For all the things we gain from the wonders of the world wide web, we lose a few valuable things as well. In our search for a larger virtual community, many of us have surrounded ourselves with like-minded people so thoroughly that we find ourselves inside echo chambers, whether we realize it or not. In this day of heightened online rhetoric and routinely insulting dialogue with faceless strangers, we should probably forgive ourselves for wanting to limit the number of incessantly critical voices shouting at us through our digital newsfeeds on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or wherever. But sometimes we need to hear from people who do not already think the same way we think. It helps balance out our thinking and it exposes us to perspectives which allow us to see reality more fully. If nothing else this practice gives us a better awareness of the weaknesses of our own viewpoints. We will make mistakes either way, but at least this way we will make more intelligent ones, and perhaps fewer of them.
In that vein, lately I have found an article I once read coming back to me again and again. It was written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is now a member of the Greek Orthodox tradition. As such, I find a few things within the article with which I do not agree, particularly at the end. But the insights offered in this piece are priceless, and I feel they are pertinent to some of the challenges that some of us face as we find ourselves linked to any one of a number of growing cultural movements. This article is an abbreviated excerpt from a chapter I read years ago in a book on the Emergent Church phenomenon entitled Stories of Emergence. She covers more issues in the original writing, and uses more detail, but I think the best parts have been picked out for the shorter online version referenced here.
Mathewes-Green warns us of “the perils of the Superman cape,” by which she means those intoxicating and self-aggrandizing effects of linking ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves. She tells of how she resolved her adolescent identity crisis by joining herself to a series of idealistic crusades which she apparently no longer supports. Looking back she sees how the causes themselves were not what mattered. It was more about having a cause to begin with, or as she puts it so well:
It wasn’t the causes that energized us; the causes came and went. When they went, what was left behind was good old narcissism, the most durable fuel known to humankind. What remained was attitude, a delicious self-admiring gaze, wondering at the expansiveness of one’s own valor. I imagine a small boy with a pillowcase pinned to his shoulders like a Superman cape, standing on his bed so he can see himself in the bureau mirror.
All metaphors aside, I know for a fact that I have literally done this same thing myself (who hasn’t?), especially since as I pointed out in my last post, Superman was always my favorite superhero (Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones were tied for second place, but they’re not really from the same genre anyway). But that only makes her image hit home harder for me. I know this impulse and I know how deep it goes. Just last night in fact I watched A Beautiful Mind again and caught for the first time how central to the main character was a desire to matter—to find a significance for himself which gave his life a meaning beyond the commonplace. For him, this drive fueled an elaborate delusional fantasy in which his skills were needed to save the world from nuclear destruction. I understand that itch because I recognize it in myself. We all want to matter, on a cosmic scale even, and at times we are all too eager to latch on to one story or another which gives us what we crave. But there is a downside:
It’s an intoxicating costume. For one thing, the Superman cape works like an invisibility cloak in reverse: Put it on and you can’t see your own faults. Instead, you see everyone else’s with lightning clarity and assume the authority to judge them….What’s more, Superman-cape attitude has no natural enemies. If opposition arises-and secretly you hope it will–that just proves that you threaten the powers-that-be. An episode of opposition gives you a delicious opportunity to display your valor. Self-criticism or awareness of one’s own flaws is impossible, because external criticism reinforces your conviction that you’re right.
I know it well, and that’s why I find this article revisiting me again and again as I sort through the many postures available for an atheist battling religious privilege in the Deep South. As a small part of a growing “atheist movement,” I see all kinds of opportunities for self-aggrandizing and “displays of valor” in our fight for religious freedom. I also see it in some of the corollary causes which have lately demanded the attention of so many of my friends. I won’t get into what those causes are because they may either take it personally or else they will see it as an affront to the cause itself (sometimes it’s hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg). But what I can say is that I recognize the attitude itself—the self-conscious posturing of heroism—and I feel the need to check it in myself when I see it happening. I can actually feel my head getting bigger, my flaws getting smaller, and the world around me growing more and more black-and-white. But as a nearly perfect tweet said which I first found yesterday:
I should throw in here that some causes are worth fighting for. I myself am about to embark on what could become a protracted legal battle involving religious privilege in my area. Given the blows that I’ve already received over the last couple of years, I could find in this situation much fertile soil for a narcissistic admiration of my own courage and fortitude. But that doesn’t mean the fight shouldn’t be fought. It only means I should take care in how I proceed.
Mathewes-Green finishes her article with the subtle implication that suffering and injustice could serve a higher purpose such that all self-defense is “self-valorizing” in a way. Clearly she has absorbed the early Christian glorification of “taking up one’s cross” which I have come to deliberately reject as unhealthy. I must therefore disagree with her there. Unlike her, I do not believe that injustice serves a higher spiritual purpose; I believe it must be fought when it is encountered. That does not, however, mean that I cannot glean from her brilliant piece some insight into the human psyche which will make me a bit more aware of a tendency within myself which must be watched and checked.
It is easy to inflate one’s sense of self-importance through latching on to an important cause. You can lose yourself inside an ideal, making decisions which inevitably run roughshod over other things of value, all in the interests of serving “the greater good.” As Dan Fincke once pointed out, Nietzsche warned us: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.” I have seen people damage relationships because they were serving a cause, and the cause always seemed more important to them than any of the actual human beings surrounding the heroes themselves. Much like the way that Kal-El carelessly helped destroy billions of dollars worth of property (and presumably thousands of lives) toward the end of Man of Steel, their eyes are always far off on the horizon of their dreams, often to the detriment of the relationships right underneath their noses. I hope I never allow myself to get that way. As tempting as it sometimes may be to throw all caution to the wind in the service of “the greater good,” there are people around me who are precious to me, and everything I do has to take into consideration their needs as well.
You gotta watch out for that cape. It can really go to your head.