Note: This is the first of several articles about Superheroes Anonymous 4, a gathering of Real Life Superheroes being held in Portland, Oregon. This series, written by Treesong, is a collaborative project of Heroes in the Night and Song of the Trees.
In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a Greyhound bus here in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. After two days on the road, I’ll arrive in Portland, Oregon for a conference called Superheroes Anonymous 4, where I’ll be spending about two days in the company of fellow Real Life Superheroes. Considering the amount of time, energy, and support that has gone into making my trip to this conference a reality, I thought I’d take a few moments to reflect on what it is and why I’m going.
A Real Life Superhero is just what it sounds like: someone who wears a special costume or uniform, adopts a special name, and goes around providing various forms of community service.
Some of us are self-appointed urban guardians, conducting neighborhood patrols to prevent crime and ensure the safety of people in our communities. Some of us are charitable volunteers, offering our time and energy and money to people in need and the community organizations that serve them. Some of us are activists or advocates, choosing one or more social or environmental causes to organize around in our community. Many of us are some combination of the above, or choose our own way that is hard for others to define. At the end of the day, we are people of conscience who love our communities and have chosen a bold new way to serve and protect them.
When I first heard about Real Life Superheroes online, I knew immediately that it was right for me. It was what I had been trying to do with my life for years without fully understanding how to put a name to it. However, I definitely understand the initial skeptical response of some people. Why superheroes? What’s the point of adopting a superhero name and dressing up in a costume or uniform?
Really, I can only speak for myself. Some people’s approaches are very different than mine, and some don’t even like to be called Real Life Superheroes. For me, though, what it comes down to is the difference between despair and hope.
For about ten years, I was what most people would call an activist. It started when I was a college student and continued well after graduation as I decided to stay in the Carbondale for the long haul. I would join community groups, organize community events, and speak out about political causes that were near and dear to my heart.
This was an intense way of life. At first, it felt very empowering and rewarding. I learned more about the world, I met wonderful people, and I felt like I was starting to make a difference. But as time went on, it started to seem more and more like an endless struggle. There were so many problems in our community, and even more in the world beyond it. I had a growing sense of urgency about what needed to be done, but a diminishing sense of what I or anyone else could do about it.
For a few years, I sank into a rut of despair, without the time or energy or hope necessary to do much in my community. But then, I came across this Real Life Superhero movement, and something clicked.
Superheroes are archetypal figures of inspiration, empowerment, and hope. Most efforts to increase community involvement focus on some combination of guilt (“If you don’t help this cause, you’re not a good person!”), anger (“Look at what they did to that forest!”), or fear (“The world will end if you don’t help this cause!”). This may work in the short term, but it leaves people feeling guilty, frustrated, afraid, and ultimately powerless. It emphasizes the idea that we’re surrounded by troubles, and that we’re constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by these troubles.
The Real Life Superhero approach to community involvement, on the other hand, is rooted in the idea that each of us can become a beacon of hope and an agent of change in an otherwise bleak and apathetic society. Real Life Superheroes are everyday citizens just like you who have simply chosen to go the extra mile and do some good in our community. We have no superpowers, and some of us don’t even have any fancy gear or special martial arts training. We also don’t have all of the answers to the problems facing our community. What each of us does have, though, is our own unique set of skills, experience, and passion that we bring to our work. We see some problem or need in our community, and we take simple and direct action to resolve it. It’s that simple for us â€” and it can be that simple for you, too.
Learning about and talking to Real Life Superheroes from around the world has been an amazing experience. Embracing the superhero archetype and becoming a Real Life Superhero myself has given me the renewed energy and vision that I needed to start being active again in my community. Taking action, in turn, has been the antidote to my despair, leaving me with a sense of hope for the future. Now, instead of seeing community service as a “chore,” I look at it as an adventure.
And THAT is why I’m going to Superheroes Anonymous 4. I feel inspired again, and I want to follow that inspiration wherever it leads me. I also want to meet up with other people who feel the same way and see what we can do in the span of two days to learn together, to grow together, and to serve the people of Portland and beyond.
I realize that most people don’t “get it” the first time they hear about it, and some people will never “get it” at all. This approach to community service certainly isn’t for everyone, and I don’t recommend it for everyone. But I find it profoundly inspiring. Other Real Life Superheroes find it inspiring, and many people in our communities find it inspiring too. As long as we’re doing good work and inspiring others to do the same, that’s the important thing.
However this weekend’s conference goes, I hope that this spirit of inspiration will continue, and that more and more people will discover their inner superhero. Even if you don’t feel a need to adopt a new name and costume, know that you have the power within you to make a difference for the better. And stay tuned for more updates on Superheroes Anonymous 4!