This starts, like many of my stories do, with a very young me reading comic books.
When I was about eight, I was reading a Superman comic, one in which Superman was explaining to Lois Lane that he is very selective about using some of his powers, such as super hearing and x-ray vision.
If he were to use them all the time, he explained, he would constantly be overwhelmed by the amount of people dying and suffering that he could not reach in time to save.
If he were he to stay completely open, he would have to abandon any hope of a personal life in order to be as available as possible, still continuously be aware of people around the world and throughout the universe dying, because he chose to rescue someone else instead.
Needless to say, this was very heavy shit for an eight-year-old.
Superman isn’t the only super hero who has felt overwhelmed by that work cut out for him; both Jesus and Buddha had similar moments.
Jesus famously fled to the mountains to get away from the crowds that wanted him to heal them of afflictions both physical and spiritual.
Buddha was ready, after his enlightenment, to stay under the Bodhi tree for the rest of his life because he felt no one would understand what he had to teach, and that there was too much dust in the eyes of all the beings throughout existence to even try to explain. But Superman is the one who is always stuck in my mind.
Over the years, I’ve viewed Superman’s hesitation to be aware of everyone’s suffering in different ways.
When I first read about it, I was concerned (admittedly, purely fictional) that people live and die completely at random, depending on whether or not Superman happened to be paying attention. Later, I noticed how even with an entire multiverse, constantly one super villain away from explosion, he always had time to help out his friends with whatever minor issues they had (he once cleaned his pal Jimmy Olsen’s apartment at super speed so Jimmy’s date wasn’t ruined, seriously).
It wasn’t until I worked in a drug rehab though, that I understood it. All of us—whether comic book character, religious founder, or anything else—experience compassion burnout. Despite our best intentions, humanity continues to bleed, rape, murder and cry. And it hurts.
Working in a rehab, I see the same people come in again and again, make the same promises, and leave to go to the same places to take the same drugs. Occasionally someone makes it, but more often than not their name eventually materializes in stark black and white on a newspaper page—listed among the rest of the dead—and they escape the cycle that way.
Faced with this, I have seen many of my coworkers struggle and decide the answer is to stop caring. They harden their hearts and make their senses impervious to the issues that addicts face. Some make some sort of ethical misstep and leave the field by being escorted out.
Others drift along, not caring but still going through the motions like a ghost that descends the same staircase every night for no other reason than that is what it does.
And why bother? For all of us, for every person we touch, a hundred won’t be reached.
How do we live in an universe where we are constantly surrounded by these overwhelming numbers?
We’ve all heard the affirmations and the sound bites about being the change we want to see and how to the one we help, it matters. But reality returns with enough conflicting data, enough news of people being terrible to each other and to themselves that the most logical option seems to be throwing our arms up in surrender.
And yet we don’t—for whatever reason—we try to keep going, to keep loving each other and helping each other.
There is something either inside of humanity, between humanity, around humanity or possibly all of the above, that promises otherwise—that it does all count for something and it’s not all in vain.
And occasionally, we even see evidence of it. Despite the unlikelihood, extraordinary things happen, refuel, renew and allow us to rededicate. Sometimes, just sometimes, the tired clichés rise above being shared across a thousand Facebook pages and become real.
When Buddha decided to sit under the Bodhi tree until his natural death, the story goes that a god descended from the heavens and begged him to teach for the sake of the humans, animals, gods and everything in between that had “only a little dust in their eyes.”
You see, though there are beings that are so deluded that nothing Buddha said would be heard or processed, some might actually benefit from his teaching; they would benefit so much that the normally aloof Buddhist gods took notice.
Our task is to love everyone, but not necessarily, to help all of them. Instead, we can only touch what we can reach, and hope for the rest to be touched by others reaching out from other directions.
There is another Superman comic I read once.
Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch rival, has found someway to gain Superman’s powers. He goes on a murderous rampage before he stops in his tracks and, fully utilizing the super senses that come along with the territory, begins to lament to Superman that this is all there is—us trapped together with nothing but each other for help.
He begins to cry and surrenders.
In the end, all we have is each other.
Like I said, sometimes Superman is pretty heavy shit.
Andrew Cvercko lives in Winsted, Connecticut. He works at a drug rehab, teaching mindfulness meditation to people recovering from drug addiction. He spends his free time corresponding with people in prison on religion and meditation, exploring this strange planet we find ourselves on, and thinking too much.
Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person on Facebook.
Assistant Ed: Josie Huang
Ed: Bryonie Wise