Becoming a Superhero
A metaphor observed in CW’s Arrow
“I want you to know that whatever experiences you had to go through I’m glad that you did because they shaped the person you are today. And you know how I feel about her.” ~ Oliver
Wouldn’t it be great to be a superhero?! As children we watch cartoons and imagine the wonders of flying through the sky saving the world. In our college psychology classes and friend groups we ask each other, “What superpower would you want?” Comic books, superhero (and villain) movies, TV shows, and other media flood our society. It is unlikely that any American has made it through young adulthood without some knowledge of superheroes. Yet life happens and soon our dreams of saving the world become only fiction. Laser vision, super strength, and invisibility become illusory stories meant only to entertain young children and the word “Hero” is used flippantly in our conversations. Perhaps these stories are trying to teach us something, a metaphor underneath, a process through which we could all conceivably become true superheroes. Take a look at the characters in your favorite fictional story, as I did with Oliver in CW’s show Arrow, and watch how they evolved. Take a look at your own life and you may see that we are going through stages in life moving from playboy, to broken, to surviving, to vigilante, to hero, to superhero.
Stage 1: Playboy
The first stage in this metaphor is the stage of “Playboy.” We all start here. Playboy is a stage of unawareness; a stage of ignorance and obliviousness to circumstances around you. We see these in almost all of our superhero figures. They started off as a well-to-do, ignorant, inexperienced “playboys” who go around doing whatever they want with a happy-go-lucky mentality. Oliver (from Arrow) is the perfect example of this. He was well off, did what he wanted, always got out of trouble…and was completely unaware of how his actions affected those around him. Bruce Wayne (of Batman) was much like this as well. A person in the Playboy stage has not experienced extreme hardship in a given area of life (such as financial hardship, heath concerns, trauma, social rejection). Their life (in the given area) is neatly put together. It makes sense to them. It works. It’s going well.
To those outside of the Playboy stage a person in this phase seems selfish, arrogant, ignorant, and inconsiderate. They are bulldozing through life completely unaware of how damaging their impact can be on others around them and we usually respond to this by sticking up our noses, complaining, and ignoring said individual. After all what can be done? When Bruce Wayne walks into a hotel, allows “his girls” to swim in the fountain, and then buys the whole place so that he can do what he wants, how can we change that? When Oliver has a different girl with him every night, gets drunk and is arrested with a DUI but then released because he has so much money it doesn’t seem fair. Their choices impact others around them and even if they “donate millions to charity” is that really heroic? Helpful maybe, but not heroic.
But can we really blame them? They have never known anything different. Can we blame someone who has never spoken English for using a cussword? Can we blame a person who has never dealt with chronic illness for not recognizing how difficult it is for the child in a wheelchair to get to the second floor? Can we blame a person who has always had enough money for not noticing a single parent struggling to find funds to provide for the next meal? Can a person who has never experienced it truly understand bankruptcy, abuse, death of a loved one, or illness?
The trouble with the Playboy stage is that it is a wonderful stage to be in. We are happy there. It’s all we know and we don’t want to leave this comfortable state. Yet we are often totally unaware of others around us and how we may be impacting or neglecting them. How can you see what you don’t know exists? Yet those in this stage can cause a lot of damage with the words they choose, their neglect of others, general ignorance and their self-focus.
These individuals need our grace. They don’t know how to respond to something they haven’t experienced themselves. Life will most likely break their “playboy” bubble one day and at that time, when they move into the next stages on their path to becoming a hero they will need support. Until then we can try to open their eyes by pointing out need. So many of our American suburban teenagers and young adults are in this stage and we must point out the things they cannot yet perceive on their own.
In considering “The Christian Church” this stage is a paradox. Most American suburbian church goers present themselves on Sunday mornings as gleeful participants in the playboy stage…everything is great. But I would ask, “Is that really who you want to be seen as?” However in general “The Church” ignores individuals who are truly in this stage. They are doing fine after all…happy, excited…bulldozing through life. Playboys need parents and pastors. They need strong authority figures who can be role models to help them see what they are yet unable to comprehend.
What does it take to move on from the Playboy stage? It takes an impactful, character shifting event. This step usually involves something that challenges your identity. It could be something simple, like getting turned down for a loan or losing your freedom to drive, or, it could be a huge trauma. It is also important to note that the strength of the impactful event influences the extent to which you become broken, and the depth of brokenness directly determines the strength of a hero you can later become.
