“On a less serious note,” Dan Gillespie said. “Would you save a woman dangling off a bridge? If saving that person meant revealing the superpowers you’ve tried to hide your whole life?
“What if you were a superhero? Would you still do it, if you were a superhero?” Dan continued. “Wait before you give me the obvious answer to this hypothetical, you’ve been a superhero your whole life. It’s your family lineage. The reason this is important is that most young boys dreamed of one day becoming a superhero. If you’ve always been one, you know no different. You also know some of the ramifications of using your powers, because you’ve used them before.
“Those of us who read comic books know there’s one thing most superheroes want. I would say it’s human nature, but some superheroes aren’t human, so let’s say it’s the natural order for complicated, superior beings to want the one thing they can’t have. In the case of the superhero, it’s normalcy. They could use their superpowers to acquire money, women, fame, what have you, but there’s nothing they want more than normal relationships and normal conversations with normal people who consider them normal.” Daniel continued. “Their goal is to try and avoid having their true identity revealed, so that they don’t have to be regarded as freaks among their peers. The implication being that they enjoy the mundane interactions that we mere mortals take for granted, and they don’t want to ruin that element of their otherwise enjoyable lives. Once a person is regarded as a freak, they’re a freak for life in most quarters, and no one will ever want to play reindeer games with them ever again.
“The thing about superpowers is that they are an aberration of nature,” he said, “and they should all come equipped with side effects that pay tribute to their violation of the natural order. I realize that Superman was an alien, for example, but if he has freakish strength, the natural order suggests that he should have an equal and opposite deficit. He should be freakishly stupid, hilariously naïve and trusting, or something like that. Look at some of the most powerful beasts to ever walk the earth, the dinosaurs. They had tiny brains, and most scientists theorize that they were as dumb as every other lizard. The movies leave the impression that they were powerful carnivores with a lust for blood, and they were as smart, if not smarter than us. I say that violates the natural balance.
“If I had been the originator of Superman, for example, I would’ve felt the need to round the character out with some deficiencies, some side-effects, or consequences to his actions that played to this natural balance.
“If the comic book gods suggested that Superman would not be a popular character if he were freakishly stupid, I would suggest that if we aren’t going to draw him up as freakishly stupid, there should be some sort of consequence to using his powers too often, such as becoming temporarily dumb if he overuses his powers to reflect the idea that he has to reserve his powers for when they are called upon. I would have a scene where Clark Kent decides not to use his powers save a kitten in a tree, because he knows he must harness his maximum capacity for encounters with the bad guy. I would have him not help a healthy male getting mugged, because, again, he must use discretion when it comes to using his powers. “Sorry Jimmy,” Superman would say. “I’m operating on a quarter tank today, and I have to stop Lex Luther’s Doomsday Machine. It looks like you’re going to have to fight your own battles.”
“You remember that scene where a young lady is pushing her stroller down the street, and a high-powered tower comes crashing down on her? Yeah, Superman can’t save her either. “Move to the right a little!” Superman screams down at her. When she doesn’t, and she and her baby are crushed under the weight of it, Superman is sad, but he whispers his new catch phrase to himself, “I can’t save everyone. People have to make the right decisions and fight for themselves.”
“Wouldn’t it be more dramatic if Superman saved one person over another?” Dan continued. “Why did he save her and not the other lady? Oh, because she plays a central role in diplomacy. Something like that. You get the point.
“The point is superheroes using superpowers too often has no consequences, or side-effects, there’s no drama, or conflict to it. The writer, Stephen King, introduced this idea of a balance to me in the novel The Dead Zone. Here was a man blessed with certain gifts that had side-effects, and King did it in a number of his novels that follow. This character has to ration his use the unnatural powers he’s attained, because any time you violate the natural order there are consequences.
“After reading a couple of those books, I said, ‘Yeah,’ to myself, ‘What are the consequences to Superman displaying his powers all the time?” Daniel continued. “He’s better looking as Superman, he uses a more authoritative voice in that incarnation, and the women prefer him as Superman. What’s the downside to being Superman 24-7? He’s a freak? He doesn’t fit in with the common man? We common men, would love a brief respite from our commonness, or we would love to have the knowledge that we could escape our common man status on a whim. Why wouldn’t Clark Kent want to be Superman all the time?
“As our superhero, your side effects would be embarrassing,” he continued. “The ability to take flight, for example, would involve a freak biological nuance in your digestive system that results in flames shooting out of the rear end to achieve propulsion. And if you don’t want your pants and underpants to catch on fire, you will have to remove them before taking flight.
