Let’s think about some of the qualities of superheroes.
- They become heroic as a result of a mishap or suffering. (Spider-Man, Captain America)
- They work to help people – especially people they’ve never met. (Wonder Woman)
- They develop tools to enhance natural abilities and learn new skills. (Tony Stark, Batman)
- They’re really, ridiculously, tremendously smart. (Bruce Banner, Susan Storm)
- They’re just plain awesome. (Hawkeye)
You might remember my Walk for Hunger a few years back. I was participating in a program called SuperBetter, trying to overcome all kinds of self-doubt, depression, inertia, and aimlessness. After several smaller personal victories, I registered for a 20-mile fundraising walk and shocked myself to the core when I completed the full distance.
I have a previous post about that experience, which the creator of SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal, asked for permission to use during the writing of her book “SuperBetter.”
Dr. McGonigal’s book came out this past fall. I follow her on Twitter (because I am a creepy stalker) and while I had preordered it, things had gotten so crazy in my work life that I had forgotten when, exactly, it was going to be released. After months of three-hours-round-trip commutes, nine or ten or thirteen hours of work per day, and discovering an unhealthy relationship with working from home (two in the morning is not working time), I was drained. Some people are capable of functioning with long hours and little sleep; I am not one of them. Where my sister manages her career and family and high level of exhaustion and still manages to be put together and fierce, my inner 90-year-old demands eight hours of sleep minimum and Tired Meg gets waspish and snappy with tunnel vision and dark circles no makeup has ever successfully covered (I gave up trying years ago).
So it was with blank confusion that I registered the knocking on my door one morning at 6:30. I was running late and about to hop into the shower when it happened. I confess to a moment of standing in my bathroom, foot raised, completely unable to place the sound.
My upstairs neighbor had been the one knocking. “This came for you last night,” he told me, and handed me a small box.
Continuing the theme of inability to process anything, I stood in my apartment for a while simply staring down at the package. When I finally gathered the wherewithal to open it, what greeted me was bright and striking and startling. I stared down at the cover. Then, “Wait. She messaged me about this. I wonder if I’m in here.”
I was late for work that day.
(For reference, I am page 300 in the hardcover edition.)
A handful of days later, I was scrolling through the websites of some of my favorite local haunts when I noticed a special event being hosted at MIT: a conversation with Jane McGonigal followed by a signing.
When was the last time something in your life was so abundantly straightforward?
I went directly from work, my copy of the book tucked into my bag, to the venue. I sat in one of the first few rows of the auditorium, on the very edge. I stared at the walls, my fingers, the frayed ends of my hair, wondering what I should say to her if I got a chance to say anything. Wondering if I’d be arrested if I threw myself at her and cried. Wondering if anyone else in that room had the same dazed, excited, complete disbelief I had roiling in the pit of my stomach.
And then Jane and a staff member walked in. There was idle chatter, there were last minute technical adjustments, there was an assistant walking around with a bag filled with letter tiles. Jane and the event host sat down and had their discussion. We played Massively Multiplayer Scrabble (I was unable to find to a “word” near the front of the auditorium that needed my S in the third round but I gave it the old college try). There were questions and answers. And then, suddenly, the talk was over and it was time for the book signing.
As I’ve mentioned nineteen times already, I had my copy of the book in hand. While a large portion of the audience went to purchase copies from a table in the lobby, I was able to slip directly into the signing line and try to keep myself calm. An assistant came down the line, wrote everyone’s name on a sticky note and placed it in their books, and moved on. It became clear to me that this line was going to try to move efficiently.
Unfortunately, the event organizers planned without me. I am sincerely sorry for disrupting their efforts.
I was about fifth in line and when yet another event assistant slid my book in front of her to sign, I blurted out, “Jane…I’m Meg of the 20-mile walk.”
There was a moment when we both paused, her Sharpie in the air, my breath held, two or three puzzled assistants exchanging looks, and then the information processed. I processed that I had spoken at all; she processed who I was. Then she started making a sound that I’m not sure I’d ever actually heard a human make before, an inhalation in a tone of realization and surprise. The assistants looked startled, she dropped the Sharpie, I remembered I needed to breathe, and suddenly she had gotten up and come around the signing table and she was hugging me.
I needed that hug like I have never needed a hug before. I was fairly incoherent at her for a time, while she expressed insanely nice and encouraging things at me. I thanked her for giving me a platform to learn about myself (at least, that’s what I tried to say – I’m not sure I was actually speaking words at that point). She told me she had thought about me at Mile 20 of her first marathon. The book signing was well and truly derailed for several long minutes. Then, because she is both incredible and a professional, she gathered herself and wrote a message in my book while my brain took up the chant, “She knows me! She recognized my story!” and I continued babbling at the assistants and the person behind me in line about how much SuperBetter had changed my concept of self.
My shameless (obsessive) fangirling aside, let’s return to the premise of this post: superheroes have distinctive qualities.
- Jane McGonigal suffered a concussion and had a protracted, difficult recovery.
- She turned the coping mechanisms she developed during her recovery into a game and shared it with the world.
- She created practical, approachable mechanisms for recognizing challenges and quantifying both struggles and growth.
- She established her own PhD field, for crying out loud!
- She has the most fabulous shoes. (I covet glittery sneakers.)
I have met a superhero and she knew my story. She has changed my life from afar and helped me grow. She is warm and kind and enthusiastic and gives wonderful hugs. She has done incredible things and, in so doing, has enabled me to discover and remember myself in times of sadness, exhaustion, frustration, apathy, and despair. Whenever I have doubts, I have a framed certificate of completion to look at, a blog post to reread, a solid book to hold, a page to turn to, and words of kindness to trace my fingers over.
Jane, in case I didn’t manage to get the words out right that night, thank you. You are amazing.