For example, imagine an individual who has always dreamed of living in a 4 bedroom house with a white picket fence but upon applying for a house loan is turned down. This individual may have a small identity crisis where they have to rethink who they are, why they would be turned down, and if they will ever be able to realize their former dream. They can then recover and become a hero to someone else who has been turned down for a house loan…but they will not be equipped to fully understand someone who is homeless.
In considering our emerging superhero, Oliver, he fell hard, fast, and far. He was broken deeply on multiple different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, financially). Bruce Wyane, Peter Parker, Iron Man, and many of the X-men were as well. In one shipwreck Oliver loses almost every component of his “playboy” life. His girlfriend is seemingly drowned, his father commits suicide, he is homeless, foodless, friendless and lost on “an Island.” For much of the following year he continues to be broken down, including torture, capture, lack of provision, death, and a lot of failure. All of the events during his first year on the island (and even a few afterward) force him to reexamine who he is. The old Playboy Oliver has been broken, shattered into pieces.
We have been here too. Countless events can rock or shatter our identity, financial hardship or bankruptcy, a distressing diagnosis, a broken relationship, a regretted choice, all great losses, traumas, instabilities, and events form our own “Island,” form situations that we know have changed our lives. These events shatter our understanding of reality and our perception of the person we were. This is the “Broken” stage.
Stage 2: Broken
A broken person is just that…broken. They are the person with an ongoing “deer in the headlights” look on their face. They are there, alive, but no one seems to be home. If damaged deeply enough, these individuals have trouble even moving through life. They would prefer to curl up in a ball in the corner and sleep through the day. An “island’ is the perfect metaphor for this stage as it is a state of paralyzation, inactivity, dependence, isolation, and total uncertainty.
In Arrow, Oliver spends his first year on his “Island” in the Broken stage, completely dependent on others. He follows the Chinese man, and later Slade, around like a puppy dog. He is whiny, incapable of fending for himself (or even supplying himself with basics needs like food and water), and often reaches states where he just wants to give up, lie down, and die.
In general, most of us respond to those in the Broken stage with compassion…at least initially. We intuitively know that this is probably the most painful stage to go through and we want to offer support. We bring meals to a family who has just lost a loved one, serve food to the homeless, offer to a listening ear to a friend, and launch thousands of charitable foundations all with the intention of assisting those in need….the Broken. “The Church” is generally very accepting of those in the Broken stage, especially if they admit they are in this stage. In fact we are often reminded in church services that we need to be Broken (perhaps a subconscious attempt at dealing with the damage the Playboys are causing).
But we expect a quick change, a quick transition out of the broken phase. If your finances are a mess, stop spending money. If you lost a relationship, find a new one and get over it. If you made a bad decision, fix it. If you experienced a trauma, get counseling and move on. Yet the broken are not ready to move, they can’t move. It is important to understand that the Broken stage takes time to get through.
We also expect these individuals to talk, talk about everything, process what is going on…but someone who is truly in the broken phase can’t (or really doesn’t want to) talk. Remember this is a stage of exhaustive paralyzation and inactivity, a stage of shock. Putting the situation into words is not a capability at this time.
Broken people are difficult to deal with because they are so broken. They are unresponsive, inactive, and cold. Who wouldn’t be? They have lost their understanding of how the world works and who they are after all. The trouble is this “statue like” behavior often leads the Broken to become recluse and alone. You can’t seek out help when you are unable to move. They also often have trouble believing anything to be true because everything they once held true has been shattered.
Oliver is like this on the island. He collapses in multiple caves (see the metaphor?), expects others to provide for him and if they don’t he doesn’t do anything to provide for himself, and he trusts no one, believes nothing. This stage is often devoid of hope and that can be quite worrisome.
Another interesting trouble of the Broken stage is that people can choose to avoid this stage. They can ignore how events really affect them and just shut down. These individuals present themselves as “fine,” and insist they are ok. They pretend they are not broken.
Laurel (of Arrow), in season two, is a good example of this. She faces the death of her sister, the loss of her boyfriend, trauma, and yet she doesn’t allow herself to BE broken and because of this she can’t move on. Refusing to accept brokenness means she will never learn to survive, gain the skills and purpose of a vigilante, or become a hero.
