As many people know, the story of Superman has had a formative influence on me since early childhood. When I was in preschool, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be Superman! They clarified, asking if I wanted to be a doctor, firefighter, astronaut, and so on. But I was firm in my conviction. I wanted to be Superman.
Now that I’m older, I know that I can’t be Superman. Honestly, I don’t think it’d be fair or kind to anyone involved to invest that much power and responsibility in one person. However, the heroic archetype still appeals to me, and Superman still shapes how my subconscious interacts with that archetype, so I may as well use the Man of Steel as a metaphor to describe what I’m experiencing.
As the story goes, a large meteorite crashed on a small Kansas farm about twenty years ago. As it turns out, this was no ordinary meteorite. It was a spacecraft, and its sole passenger was a small child from another world. A farmer and his wife, the Kents, discovered the child. Since they were childless, they chose to adopt this child of the heavens, raising him as their own son. As young Clark Kent reached maturity, he began to realize the great power bestowed upon him by his celestial origins and chose to dedicate that power to the service of humanity. Donning the robes of his homeworld, he became Superman, champion of truth, justice, and freedom.
This is where most versions of the story end. Superman is an incredibly powerful character, both in terms of the superpowers he possesses and in terms of how compelling his story has proven to be. But I’d like to argue that in its richest telling, this story involves not one archetype, but three: Clark Kent, Superman, and Kal-El.
Clark Kent is the Mask, the persona that this character adopts in order to hide his true nature. The benevolence of this character shines through in all three of his personas, but the Clark persona is the furthest removed from his source of power. He is meek, timid, unable to speak or act with confidence or strength because he has chosen to mask those characteristics in order to “fit in” with those around him.
Superman is the Hero or Champion. In most moments, this character is content to mask his true power with the Clark persona. But in moments of crisis, he casts this mask aside and becomes Superman, an incredibly strong and virtually invulnerable defender of the people. To people around him, and perhaps even to Superman himself, his heroic acts make him seem like he has reached the peak of self-actualization. But has he really? We call this person Superman, but Superman isn’t his true name. It’s a title that defines who he is relative to the people that he serves. But who is the person who holds this title? Who is this visitor from another world who plays this role of service to humanity?
Kal-El is the Higher Self, Deep Self, or True Self of this character. It is the true name given to him by his father, Jor-El, on his home world of Krypton. In the film adaptations of this story, his identity as Kal-El is shrouded in mystery â€” a crystal from his home world, a Fortress of Solitude in the distant north, a hologram of his father explaining his history and his identity to him. To almost everyone in life, he is Clark Kent, the well-meaning but ineffectual reporter, or Superman, the nigh-invincible champion of justice. But to his father, and to himself, he is something more â€” a mystery, one whose true nature is never fully understood or revealed, even to him.
Why do I revisit all of this comic book and movie mythology? Because I want to explore these three aspects of my own identity, and to encourage others who feel similarly inspired to do the same.
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life alternating between the roles of Clark Kent and Superman. When I first started my involvement in community service work as an undergrad, I was Justin Patrick O’Neill, mild-mannered volunteer who was socially awkward and painfully anxious and just followed other people’s lead. Over time, I became Treesong, bold community activist who traveled across the country on numerous occasions, laying his health, life, and freedom on the line in service of people and planet.
For a while, this worked for me. My meek Clark Kent side endeared me to people, and my bold Superman side inspired many others to believe that change for the better is in fact possible. But eventually, I noticed some serious flaws in how this Superman narrative plays out in real life.
As time goes on, I realize more and more that I don’t like being Clark Kent. I don’t want to spend another moment being anything resembling Clark Kent. Because Clark Kent is a ridiculous character when you really stop and think about it. Here he is, this incredible celestial creature with almost incomprehensible powers and abilities, and he spends most of his time in a suit and tie, in some cubicle at the Daily Planet, conforming to society’s expectations while masking his true power. It’s one of the most stifling forms of self-repression imaginable, and I’m doing everything I can to exorcise the last vestiges of Clark Kent from my psyche.
People find this story so compelling because they too are stuck conforming to society’s expectations and want to be something more colorful, more powerful, more real. But once you’ve discovered that brilliance, that power, that genuine life impulse, why hide it? Why not flaunt it?
That’s easy to say, but hard to live. We hide our brilliance all the time because we are afraid â€” afraid of being judged, afraid of being rejected, afraid of losing our jobs, afraid of losing our families, perhaps even afraid of losing our freedom and our lives if others react violently to our genuine identity.
But I refuse to live in fear any longer. I’m in the midst of a year-and-a-day cycle of personal transformation and liberation, and I swear to myself and to the world that I won’t live in my own self-made prison any longer. I’m shedding my suit and tie, opening my heart, and taking to the skies. Clark Kent is dead â€” and at some point, I should hold a proper funeral for him.
My choice to become a Real Life Superhero was the first concrete step in that process for me. However, it’s not the last. This may sound ironic coming from a self-proclaimed superhero, but I don’t want to be stuck in the role of Superman either. Superman is surrounded by people less open, less powerful, less free than he is. He spends most of his time hiding his inner radiance behind a mask, and in those rare moments when he truly shines, he shines only for other people. People need him to save them from their troubles, and their troubles end up defining his role in the world.
I don’t want to be Superman anymore. I still consider myself a Real Life Superhero, but I don’t want to be stuck in the position of Clark Kent OR Superman. I want to be Kal-El â€” or perhaps more accurately, I want to be Cranncheol, the Irish translation of the name Treesong. I am a passionate person, and one of my greatest passions in life is serving others in their ongoing struggles for healing and liberation. I want this passion to be at the center of my life â€” but I no longer want to mask my inner radiance in the presence of others, as Clark Kent does, or define myself in terms of how many other people need my help, as Superman does. I want to embrace my inner bliss, my innermost desire to be truly alive, and let that inner light shine for the liberation of all beings, myself included.
This is what I want. And so, this is the life I live.
I choose to shine. I choose to allow the ecstasy of my inner divinity to flow freely through my body, my emotions, my mind, my heart, and my spirit. I choose liberate myself from all illusions and attachments that inhibit this flow of divine ecstasy. I choose to let this divine ecstasy shine through my life in a way that inspires others to reconnect with their own inner source. And I encourage others to do the same.