On being ... a (super)hero

By Ingrid Sapona

A headline on the bottom of the front page of the Insight section of last Saturday’s Toronto Star read: “Meet Thanatos, Polarman and Dark Guardian”. I suspect the headline caught my eye because of the word Thanatos, which is a word I’m familiar with from the Greek Orthodox Church’s Easter service -- it means death. So seeing that word combined with Polarman (whatever that is) and Dark Guardian (whatever that is), definitely intrigued me.

The article proved even more interesting than the title. It was about people who consider themselves real life superheroes. They create identities -- often complete with costumes and face masks or at least face paint -- and they patrol neighbourhoods to fight crime and other evils.

Initially, I found the idea creepy (if a bit absurd). They sound like vigilantes, which I have always found worrisome. From the photos accompanying the article it was clear the costumes are meant to look scary, if not intimidating. Oh Great, I thought, nut-jobs bent on meting out their own version of justice. Just what we need…

Apparently there are more superheroes among us than you might expect. The article talked about a documentary that came out last summer that featured 50 self-styled superheroes. And of course, the Internet has helped bring many of them together. There are web sites where people (sorry, superheroes) exchange ideas. And, of course, what would a movement be without a support group of some sort. You guessed it -- there’s an organization called Superheroes Anonymous; it holds workshops and conferences to help people develop their superhero persona.

But, just as I noticed my stomach churning from my fear, trepidation, and general uneasiness about these real life caped and masked crusaders, the story went on to describe the specific activities of the characters (er, superheroes) named in the article’s headline. Thanatos, who wears a green and black mask, black trench coat, and wide-brimmed black hat, has been “patrolling” Vancouver streets for four years, handing out water and blankets to the homeless.

Dark Guardian lurks in New York City parks looking for drug dealers. When he comes across any he shines a flash light on them and yells “This is a drug-free park” in an effort to scare them and get them to move on. And Polarman -- perhaps the most uniquely Canadian superhero -- patrols streets in Iqaluit (the capital of the territory of Nunavut, which is near the arctic circle) keeping an eye out for vandals and shovelling city sidewalks.

Ok, perhaps the causes these “superheroes” are championing -- and the way they’re going about things -- isn’t that scary. In fact, according to the article, “few of the masked men and women out there actually fight crime. … they mostly do community work, such as helping the homeless and patrolling troubled areas, handing out flyers.”

By the end of the article, I didn’t really know what to make of these folks. Part of my lack of understanding comes from the fact that the whole concept of superheroes is foreign to me. Growing up I never read comic books (nor did my sisters, as far as I know). In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago when someone asked me what “superpower” I would most like to have that I even realized that what distinguishes a superhero from, well, I guess any other type of hero, is the specific superpower. Somehow I knew if I said something like “the ability to bake anything”, the guy who asked me the question wouldn’t have gotten the joke. So, I just told the truth, which is that I’ve never given it a moment’s thought.

Though the idea of adults donning masks and costumes and pretending to be superheroes seems crazy, if not comic and a bit creepy, the article made me think about why superheroes capture peoples’ imagination in the first place. I guess the reason people fantasize about them is because there is injustice and danger in the world and they want to believe that something -- someone -- can make things better.

I have the same hope and dream about people taking action to make the world better -- but I don’t think that only folks with superpowers can change the world. I think each of us has the power within us to make the world better -- we just have to take action. Ironically, I think that’s really what each of the folks featured in the article believe too -- it’s just that for some reason they feel better trying to change things while dressed in a costume.

I don’t believe in superheroes, but I do think that we can all be super heroes. And, with the holidays around the corner, it’s the perfect time to let the hero within spring into action. If you don’t know what to do or how to begin -- just pick a charity. There are plenty that can use your help, and most don’t require you to wear a costume. (If, on the other hand, you’re into that kind of thing, I’ll bet at this time of year you can even find a charity that can lend you a spiffy red velvet suit with white fur trim to wear.)