This happens in real life too. People ignore events that break them and because they never allow themselves to fall they can never rise up to become a hero. In real life I think this often shows itself through bitterness, entitlement, and resentment; an attitude of “I deserve better!!!!!” yet an unwillingness to do anything to change the circumstances. This often leads to self-medication, such as drugs or alcohol, to help them ignore the brokenness. It is a combination of the inactivity of the Broken phase and the attitude of the Playboy phase. Those, like Laurel, who ignore their brokenness just want to hear that they are fine and everything is ok…this is a dangerous place to be and an easy place for a villain to step in and feed on, or channel, the hostility and animosity toward the villains own purposes.
The saddest part of the Broken phases that not everyone makes it through. Some people give up. The broken need consistency, acceptance, and time. In our society today our relationships are so fleeting yet it is a dependable person the Broken need. The one who keeps calling, constantly encourages, and continually provides hope can eventually bring the broken back into the light. A deeply broken person (such as Oliver on the island) has lost everything they know. They sit in a world they don’t understand, everything is dark. They need to be tethered to someone in the light who will eventually provide a path out of the gloomy world when they are ready. This takes patience. A broken person cannot move until they are ready. For example, if they are refusing to be broken and drinking to ease the pain and confusion, dragging them to an AA meeting will not help. They have to want to go. If they are broken and have not had enough time to BE in the broken phase, pushing them to move on or talk about it more will only add pressure on their already devastated world.
Moving out of the broken phase requires a desire to recover. The broken stage is the most painful but the Survival stage is the most difficult. There has to be a will to change, live, fight.
At one point during the show, Oliver is on a freighter, locked in a cell and the guard comes along and shoots him, giving him a surface wound. The guard then throws gauze, antiseptic, and stitching materials into Oliver’s cell. Oliver in turn asks “why.” Why did they shoot him, what is this all about? And his neighboring cell mate responds with, “Living is not for the weak.” If Oliver wants to survive he has to stitch himself up, he has to fight. He has to have the will to live, a willingness to do things he has never thought of doing before, and the strength to reexamine everything…especially his understanding of good/bad, right/wrong, and his perception of himself. This stage is a lot of work and not everyone wants to put forth that work/effort. If you allow yourself to be broken but cannot move into survival you will wither and fall completely apart.
For Oliver I think his deciding moment comes when he is trapped in a cave (sound like broken to anyone?). He has been trapped in the cave alone for days with no attempt to escape, has no food or water, and has given up, lying on the floor ready to die. During this time he has a dream/hallucination where his father speaks to him and tells him to live, to fight on, and he decides that he will. It is this decision that pushes him into the survival stage. In transitioning to survival mode Oliver has to face many obstacles. A person entering the survival stage has their work cut out for them, they have an identity to rebuild; that is not easy work.
Here in our world these same steps take place. We all know that an individual has to want to change before they will really begin to transform. The alcoholic has to want to stop drinking. The person in bankruptcy has to want to fix the problem. A person who has lost a loved one has to be ready to venture back out into the world of those who have not experienced this loss. Without the will to transform, survive, and struggle with a broken identity the Broken are not ready to move on. Yet when they find this desire to Survive everything changes. This desire is the strength they will need to make it through the Survival stage.
Stage 3: Survival
The survival stage is when a person starts moving again. They may even ask for help and hopefully we are there to provide it for them. They now have a desire to move, grow beyond their circumstances and become something more. The defining feature of the survival stage is instinctive reactions. Those in survival mode are just trying to get by. They can be plagued by nightmares (surrounding their traumatic event or circumstances), have enormous obstacles to overcome, and are very reactive. Their brokenness is still close at hand and they often do not know how to approach a situation because they do not yet know who they are in their new self-identity, so they just react. During this stage a person is rooted in flight and flight. They run easily and they attack quickly. Their main goal is to stay alive, whether that be alive physically, emotionally, spiritually, or in maintaining a certain status.
In transitioning to survival mode Oliver has to face many obstacles. He learns to find, and kill, his own food (the chicken/pheasant he has to kill in season one, episode 3), he learns to fight, he learns when to flight/run, and he begins to stand on his own feet again (for example, at the end of season 1 when he decides to go back to rescue the Chinese man, and into season 2 when he starts fighting himself.)
One could see this “fighting” as a downfall for him, after all this is when he kills for the first time, but I see it as a metaphor for the first time he starts trying, standing for something, fighting to survive rather than just tailing after Slade like a puppy dog.
