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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/06/2004
Vol. 2, #139

So You Wanna Be Like Superman, Well Good Luck!

The word is that I quit comics in 1968 because I objected to Mort Weisinger's pushing a plot on me in which Superman gives his powers to Lois Lane.

The truth is I quit because I couldn't stand working for Mort Weisinger. But what's interesting about this story is the notion that it would be such a great thing for Lois to have Superman's powers in the first place. I get approached by so many younger people who think they'd be absolutely happy if they had Superman's powers, so it's time we all had a closer look at this notion. On the face of it, what could one possibly need beyond Supermanic powers to make one happy?

But perhaps we should begin by asking the key question:--Was Superman happy?

After all the analyses I did and the stories I wrote about Superman, I knew well enough that there wouldn't even have been a Superman character unless he was mostly unhappy! Think about it -- if Superman had just happily gone around helping people, there wouldn't have been any story. Look again and you'll see that Superman sweated it most of the time, to put it bluntly. He had problems using his powers, he had problems because he had powers and he even had problems with the powers themselves, like the story I wrote in which he lost control of them and his own supernormal abilities nearly drove him out of his mind.

But the real point here is that the things we anticipate will make us happy never really do that. There have been significant psychological studies done that show that the human anticipation of happiness almost never lives up to expectations!

These studies have shown that you are wrong to believe a new car will make you as happy as you think it will. The same for a new kitchen, or new furniture, or a new job, and so on down the line of urgently held desires.

On the other side of the ledger, you are equally wrong in your estimation of how badly a catastrophe will affect you. Take any single big one that you think will devastate you, being jilted by your greatest love, breaking your leg, the death of a loved one. That's because, as the research shows, we humans are universally poor at predicting their own future feelings.

Professor Daniel Gilbert of Harvard's department of psychology says that "you are even wrong to reckon that a cheeseburger you order in a restaurant...will definitely hit the spot."*

* from an article by Jon Gertner, a contributing writer for Money magazine

Professor Gilbert, along with his colleagues, Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, the economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon and the psychologist (and Nobel laureate in economics) Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, have, among numerous others, been studying the experience of wish realization and catastrophe expectation in terms of how such events are likely to affect us. As it turns out, predicting future feelings turns out to be a very dicey game. Hardly anything will ever be as great as you imagined. Your home team victory elation fades away in a couple of days, and the death of a loved spouse will not leave you devastated for as long as you imagined. What we do have, it seems, are enormous recuperative powers from desires driven mostly by elements that are neither rational nor acted upon at a rational moment.

The desire to be like Superman comes at a moment or time of frustration, even a species of elational yearning, a kind of heated irrational moment. Similarly the desire for a new SUV. And just because you've had the desire for a long time, because it builds when you fail to get it, over and over again, don't think that strengthens the joy for very long when and if you finally do get it.

And if you thought about it intelligently, you'd realize that there's no special joy in being Superman, only special problems that we all know already and thoroughly dislike. Such as feeling different from anyone else; such as feeling lonely; such as having to be on guard against those envious ones who would like to pull you down.

On the other hand, you do have something that no one can take away from you, and maybe not a lot of people envy. All right, that's just little you. "Well, er--couldn't I just have people envy me a little bit?"

Really? Is that what you want? Or maybe that's why you want to be Superman. But keep in mind that being envied is not a great state to be in. It's trouble.

Hey, some people actually think I'm an important writer. A number of critics have said so. But it doesn't make me feel important. And it even gets in the way of my work, like I have to keep up with what they think of me instead of keeping up with my own deepest sources of inspiration. And note, those sources of inspiration are part of you too, no matter where you are in life. So take pride in the self you are. And explore it. Mine it for its riches. You'd be amazed at what you're missing while you're so busily looking over there, in the direction of Superman. Why ask for somebody else's troubles anyway, especially Superman's?

--Alvin

<< 08/30/2004 | 09/06/2004 | 09/13/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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