An Exploration of Heroes

Banksy's Game ChangerAt our Tikkun Leil Shavuot on May 28, 2020 (6 Sivan 5780), Aaron Severs shared his passion for superheroes beginning with an introduction to these comic characters and ending with a remarkable testimonial for our Victoria COVID-19 heroes.

Heroes are made, not born. They are admired by many people for doing something brave. They flash into public view, and dazzle us with courageous and selfless acts. Despite their noble achievements, heroes are not perfect. Many have a chequered past, e.g. John F. Kennedy’s marital infidelity or Mahatma Ghandi’s racist remarks. Yet these imperfections do not take away from their amazing accomplishments: just the opposite. They can motivate and reassure the rest of us that despite our flaws and shortcomings we too can contribute to benefit our community.

This evening, I’ve chosen to explore what we learn from heroes and so-called superheroes. Those of you who know me, suspect with whom I’ll start. Yes, yours truly has a rich and vivid fantasy life – I’ve never quite let go of the child within me. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a “superhero is a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers.” Many of the iconic stereotypical characters were born post-Depression, as America had just entered the throes of WWll, and fascism was on the rise in the world. Think Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (all saw their debut in 1938 – 1942). Often superheroes are portrayed as athletic and attractive (somewhat problematic when trying to role model for kids). Kids love the special effects and power—the Batmobile, or Iron Man’s toys, or Wonder Woman’s strength, flashy costume and determination.

But superheroes also lead complicated lives and personalities. I’ll wager that adults love the characters for more than their spectacular costumes and prowess. Consider Spiderman. Why do people connect or relate to him? Because Spidey is “courageously uncool.” He’s full of angst (stereotypically Jewish), and perennially caught between wanting to be a free-lance photographer and doing serious crime-fighting. Moreover, Spiderman has a PR mess on his hands due to an ongoing feud with the editor of the local tabloid who paints the character as a villain. Lastly, Spidey (save for the famous Kirsten Dunst kiss) often ends up on the short end of finding love interests. That said, Peter Parker, for all his web-slinging ability, is a loner and underdog—and could be any of us! We relate to the imperfect human behind the mask.

Superheroes teach us many lessons and key virtues—

  • Selflessness
  • Courage
  • Loyalty
  • Knowing the difference between right and wrong
  • That ingenuity, self-sacrifice and team work are integral to triumph over adversity

We look to these characters for several fascinating reasons—

  • As escapism—traditional and social media sources bombard us with negative messages. Think of how many stories not talking about COVID-19 you’ve heard lately?
  • An ideal we can believe in—people have started/continue to be jaded by politicians, big corporations and others in power (government bureaucrats like me).
  • Nostalgia—allows us to think back to simpler times when we were kids. I mean who didn’t read comic books or watch cheesy Batman and Robin show on B&W TV screens.
  • Donning the character’s costume (“cosplaying” event. We had Wolverine, Wonder Woman and Iron Man show up at a Purim party.
  • Act outside the law—to some extent, they are vigilantes, and are no-holds-barred crime fighters. For instance, think of X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Deadpool (one of my faves).
  • Betterment of the world (tikkun olam—protecting the public and fighting evil.
  • A symbol of hope—they are a role model (dugmah) for us to follow and make ourselves better people.

In fact, superheroes are more popular today than they’ve ever been since their humble beginnings. In 2018, Hollywood released 9 superhero movies with $2.9 B in revenue, or about 25% of all ticket sales. Staggering! Despite these impressive numbers, where are these caped crusaders now that we need them? Guardians of the Galaxy have not whizzed in their spacecraft to our rescue, Captain Marvel is not seen in Times Square, and even Black Panther is AWOL. That’s right, folks. “The parental units” Time Warner Inc. and Disney Studios (who own the rights to these superheroes) have put our fictional characters into self-isolation. No new movies have come out this year, and certainly none has ventured out to Vancouver Island or elsewhere to battle against COVID-19. Seems the virus more indomitable a foe than even Thanos. And, he was “one bad hombre,” as the US President would say.

Paradoxically, this vacuum has shown the spotlight more clearly on those whom we call “essential workers.” These flesh and blood folks have emerged as the true heroes of our unusual times. Essential workers have a strong sense of purpose at work and an obligation they feel to help others. It’s a tough balancing act between allowing themselves to feel scared while at the same time to keep on going. No one knows what the future may bring. And, certainly, none of these essential workers want to get sick and bring the virus home to their families. They do their jobs despite the risks. I’m now more aware than ever about the fundamental roles these people play in our day to day lives; and, the heaps of recognition that they deserve. For instance: doctors, nurses and paramedics; long term care aides; food bank volunteers; pharmacy staff; teachers; pet store workers (yes, a shout-out to Bosley’s where I shop for our puss); grocery store clerks, bakery staff; postal workers; and of course clergy. I’m sure I’ve missed a few folks. Point is, these essential workers are in essence “front-line heroes”, braving the elements and the public each day to do jobs that so often (during “normal times”) some of us may take for granted.

On a personal level during the past two months, I’ve been redeployed from my day job at Island Health to work with MHSU (Mental Health and Substance Use) program. Some of my work has involved the temporary accommodation at Topaz Park. I’ve seen a gamut of people there do front-line work with the homeless community—trying to do their best under challenging circumstances. There is no road map for responding in such a pandemic. Like the U2 Song “where the streets have no name.” People from a wide array of agencies such as Salvation Army, AIDS Vancouver Island, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Peers Victoria and so on. Outreach workers, street nurses, OPS staff, and the restaurants who prepare the “boxes of hope” (hot meals in compostable boxes delivered 3 times/day). What stood out for me were the tremendous group of volunteers who worked with me at the breakfast service tent. They would hand out the meals, and serve up java to about 100 people per meal. This was all delivered with dignity, kindness and respect. One lady was the park cleaner—she swept up litter, including cigarette butts, tissues and garbage discarded by the campers. Her job included cleaning and restocking the porta-potties, and the showers on site. I always tried to say “hi” to her, because I admired her so. This Filipino lady shared with me that her employer had her working at Topaz 9-9 five days a week. That was an “AHA!” moment for me, and I remain immensely grateful for all her contributions.

I’d like to close with some lyrics from a young country music singer from Abbotsford. Cambree Lovesy, 21, wrote the song “Frontline” to recognize all those essential workers who support us during COVID-19.  Her words are powerful; here a just a few—

“I know it’s scary and they do too,
Superman could take some notes from you.

Thank you could never say it all,
For the late nights, advice and heartbreaking calls.

You are the reason our world keeps spinning round,
We are so lucky to have you in our town.”

Looking around this virtual room this evening, I see so many faces whom I am certain are front-line heroes in your own right. From calling an elderly friend who has been shut in, to picking up groceries and prescriptions, to escorting people to medical appointments, and to many other acts of lovingkindness. I suspect that you take care of business while wanting little fanfare or fuss.  As mentioned at the start of my talk, heroes are made, not born. My father Menachem Mendel z”l used to say, one of the key things in this life is simply to show up.

Thanks for listening.

Ḥag Shavuot Sameaḥ!
Aaron Severs

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An inclusive, warm, and progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, B.C.

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