People (myself included) are learning during the survival phase. They have to learn when to fight (or stand their ground, stand up for themselves) and when to flight (run away from the situation). To a Surviving individual these boundaries are very gray. They randomly choose to run in one situation and stand to fight in another…but this step is essential. We must learn to survive the traumas we face, develop (coping) skills, understand the balance of leaving a situation or standing our ground. We must learn to be comfortable in our own skin.
Learning to endure circumstance, surviving physically, mentally/intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, financially…it takes a lot of time, strength, and is instinct based. The Surviving are volatile and therefore their rash decisions can often unearth more problems to add to the long list of identity crises they are trying to unravel. The survivor is undirected, they do not have a solid identity yet and they are very impressionable, suggestible, and easily influenced. This can be a positive thing if they have the right mentor near their side because remember during the broken phase the individual became willing to consider possibilities they would never have considered before.
During this phase, Oliver considered that he may become a leader, a fighter, he could possibly be someone who could save the world, a hero, but, he also considered that he could be a killer, a dictator, an enforcer of vengeance. What identity will he choose and what will cause him to make this choice? Individuals in the Surviving stage are open to new truths because they are beginning to rebuild their world. This is an incredible opportunity to bring truth into someone’s life.
To the outside word a person in the survival stage seems very inconsistent. They make rash decisions without logic or thought. Because this stage is characterized by instinctive reactions the person does not think through their choices…they merely react. For example, the person in survival stage in facing a grave illness may jump on every treatment they can find (no matter how realistic it is) or they may take their medicine one day and the next day flush them down the toilet. The person in survival stage facing a trauma may lash out or hide at seemingly random times. They may call their abuser one minute and then run from them the next.
Oliver spends much of his time on the island in Survival stage. Once he decides that he wants to live he begins to try to fight back but he is incredibly inconsistent. One minute he is praising Slade and the next he is yelling at him. One minute he wants to leave the island as soon as possible and the next he wants to stay. He changes directions extremely rapidly and is very suggestible.
For those of us who are with someone during their survival stage their unpredictability can be very frustrating. These individuals can be explosive one minute, then eager to be with us, and then avoidant. It is important for us to remember that the smallest thing may have brought a memory of their brokenness to the surface, a nightmare they had, an object, a place, smell, food, anything, and these memories control the survivor. They react to the memories, not to us.
“The Church” unfortunately is generally not accepting of the survival phase. People in this phase are too volatile and very self-focused. The rash measures the Surviving take to make it through are not usually approved by the church. It is usually expected that an individual will move from Broken straight to Hero. That they will see their brokenness and then begin immediately reaching out to others but how can someone do that when they don’t yet know who they are? When they have no training and no clear direction?
In the metaphor, the survival stage is when the Superhero gets his training. This is when Arrow learns to shoot a bow, Batman learns climb buildings and hide in the shadows, Iron Man builds an invincible suit, the X-men learn to control their powers. Training is essential to the survival phase.
People don’t “just know” how to recover from a life shattering event. They need to be guided by someone who has survived themselves. Training is what we need in order to learn WHEN to fight (stand our ground) and WHEN to flight (get out of a situation). During the Survival phase we are learning how to balance our defenses. At first our actions come out in a sporadic way but with time and training we learn to use experience in the form of new skills that we did not have before.
It’s also important to note that the person we choose as a guide/trainer will determine where we go next. In the show we can see these differences when we compare Oliver, Roy, Thea, and Laurel. The person they receive their training from has a huge impact on who they become.
In real life we get this training from our friends and family, counselors, support groups (like Divorce Care, AA, and others), the government (mandated community service and such), and organizations (such as food banks, half-way houses, and the church). Each of these offers us different “Training” not all of which is beneficial, except for the fact that it is training.
This, in my opinion is where the church belongs. The church is meant to open the eyes of the Playboys, be there with the Broken, and train the Surviving. However, this type of training seems to be severely lacking. Survivors need to know how to direct themselves, when and how to fight, and when and how to run. They need practical, tangible skills; the lists and sponsors of AA groups, appointed and required times to show up for community service, rules and regulations of half-way houses, things that do not change with their mood. Survivors are in a state of flux and they need consistency from their trainer.
These are hard things to provide, especially consistency, for a person who is volatile in a culture of constant change, but what an incredible impact you can have on someone’s life if you become their trainer. The trainer is helping the Survivor to build the foundation for their new identity. Most people in the survival stage, especially if they have been there for an extended time (such as Roy in the show) are begging to be trained. They desperately want to know how to feel steadier, how to move on and begin putting an identity back together.
To get out of the surviving phase the Surviving have to take their training and focus it on a purpose. They have to find a “reason for it all,” something to live for, something to fight for. They have built up strength, and now they have skills and training, the question is where will all of this energy be directed? What will their skills (their new knowledge) be used for? What was the reason for all of this?
A book I read a while ago (Trauma: The Pain That Stays) said that people were more likely to recover from a traumatic event if they could find a reason or purpose in it. For Oliver, the island was a nightmare but if it can be used to help others then perhaps it was worth it. Identifying a purpose in what he went though is part of his recovery.
This purpose can be anything. Initially, as Oliver enters the vigilante phase, his purpose is “the list” and to “save the city.” (although Oliver does have brief times in vigilante phase before this such as when he and Slade have the combined purpose of taking the ship in season 2). The purpose motivates and drives him to use his skills. It pushes him to do more than just survive. When we first meet Diggle his purpose is helping his sister-in-law, and later reminding Oliver who he can be. For Malcom Merlin it was “saving the city,” and for Slade I think it was finding a closure for Shadow’s death.
We are much the same way in our nonfictional lives. Having a purpose moves us into action. It pushes us past a state of just surviving into the world of making a difference. Here again we see a place where the trainer can have an enormous impact.
Stage 4: Vigilante
Something interesting about the Vigilante stage is many people have the tendency to want to skip it, not realize it exists, or criticize those in this stage. Most people I have talked to so far about this “transition theory” has asked me right away why I include a “vigilante stage.”
I think this stage is indispensable and it cannot be skipped! We want others to jump right into being heroes. We think things like, “Ok, I’ve made it through, now I can go out there and be a hero,” but in reality it takes much longer than that. Trying to skip this phase is merely a lie and can be dangerous because it leads a person to think they are “all better” and no longer need help. The Vigilante is focused and driven by their purpose. They are knowledgeable (after all they just made it through an enormous hardship) and skilled. They are doing much more than just surviving now, they are fighting for a cause. They are still forming their new identity. Deciding who they are, what they believe, and what they are willing to do. They are deciding what they stand for. This passion, purpose, and new identity come before being a hero, and a person in the vigilante stage does not always fight for their purpose in the right way.
For example Oliver is very violent in the first season. He is fighting to “save the city” by killing off those on the list. At the beginning of his time as a vigilante he needs this tangible way to fight for his purpose, something he can check off. He needs to see that he is doing something “good” and making progress. The Vigilante takes the law into his own hands to strive toward their purpose. They are purpose driven, sometimes so much so that they have blinders on and neglect to see others or what is going on outside their purpose.
The Vigilante is also in the process of moving from being controlled by their memories (flashbacks) to being in control of their memories. As part of the molding of their new identity this is the stage where a person can start telling their story; the stage where they start processing. At first their story is often disjointed, choppy, and may not make any sense. However, with time and a persistent, loving sidekick the stories start to come out, and the vigilante builds his new identity.
Oliver/Arrow portrays this very well in season one (and ½ of two). He comes home from the island having flashbacks and talks to no one about what happened. He hides much of who he is but he does allow Diggle into his life. He pursues his purpose with everything he has and slowly, over the course of the next year and a half, he “becomes something more.” Flashbacks fade and memories and stories replace them, he begins telling stories, finds fault in how he has pursued his purpose, and redirects. It is a slow process but with help he makes it to the next step.
Just as in the comic book world, in our world the Vigilante is hidden and unknown except to a select few. We see the person going about their daily life (just as those in Starling City see Oliver Queen) and we make judgments thinking we know what they are like, but rarely do we see what is going on underneath for the Vigilante, rarely do we judge accurately. This stage serves as a reminder to us all that many people are in the Vigilante stage and when they are, it is unlikely that we know it. Only a select few, the vigilante’s sidekicks, really know what is going on in their hearts, minds, and the world underneath (Oliver’s night life if you will). If you have the privilege and commitment to be someone’s sidekick you are likely to make a huge difference in their lives. If not, then if you happen to catch a glimpse of a vigilante, remember that you most likely know very, very little of their true story.
