November 4, 2010

Captain Compassion: A Superhero of Understanding.

The real practice of exercising compassion comes when we challenge our ability to cultivate the clarity of understanding despite the clutter of others’ confusion.

I’ve never been too interested in Superheroes – Spiderman, Superman, Batman, etc.; however, as the mother of two, soon three, little boys, I’ve been forced to become acquainted with these fictional super-humans and their accompanying villains.

My husband will attest, I adamantly resisted allowing my children to be engrossed in such an oversimplified and unrealistic dualism of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’. I’ll admit that I panicked the first time my son pointed to a picture of a snarling mutant and asked, “Mommy, is that a bad guy?” How could I allow my children to label and dismiss someone… anyone… as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’?

Trying to incorporate my own beliefs into this reasoning, I searched for some clear explanation imbedded in the stories to illustrate to my boys why these people were doing harm to others. Some answer that would evoke compassion in a child instead of the desire to merely destroy them.

Despite my preconceptions, there are subtle elements present within these stories with a surprising message to cultivate compassion… even for an adult.

“There is only one good–knowledge, and one evil–ignorance.”


In each of the superhero stories I’ve read or watched with my children, all represented the opposing force in the same manner: overtaken by some external influence of confusion or ignorance. Without getting into specifics, every one of them were overcome with greed, hatred or some sort of delusion. Sometimes these downfalls were blatantly represented but more often alluded to or symbolized by some dark imposing power.

In the beginning of these stories we are often provided with proof that these beings were once well-meaning and unhindered by confusion. We are also usually supplied with the reasoning as to what poisoned their purity. For young minds, these scenarios serve as wonderful practice to understand how to develop compassion for these beings who were once ‘good’ but then were overcome by a haze. They are not inherently ‘bad’…  they just walked down the wrong path.

In real life, however, we are not supplied with these key elements to aid in our compassion practice for deluded beings. Often encountered in their worst states and already evoking negative emotions in those around them, we have no knowledge of their prior intentions or the source of their confusion.

It is far easier to believe that a being is inherently bad, deserving to be condemned or punished, thus leaving those in most need of our empathy alone in their ignorance and confusion.  Compassion tends to flow more freely to those who are easier to understand and love.

The real practice of exercising compassion comes when we challenge our ability to cultivate the clarity of understanding despite the clutter of other’s confusion.

“The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves “inside the skin” of the other.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Despite some other issues that I have with my children watching and reading superhero stories (violence, revenge, etc.), I am grateful for the simple reminder for a strong practice.

If only the superheroes would combat evil with understanding and compassion instead of brute force and weapons….

May we all strive to understand those who are lost in confusion by illuminating their path with the light of our compassion.

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