Practical Philosophy

Waiting for Super(wo)man

It’s rather alluring, the belief that some outside force can swoop in from above and set everything right. Whether we call that entity God, or Super(wo)man, or “they,” we love to quickly and easily release our agency for the sake of not having to do any work.

We imagine that at Judgement Day God will finally smite the sinners and raise us, the righteous, to our proper position. We believe that the quickest and best solution to the problem of crime is an invincible crime fighter from another world. We believe that “they” should acknowledge our genius and give us what is ours; that “they” haven’t yet is simply an indication that “they” don’t really know what they’re doing.

If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to give up agency over your life and accept your fate as existing in the hands of some outside force. “They” is frequently bandied about by people in this state: we used to have a park but then “they” took it away. If only “they” would install a traffic light, this intersection would be a lot safer.

These people are waiting for Super(wo)man. Some outside powerful force to swoop in and change the world. But the real change in the world is rarely made — with a few noteworthy exceptions — by individuals. And even those individuals who arguably were primary causal actors don’t match the comic book image of Super(wo)man.

Instead the world is made better by banal and often thankless actions of normal people. The young teacher motivated to put in extra hours making sure Tyler gets out of third grade reading at his grade level and eager to get even better. By the aging citizen who is so insistent on the need for a stoplight at an intersection that she methodically bends the unreceptive city council into submission. By the middle-aged man who decides to give a few days a months to feeding the homeless with his own two hands. By the little girl who protests hard when her high school commits some injustice that every adult would rather ignore.

Some people setting out to make these sorts of contributions stumble or fail. But they can and do push the collective of humanity forward, effort by effort. There’s a stultifying impotence in waiting for Super(wo)man, and the idea that your effort will not solve the problem is the start of that impotence.

None of us can single-handedly bring peace on earth or an end to poverty. But we can make our small effort and slowly, over the course of our lives, see the world slightly better as a result. To do so we must accept that we are the Super(wo)men we’ve been waiting for.

Like this essay? Subscribe via RSS or email, or follow on Twitter and you'll never miss another like it.

Standard