Photo Credit: goodcomics.comicbookresources.com
By Yonatan Gordon
Not that we have hopefully provided a solution for our paradox mentioned in Part 2, we can now further explain another quandary presented there. Before we start, we wanted to mention that we will once again be referencing the recent article by Samuel Arbesman entitled “Explain It to Me Again, Computer: What if technology makes scientific discoveries that we can’t understand?”
In Part 3 we compounded, and hopefully provided a solution for “The Paradox of Invention” introduced in Part 2. But there is an important element that we have not yet discussed. Namely, if an inventor can create a product that they don’t understand, to what extent do we really know the full potential within ourselves?
How did we get to this question? From our discussion in Part 3 about real people and their secret superhero identities. We mentioned that even if Clark Kent needed to do the miraculous (e.g. fly into space and redirect a nuclear missile into the Sun), the best case scenario is that he should have been able to do that as Clark Kent. The fact that he had to put on a costume, concealing his true identity, is only because he didn’t want his Clark Kent self to also be turned into an action figure.*
When we speak of inventing products then, perhaps each of us has this miraculous side? Either we aren’t yet aware of it, or if we are, we hide it lest we become the subject of public accolades. The Paradox of Invention is not limited to the realm of turning pristine ideas into material products. The paradox also relates to the question of fame. If we become well-known for our talents and abilities, what would this do to the plain-clothed version of ourselves?
The short answer is that even if the whole world knows the superhero as the person who flew into space, they still don’t fully understand him. Like the product that is even too difficult for its inventor to understand (e.g. the complex algorithm in Arbesman’s article), just because we embrace the superhero version of ourselves doesn’t mean we understand it.
Shepherding the Flock
In Part 2 we discussed that products transition from toys to tools when they become used in a group setting. So too, a good way for a superhero not to become an action figure is by leading a tight-knit group or class of students. But instead of the product becoming the tool for the group to benefit from, these superheroes would be leading the way forward, while their followings seek to implement this super-charged wisdom.
In Kabbalah, the way that this is expressed is that while the role of the teacher is to share light (i.e. the novel concepts presented in the class), it is up to the students to make some application (termed vessel) for this light.
But the ultimate intent is that each superhero should become a leader over a band or class of their own students. As alluded to in Part 5 of our Apple Turnaround Series (with regard to the teacher-student relationship), the goal is that each student should in turn be a teacher to the next group of students.
What makes a superhero? Put simply, it is someone who finds an exception in the laws of nature; and from this exception, new potentials born. But there is always some impetus, some test in a person’s life that awakens these latent powers. Like the X-gene which was always there from birth, it may be only because of specific challenges in our lives, that our secret identity become revealed to us.
When seen in this light, let’s re-imagine the Superman movie as follows. Clark Kent, journalist for the Daily Bugle, had been trying to inform the public for months about the danger that Lex Luther poses. Either he published cautionary news stories, or his boss Perry White wouldn’t let him publish these articles. Seeing that there was no choice, he decided that the only way to save California was to somehow stop the nuclear missile himself. Taking on a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others, he realized that he could now fly into the sky himself and divert the missile.
This “what if” scenario was not meant to jive with the rest of the Superman universe. Instead, what we try to do in these articles is to abstract and isolate the elements of the story that serve as lasting lessons for us. Whereas the attraction to products are rooted in the incipient idea behind them, the world of comic book superheroes is an “action figure” rendering of something that was never meant to hit the shelf.
Exceptions to the Rule
Many great people start off by first discovering an exception to the rule, then acting upon it. This is what Malcolm Gladwell terms the “outliers” of society (borrowing the term from mathematics).
As with the X-men universe, the existence of superheroes may seem a threat at first to the culture of the day. What will this group, born with the X-gene, do to the rest of civilization? But posing a threat to the establishment also challenges us to move forward to include these “outliers” in our equation. Maybe the “exception is the rule” is really the most normal person in the society.
Part of what makes the concept of superheroes so remarkable is that up until this superhero or outlier came to the scene, the established way of doing things was accepted. Only once this rule breaking superhero started saving the world, did we realize how much this world was really in need to saving.
Becoming a superhero though is more than being a counter-culture revolutionary. It’s about doing and accomplishing feats we simply didn’t think possible.
