I love walking in the city, flowing along in a great river of humanity. But under ordinary circumstances I flow along in my own bubble of thought. Most of us live in this contradiction most of the time. We yearn to be part of a larger life, out there in a place where anything can happen at any time, yet safely encased in our own “Fortress of Solitude,” as Superman called his polar retreat. We like being in Metropolis, but not of it.
Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the quintessential New York-based comic book heroes, swooped in to perform astonishing deeds at crucial moments, but then retreating into protective identities, becoming Clark Kent, a mild-manner reporter at the Daily Planet, the philanthropist Bruce Wayne, or Peter Parker, a high school student living in Queens, who anguishing about teenage themes, rejection and loneliness and belonging. These heroes could dazzle with their great strength or resourcefulness. Yet none of them wanted to risk being unmasked. One Buddhist definition of ego is a defense against the pain of vulnerability.
We all fear being vulnerable, exposed as less than solid or coherent, changing depending on the conditions we are in. At one point in the unfolding saga of Superman, he tells Lois Lane that Clark Kent is just two words. In reality, he is “The Blur,” the term used by a bystander who witnessed him in action. Glimpsing ourselves in action in the midst of life, we all feel like blurs, tangles of motives and impulses and cover stories.
Our constantly updated identities are reactions to what happens to us. Batman became a masked crusader after the murder of his parents. He vowed to avenge their death by dispensing justice. He trained for years, creating his identity as a positive form of revenge. Peter Parker became Spider Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider. We deem ourselves lovable or unlovable, worthy or unworthy, depending on how things go.
In one sense, transcending life is for the privileged. The poor and marginalized don’t get to soar above the teeming streets, keeping a cool distance from the forces that shape our lives. And yet on the deepest level even the most unprotected among us live in a bubble of thought. Our perceptions, feelings, our contact with the world is filtered through our thinking, fodder for the unfolding narrative of who think we are and what the world is. This is our common neurological destiny. Is it folly to think we can be present? Is it delusion to think we can skip over the complicated issue of our processing and draw closer to life? Well…no. What can most readily change with practice is not our underlying biology or the remarkably resilient tendencies of ego but our attitude. Slowly, at moments we can cultivate ease in the midst of it all—or a quicker return to ease after upset. We can learn to surrender to powers greater than the self, letting go of control with humility. We can take off the cape and the mask and be as we are, trusting that under all the suffering in the world there is goodness. We can open to it one moment at a time.