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a proverbial minefield

A friend (Felicity, not her real name) recently mentioned in an e-mail to me and some other friends of hers that she was planning on taking a professional development seminar. As part of the pre-seminar “homework” she needed to get feedback from people who knew her. The homework involved asking friends to list her three best qualities.

As I finished reading the e-mail, I remembered a situation years ago where I had to ask for such feedback from friends as part of some career counselling. I found the exercise quite valuable and I was taken aback by my friends’ insights about me. As a result, I thought it important to think before providing my response. So, I wrote her back and said I’d e-mail her my list shortly.

As it happened, as soon as I hit send on that e-mail, into my In Box popped an e-mail from Jane (not her real name), one of the other women Felicity included on that first e-mail. Unlike me, Jane was able to rhyme off three of Felicity’s qualities without hesitation. I don’t mind admitting that Jane’s speedy response made me feel oddly self-conscious about taking time with my response. Oh well…

Later that afternoon Felicity wrote me again to ask for my input on a simplified “360 Feedback” exercise that was also pre-seminar homework. Though there were only three questions on the form, they made the task of coming up with Felicity’s best qualities seem simple. So, I decided to start on my response about her qualities first.

As I thought about Felicity, a number of exceptional qualities came to mind – including those Jane mentioned. I managed to narrow my list but there was one particular quality I think Felicity has but that I had misgivings about listing: ambitiousness. I couldn’t help think that -- for better or worse -- there’s a double-standard when it comes to describing a woman as ambitious. (It’s like the difference between describing someone as aggressive versus assertive.) As a result, I know that to some the word has negative connotations.

I was surprised by the churning in my stomach as I debated about whether to include that quality on the list. Ultimately, I decided to include it because it reflects how in awe I am at all Felicity strives for and achieves -- both professionally and personally. Of course, I could only hope she too considers ambition a positive attribute.

The 360 Feedback questions were a whole other matter. The first question asked for examples of when I thought Felicity is at her best. That seemed pretty easy. The next question asked for examples of when she’s not at her best and for comments on how that impacts projects. Oh, and the instructions specifically ask that people responding be “honest, candid and open”. Hmmm… When I read that, the old joke about the prosecutor asking the defendant if he stopped beating his wife with a leather strap, came to mind. You know, the kind of question that no matter how you answer it, you’re in jeopardy.

I ended up spending a lot of time crafting my responses. My goal was to be even handed and constructive, as well as honest and candid. But, I found it very anxiety-provoking. I couldn’t help thinking that whatever I wrote revealed as much about me as it did about Felicity.

After I sent her my response, I told my friend Rob (not his real name) about it and how challenging I found it. His first comment was, “you didn’t tell the truth, did you?” Though his tone implied he was teasing me, I knew his comment was thinly disguised advice. He explained that in 360 reviews he’s participated in, to guarantee anonymity, the feedback was always submitted to a neutral third party. He thought without that layer, most people would not provide honest feedback. As you can imagine, Rob’s comments only fuelled my discomfort.

My discussion with Rob brought to mind an unpleasant episode I encountered once as a result of an evaluation form I filled in after taking a work-place seminar. I earnestly filled in the evaluation, providing what I thought of as constructive criticism. At the bottom of the form was room for our name and so I dutifully provided mine.

Well, let’s just say some of my comments were not received in the spirit in which they were given. Later, a trusted colleague who had been with the company a long time, told me that no one ever signs evaluations. Though I’ve always believed in owning up to my opinions (which is why I had no qualms about signing the evaluation), I learned my lesson. After that I followed the unwritten company policy and provided only anonymous feedback.

The exercises Felicity asked me for input on has had me ruminating about the delicate navigation required to be honest yet sensitive to others’ feelings when giving feedback. In thinking about it, the minefield metaphor came to mind as a title for an On being …. But, as I was nearing completion of this column I came across a sad news story about Syria laying landmines on its border with Lebanon in an effort to stop Syrians from fleeing. After reading that, I realized that though we may worry that our words or comments might be taken the wrong way or might cause unintended hurt, how lucky we are that the minefields we encounter are only of the proverbial kind.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona