twist. My older son works evenings, so we record the show and watch it together when he comes home, or we’ll download it from iTunes the next day and watch it. Afterward there is an extended analysis of the development of the story line and speculation over where the story is going.


            I admit it…I love stories about superheroes. We are among the first in line at the theaters when there is a new Star Wars film, X-men, Batman, Superman and, of course, Spiderman. The stories are great! There is always action and adventure. The hero is always some average guy with bills to pay, problems with his wife or girlfriend, and questions about the meaning of his life and what direction it is headed. At some point however, this average Joe is faced with a challenge that towers above him and threatens to destroy him and everyone he loves. Instead of cowering in fear, he stands up to the challenge and in the process is transformed. It isn’t that he becomes a different person, he still has his problems and insecurities. Rather, in the process of facing the challenge the hero grows and becomes equal to the challenge. The superpower has always been there but it is in facing the challenge that the power becomes apparent and is forced to flower. The superhero stories, at least the better ones, are not just fantasy but they teach us something about ourselves. We discover that we have the capacity to become greater than who we are at present as we take on the challenges of life and rise up to meet them.


            Superhero stories are not new. They’ve been around for thousands of years. We know some of the old superheroes; Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles and Gilgamesh are the better known. We refer to the older generation of superhero stories as myths. In recent decades the word myth has gotten a wrong connotation. We think of myth as being something that is not true, just a fantasy, a tale to entertain children with no greater value. That understanding of myth is wrong! It is true that most myths are stories. These stories may or may not be based in some historical event. It is irrelevant if there is any historic basis for the story. What is important is that the myth expresses a deep truth in the form of a story. The story makes that truth come alive for us and speak to our hearts. The story tells us that the hero of the story is not just some character who lived long ago and far, far away but that we are the hero and the story is about us. The myth is like a mirror, giving us a glimpse of who we really are. That is why myths grab our interest and why we can get so excited about them. The television show Heroes does a good job of this with many of the characters in the story.


            Hiro is a young Japanese whose dad is the president of a major Tokyo corporation. His dad starts him out in some dead end paper pushing job in one of the company’s divisions. He wants his son to take up the challenge of the business world and work his way up through the ranks. Hiro could care less about the business world. He wants to experience the classic adventures of the ancient Samurai warrior and live according to the Bushido code. He wants to undertake the great hero’s quest.


            One day he realizes that he has a unique power. He can stop the flow of time. He can move around in time. He shares the news with his best friend, Ando, who tells him to “get a grip”. It doesn’t take long for Hiro to prove the reality of his power to Ando. Not long after saving the life of a school girl with his newly discovered ability, he gets a glimpse of the extent of his power when he is transported two months into the future and across the planet to New York City. He learns that the city is going to blow up in what appears to be a nuclear explosion and then he finds himself back in Tokyo. He has his quest. He must go to America and save New York City.


            Hiro is on the classic hero’s quest. In that quest he begins to learn about love and self-sacrifice. He learns that facing evil is not easy, that people he loves can be hurt and that the quest demands courage and fidelity. Hiro even has his “sidekick”, a common element in the classic hero stories, in Ando. As we watch the series we can see Hiro change as he becomes more heroic and more mature. His language ability develops. He discovers the courage to stand up to his father and help his father see the talent that exists in his older sister, who is really the one who should be groomed to take over the company. Not only is it a great story, we can see in Hiro the young person struggling to find his identity and his proper place in the world.


            Niki is another important character in the series. She is a young mother whose husband is in jail and whose son is a genius and belongs in a school for the gifted, something she can not afford. Her family life as a child wasn’t good. She was abused, neglected and molested by her father. Her sister, Jessica, died under strange circumstances. She owes money to the Mafia. If that wasn’t bad enough, she experiences periods of blackout for which she has no memory. As the story develops we learn that Niki has a multiple personality disorder and that her other personality is Jessica, supposedly her dead sister. Not only does Niki have multiple personality disorder but when the Jessica personality is in control she also has super-strength. She struggles to control Jessica but doesn’t do a very good job of it much of the time. When Jessica is in control, bad things happen. Niki-Jessica seems to be a toned down and not green version of the Hulk, from comic book and movie fame.


            The story of Niki holds up a mirror for anyone who struggles against aspects of his or her life that seems to fly out of control much of the time. Certainly this can apply to anyone who struggles with a physical or mental disability, as well as addiction. It also speaks to the rest of us as well, since each of us has parts of our life that just refuse to come under control and betray us at the worst times. Since Jessica is presented as the evil personality and Niki as the good, an underlying theme of the story is the struggle over the choices we make between good and evil. One is reminded of St. Paul’s observation that he usually found it difficult to do what he wanted to and easy to do that which he didn’t want to do.


            Matt is a good cop. He knows his job inside-out and usually receives excellent evaluations. However, he is also dyslexic and struggles with anything that requires reading. He is more than qualified to be a detective but can never pass the civil service test for detective because of his dyslexia. After failing the test the third time he is depressed. His wife seems to be loosing interest in him, though the long hours he spends working may be part of the problem. He feels like a failure at work and at home. One day he is at a crime scene, a uniform officer involved in crowd control when he hears the voice of a child calling for help. He follows the voice and discovers a young frightened child hiding in a small storage space under the hallway stairs. He saves the girl but finds the superior officers very confused because no one else heard the child’s voice. Before long he realizes that he is able to hear people’s thoughts. An FBI agent working on the case where his power saved the child’s life believes Matt and gets him involved in the case. Finally Matt experiences success, not just in helping the FBI agent by using his power, but in demonstrating his skills at police work. While the power of hearing people’s thoughts can be very helpful, it is a double edged sword. He learns that his supervisor at work is having an affair with his wife and punches the guy in anger, knocking him out. This gets Matt suspended. He also discovers that even using his power accurately in police work is of little use if the offender can convince Matt’s non-super superiors of the offender’s innocence. Strangely, things actually begin to look up in his marriage when he is home, spending time with his wife and being as totally honest and open with her as possible.


            While I don’t encounter many people who can hear the thoughts of other people, I do encounter many people who are like Matt. They are caught up in self-pity and frustration over their jobs. They can see their marriage slowly disintegrate and don’t know what to do about it. They may be struggling with an obstacle like dyslexia or some other disability. Rather than getting help, counseling for the marriage and advocacy assistance for the accommodation to take the detective test orally, it is easier to wallow in self pity and let one’s life fall apart.


            If life sends a particular blessing there are other lessons to learn. Matt’s thought hearing powers brought opportunities but also difficulties. The bottom line seemed to be with what he did with the problem or opportunity presented. As he learned to be honest, to be patient and persistent the balance seemed to shift away from problems and more toward opportunities. This had nothing to do with the power per se but with ordinary human virtues.


            Like the myths of old, the stories encountered on Heroes are not just about superpowers and adventure but about how we grow and are transformed by the power of virtue and trying to learn from our experience. Our life struggles may seem small scale in the greater scheme of things but how we face those struggles has the power to transform us into heroes.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.