When we say the word מסתר it can either mean “a concealed place” or “a secret place.” These two words, concealed and secret, always go together in Chassidut. Concealed is related to chochmah (wisdom), while secret is related to binah (understanding). This pairing also relates the concealed to time (a male or chochmah quality), while the secret is related to space (a feminine or binah quality).
How does this distinction relate to our discussion? Whereas a person may “conceal” their true identity because of the time or culture that they live in, the secret comes out when the world (your city, country, planet) most needs it.
In the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah, the very first Kabbalistic text), time is divided into two extremes: the extreme of beginning, and the extreme of end-times. Now aside from these two extremes within time, and the six extremes within space (the farthest above, below, forward, right, left, backward), there are also two final extremes termed the two crowns of consciousness (da’at). They are called the extreme of good and the extreme of evil; the superhero and the supervillian.
Tumbling Past Comics
Before we conclude, we wanted to add something very important, although it is not easy to say.
We mentioned that ideally the concept of superheroes should have never hit the comic store shelf. That each of us can learn positive lessons from this genre, without relegating ourselves to think that the metaphors are wholly fictional. Like most things in the world, there are good points we can use to understand our true identity (as we have tried to do in this and the previous article).
The problem occurs when these metaphors turn into a mythology or action figure. When good concepts at heart, become just another product. But as we noted in our Becoming a Great Marketer series, when attempting to train people past the “product” way of thinking, a solution needs to be provided as well. For instance, when a journalist explains how Facebook is no longer useful, a viable replacement should also be presented. If no complete successor is pinpointed, then the public is left in the dark wondering where to go next.
Using our tumbling metaphor from Part 3, this is tantamount to a person trying to make observations of the world while mid-tumble. At this stage of his journey, his eyes are closed and he doesn’t know what the world will look like when he opens them again. Instead of Facebook, will he see Tumblr or something else?
There are creative-minded people today that see the need to transition beyond the mythology and product aspect of comics; but instead of portraying an optimistic future state, depict something dark and dreary. While the idea to change the way we view comics can be good, of utmost importance is not to start writing while mid-tumble. Such seemed to be the case with Alan Moore and his graphic novel, Watchmen.
He wanted to show the public a very different image of the superhero, but in doing so, presented a dark end-world scenario. While critiquing the superhero concept can be positive (as we have also done), he painted a world with no viable replacement. The fact that superheroes were outlawed in Watchmen, then brought back again to save the world, doesn’t leave the reader with a better way to view superheroes.
We mentioned that time, and the extremes of time, have to do with the concealed (chochmah). But instead of the future being a time when superheroes are concealed (or even outlawed), it will be a time of light; when human potential will be accessed to its fullest.
Now we can go back to where we started this discussion in Part 2. What prevents a superhero from becoming a product? The fact that he doesn’t understand himself. It is no wonder then that the world also doesn’t understand him. But this is the secret of revealing one’s identity. If the superhero doesn’t understand who they are, and the world doesn’t as well, then everyone can “not understand” together.
What is the purpose of speaking about the “half life” of products? It gives a person the ability to differentiate, to divide things. Someone who is holding onto half the product, is able to tell the difference. As we explained, this is like the difference between a child who is satisfied with his toy, and an adult who sees it more as a tool to foster collaboration.
The main merit for becoming a superhero, teacher, or other public leader is that they are careful to take on personal responsibility for the community. It is in this merit that they are able to differentiate and see things that others cannot. By viewing themselves as half of the equation, they more acutely sense the need to connect with others in order to become complete.
What is exile? It is like a time when God rules the world without this dividing line. Everyone is given products, but people become complacent with the plenty that they have. But if we merit to return the world back to the purpose for which it was originally created, then our consciousness will be deliberate once more (termed שקול הדעת).
May we all merit to see the half, knowing the the journey to completion happens when we see the world as a collective work in progress.
* With regard to the question of whether Superman was the real identity, please see the comments at the bottom of Part 3.
Note to Reader: Although this article emphasized revealing one’s secret identity, what would it mean to reveal your concealed identity? One’s the concept of a concealed identity seems most related to the origin stories that are told in the comic book world (e.g. regarding the origin of Wolverine / Logan, etc…). The idea that one’s superhero origins are not known, relates to the ultimately unknowable source of the ideas.
The above article was written based on portions of pages 7-10 of the 19 Adar 5773 shiur (lesson) by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh. For the full transcript, please Click Here.