“I’ve always thought that Superman would a more believable story, if he were forced to assume an embarrassing position when taking flight, like the position you would have to take to prevent their cheeks and legs from catching fire by assuming the position one takes when sitting on the toilet, and you have to maintain that position in flight. Some people have laughed at you in the past. They’ve called you frog man, because you have to separate your legs like a frog to avoid getting burned.
“What if by the time you arrived on the scene, the woman was dangling off a bridge. She was in a horrible car accident that sent her car off a bridge, and she just barely managed to avoid death. She is now hanging off that bridge screaming for someone to help her. A crowd of your fellow employees are gathered around the company’s parking lot watching this, screaming for someone to help her. You know that if you are to save her, you will have to take your pants off and assume the position for liftoff, and you will have to work with these people in the aftermath of this incident. Would you still save her?
“What if those flames that shot out of the rectum, used food as its source? What if your dad explained that an unexplained something about the family’s molecular structure allows “us” to alter unused food into flames that if pushed hard enough can be used as a propulsion source, and your dad took you out into open fields to practice using it, but the two of you could never quite get a firm grasp on how to use it? Your dad taught you how to push it in just such a way to get the flames, as opposed to the other biological functions that require pushing, so that the energy source from the food can be altered into flames that propel you into flight. But, and this is a huge but, you and your dad were never quite able to figure out how much food was needed, and the elements and ingredients in food, to use as a power source to achieve a specified distance. You learned, over those years spent in fields with your dad, that whatever amount is left over ends up getting excreted all over the place, when the flight ends.”
“I would still do it,” I said. “That hero thing is a powerful, driving force.”
“So you’d do it for the glory?” Daniel asked me. “Who wouldn’t? As anyone, who has ever been a hero would tell you, however, the whole hero thing dies out after a while. It’s human nature for people to cycle through all of the emotions of seeing something unprecedented, until they become accustomed to it, and they move on. If they don’t move on, the hero should prepare for all of the jealousy that follows. They should prepare for others, good friends, relatives, and friendly co-workers to begin searching for an embarrassing chink in the story that suggests that you’re no better than them. You know that they will focus on the fact that you soiled yourself when your heroic moment was over? They may be enamored with you at first, as you say, but all that media attention, and glory contained in the stories of your superpowers, will reach a tipping point and they might begin to despise you and all this attention you’ve received. They will then begin to diminish your achievement to the delight of those who now hate all these stories about our fricking hero.
“‘Did you see Gillespie soil himself?’ the opportunist will ask after the shock and awe of your glorious episode begins to subside.
“He saved a woman’s life for God’s sake Rupert!” Lionel says, because he wants to remember your heroic episode for what it was.
“Yeah, but did you see that stinking pile he left behind him when he set her on the ground?’ the jealous Rupert reply. “The guy had flames shooting out of his rectum. You saw that right? I mean Superman never had flames shooting out of his rectum, and he never soiled himself at the end. That was hilarious.”
“What if you became little more than a laughing stock? What if everyone started urging you to take flight, not because they were in awe of your superpowers, but because they want to see you soil yourself at the end?”
“Couldn’t I land in an obscure area?” I asked, “To avoid people seeing those … after-effects? Couldn’t I hover, maybe an inch off the ground, until all of those flames were expunged?”
“Again, you’ve never perfected this, so going to an obscure area might be treacherous, and as for the act of hovering, how long do you have to hover? Remember, you are naked from the waist down. How long do you hover before them with your johnson hanging out before them? They may never know that these superhero acts end with a steaming pile, but they’ll remember you hovering over the ground for a spell without pants on. Or, are you just going to land and let others deal with the spectacle of your aftermath? What’s going to be more embarrassing? You will know, by this point, that you need a certain amount of food to sustain propulsion, and you know the consequences of taking flight with an insufficient amount of food, but you’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact amount required.
“Your parents have warned you, through the years, about the amount of food required to maintain flight, and you’ve experienced your own errors in judgment the hard way with near-death experiences and prolonged hospital stays. You have never been able to determine how much food is necessary, and what kind of food works better than others. You’ve practiced this over the years, and you’ve also learned that there are no indicators to suggest that you’re out of food while in flight. Your flames just extinguish, and you fall as hard and fast as anyone else will. Those falls, and the obvious pain involved, have made you tentative about testing the limits too often.
