A generation of superheroes

alter egos

Mild-mannered Clark Kent had it figured out.

“Your generation is doing it so differently,” a family friend told us without judgement, not particularly disparaging or praising her own generation but simply respecting the divergent paths of the millennials in her orbit.

We have our alter egos, the people we are to pay the rent, take a break, make space for discernment, get quiet enough to hear opportunity’s subtle knock. When we mingle at trivia night or Sunday school parties, that’s who we tell you we are. I’m a nanny. She’s a bartender. They’re baristas. That’s what we get paid to do at the moment. Ha. Little do you know of the Superman in your midst, chatting away undetected. What we are doing right now is not necessarily the thing we went to school to do or the thing we dressed up as at career day in first grade. We may never end up with a title that seems to match our major. But what we are doing matters, in all its indefinable, non sequitur, “Oh that’s interesting, so how did you end up doing that?” glory.

The thing we don’t realize is how much Superman needs Clark Kent and Batman needs Bruce Wayne. Being a nanny prepared my heart for my time with neighbors who sleep on cardboard boxes under overpasses or in shelter cots and bunk beds, who bring me poetry and sketches born from their experiences, who know more about what resources are available to them and how to talk to people than anyone in this city. Being folded into a family who aren’t Southerners or church people taught me to show my love for folks how they best see it, stepping back from my assumptions about the inherent hospitality in my offers for prayer and desire to feed everybody all the time. My comfort level around strangers and people whose life experiences could not be more different from my own if we planned it has exploded in a way that I can only understand as supernatural. But it has happened in a big boom. It’s crept in day by day as I inhabited my Clark Kent-ness (which, for me, looked more like Mary Poppins’ less musical cousin) with this detour sneaking gifts into my life while I wasn’t paying attention. It gave me space to breathe, read only what I wanted to, decide how I wanted to spend my time, worship only when and where and how I felt like it. It showed me what really mattered to me, because those were the things I pursued when I wasn’t graded on them.

Understanding the link between these seasons is so important. Otherwise we risk becoming an entirely different kind of superhero, something akin to “the other guy” as Bruce Banner ashamedly alludes to The Hulk. An anti-hero. The person who let pride fuel burnout when a sabbatical would’ve healed a bruised soul. The person who feels like the tail’s wagging the dog here with all the “supposed to’s” of a resume drowning out the still small voice of God’s call. When we don’t take what we need simply because of fear of what others may think, I truly believe God weeps for us, both for our own pain and for the gifts we’re denying the world by warping them with stress and obligation.

Not everyone does it this way. Not everyone needs to. But for some of us it is a life saver, and I’m not a bit embarrassed by this “gap in my resume.” Blame it on the economy, on a partner’s plans to finish school, on the lack of job openings in a particular area, but the truth is my soul needed a little childlike wonder. I needed to see beauty and new beginnings and the slow, hard learning processes of kindergarten paying off after all that upper-level evidence-based practice in the doom and gloom of our society as a graduate student in social work. I needed a different set of priorities, a smaller scope. I needed “my kids” and their parents, and I wouldn’t trade my time with them for all the tea in China. I keep framed photos of them in my office, a gift from their mama, just underneath a print of their hometown to remind me of my “year off.” I look at their smiling little faces and offer silent prayers of thanks for the privilege of holding their hands for a spell.

Ministry is such a strange vocation. People hand us their broken hearts on a regular basis. I talked to a friend about this over fried rice at an empty P.F. Chang’s and we got faraway looks in our eyes as we mused about the stories we each held from the church and the hospital. “They do,” she said about this sharing of brokenness. “They really do because it’s just too much to hold by yourself. And it is such a privilege.” I don’t know that I would quite know what to do with such privilege without “my kids.” My hands wouldn’t be strong enough to hold all these beautiful hearts well.

*PS–Y’all know I would’ve been reppin’ our female superheroes here, but they don’t tend to have alter-egos like our old school Saturday morning cartoon guys. With the ladies, Peggy Carter is both the secretary and the badass heroine, and Black Widow doesn’t feel the need to separate herself from Natasha Romanov. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure there’s another nerdy blog post in there somewhere. 😉


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