“It is a guessing game,” your father has warned. “There are days when, like every other human on earth, you are not in peak physical condition, and your body requires more food than it does on others. You can have days of insufficient sleep, days that are more taxing on your system than others, and it’s almost impossible to know which chemicals and elements of food that your body needs and which are cast out into the colon for our special use from one day to the next. I never figured out the exact answer to that question, and I’m a lot older than you, and if I had I would’ve been flying more often. If you can figure that out, with all of your internet resources, let me know, and we’ll both be better at this. My advice, until then,” he added, “is that this power should be limited to emergency situations.”
“This woman falling off the bridge is that emergency, and you have no time to weigh all of the ramifications, but you’ve thought about a moment like this your whole life. Your reactions have to be impulsive. This lady is hanging off the bridge, by her fingers, and you guess that she’s been up there for quite a while, judging by the crowd who have gathered. And, of course, you know this scene isn’t going to play out long.”
“But you’d be saving a life,” I said, “doesn’t that trump everything else?”
“Let’s say that you saved a life before,” Daniel added. “Let’s change the dynamic a bit. Let’s say that you saved a life in the dark of night, where no one but you and the victim of impending doom knew about it. You have urged that near-death victim to be quiet about it, because the mechanics of it are embarrassing to you more than anything else. You’ve asked them, a number of times, to just be grateful, to shut up and be grateful that you saved their life, and they have tried, but your shared story just gnaws away at them. No one believes them, and they have badgered you for years to join them in telling your heroic story. You know that this person just wants to become rich off your story, and they have begged you to back them up, to show the world your superpowers, so they can videotape it, and Youtube it, and get a million hits that they could put ads on and get rich. What if they warned you that they were going to put someone in a life-threatening position, so they could videotape you saving that person? Would you be so quick to save this person hanging off the bridge, so close to your place of employment, or would you think that that previous near-death victim was in on it?
“It’s an unfortunate side of human nature that they’re never happy, and that quiet “in the dark of night” moment where you saved a life revealed that unfortunate side of humanity, that side that your dad always warned you about. Let’s say you had all that swimming in your head, at the moment, and you saw dozens of phones out filming this episode, hoping to catch the lady’s fall on their phone to videotape for local and national broadcast. Would you still save that lady’s life?”
Similar, in some ways, to the The Trolley Problem scenario, there are answers to every problem, but those answers are the individual’s and the individual’s alone. Some have quick “of course” answers, but are these the answers, or are they projections of who we want to be, as opposed to the reality of who we are. For some, answers to theoretical questions bolster the beliefs we have in who we think we are, based on the definition of a moral, righteous man with ironclad beliefs, who isn’t afraid to act when called upon.
Yet, anyone who has been involved in a relatively smaller incident (smaller than the one posed here) know that when an emergency situation arrives, most people stand with the rest of the spectators waiting for someone to help the victim and prevent the tragedy from happening. Someone in the pack will call out for someone else to do something, others will join that person, and few will see it as incumbent upon them to be that person. No one, in this pack of well-wishers, will view themselves as someone who choked in the clutch, for they were adamant that someone do something.
They may believe, in a theoretical sense, that they’re the type of person who would stop an elevator door from closing on an old lady’s head –or any number of scenarios that may not be life-threatening, but are a call to action nonetheless– but when these situations occur, most will watch, wondering why someone isn’t doing something.
The best definition I’ve heard of ordinary men and women who are well-suited to being a member of a first responder, emergency unit, such as firemen, police, or other emergency medical services is, “They’re the ones who will run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.” While I’m sure that the very normal, human instinct to run away from a fire is in the minds of every single first responder’s head, they fight that defense mechanism, until it becomes an ingrained instinct to run into a burning building. I don’t think that the latter instinct occurs soon after they fill out an application, or in the course of their training. I think that they’re different, and they’ve been different, in this way, for as long as they can remember.
Most of us sit somewhere in the middle. The question is how does an individual define the middle? Honest people would say, “I don’t know, because I’ve never experienced such a situation.” Or, they would say, “I’d like to think that I’m a type A personality in this regard, and I think I am based on a couple of small scale experiences.” The point that scenario builders hope to get across is that most people don’t know. The reader can theorize all they want about the type of person they are, but the very act of saving a life, or preventing a small scale tragedy, involves an impulsive decision that is largely instinctual, or as difficult to teach as it is to learn. It’s often more about the person, as difficult as that concept may be to grasp or accept.
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