The trouble with the vigilante stage is that it is so important yet it is the one we want to see omitted. We want to skip past the shows where Oliver is killing and get to the point where he finds another way, “The first season is too violent.” We want others to get out there and start helping people, have an “other minded” focus. Although this would be ideal, time in the vigilante stage is crucial, because what happens during the vigilante stage is what will determines whether a person becomes a villain or a hero.
Heroes and true villains both go through the same steps to this point. This is true for Oliver, Diggle, Malcom Merlin, Slade, Sarah, Laurel, and Thea…it is what happens in their Vigilante stage that determines whether they become hero or villain. Both villains and heroes have been broken, learned to survive, and chosen a purpose” to become the Vigilante they are. This is why I think we respect villains so much. It is not that we have some deep draw to evil but rather we admire and sympathize with what the villain has been through. We understand the pain they went through in breaking and the strength it took to survive. We admire the story they have and the passion they find in their purpose. We see the potential they have to become a hero.
Notice that Malcom Merlin and Oliver both have the same purpose in their vigilante stages (to save the city), yet one becomes very evil and the other our hero. This fact points out that the purpose chosen is not usually in-and-of-itself bad or good. It is how that purpose is followed as a Vigilante that makes all the difference. Just as the fictional Vigilante is “risking his life” around every corner, the metaphorical Vigilante is risking their future as they build their identity, decide where their purpose will take them, and make choices that lead them toward the life of a hero or that of a villain.
Because Vigilantes are so hidden and yet are at such a crucial stage they can be very difficult to help. At this point the Vigilante usually seeks out their own support…they find sidekicks. This is an essential step. Vigilantes who do not seek out sidekicks and have the support of someone at a higher stage than themselves (i.e. the support of a hero or superhero) typically become Villains. The Vigilante is building his identity and is learning to control his memories, and this takes accountability. A sidekick is there to remind the Vigilante who he is and where he is going. This is the process of coming out of the darkness into the light. They need a rope, tether, guide to lead them.
Diggle is Oliver’s key sidekick. He is the only one to begin the T.V. series in the Hero stage and he is immediately countering Oliver’s evasive maneuvers. He encourages Oliver, supports him, defends him but also calls him out, asks him questions about the island, argues with him, and urges him to think about what he is doing, the effects his activities have, and the reasons behind his actions. Oliver could have easily gotten carried away with crossing people off his list to “save the city.” It is Diggle that helps him stay on track, move forward, and eventually adjust his purpose to one that fits the role of hero.
We need sidekicks too during our Vigilante phase. We need those who actually do know our whole story (not just the pieces we choose to show). A quality sidekick challenges us to grow while still making us feel safe, loved, and supported no matter what happens during the next attack. They have our backs.
Moving On: Vigilante to Hero (or Villain)
Each stage has its own consequences when the needs of the stage is not met. Playboys never care if they leave their stage but by staying in this phase they do a lot of damage of which they are completely unaware. The Broken stage is dangerous because too much hopelessness and desperation can lead to suicide or because if we refuse to become broken it often leads to substance abuse or attitudes of entitlement. The Survival stage is perhaps the safest as those who are stuck in this stage (usually because they are never given training) tend to just fester in that stage, waiting for a trainer to come along. The Vigilante stage is of special importance because when the needs of this stage are not met the person is likely to become a Villain.
Up to this point the Villain has gone through identical steps as the hero but as they enter the Vigilante stage the Villain goes at it alone. No sidekicks means no checks and balances. If the Vigilante is unable to find someone to be a sidekick or is unwilling to work with others then he is likely to take his purpose to a dark place. A Vigilante can also get stuck in thinking that their past/trauma has ruined everything and they may develop an identity that IS their trauma. They don’t know who they are apart from a certain horrific event, they become island bound, and this results in an inability to use the broken part of their past which leads to an attitude of revenge instead of a mindset that learns to use past events as a tool to reach others and “save the city.” At this point the purpose becomes self-focused, vengeful, vindictive, and even spiteful.
Vigilantes have a tendency toward seclusion, partial truths, and masks. These tendencies can easily become a life of disconnected isolation, lies, and manipulation. Combine that with a purpose rooted in revenge and the role of Villain is assumed.
Take a look at Slade, he is our perfect Villain. He knows the Hero (Arrow) intensely because he understands the stages the hero has been through, and he is therefore a master at manipulation discerning exactly what actions will hurt the most. He is completely isolated. Yes, he has minions (most likely people who are choosing not to be broken and have developed an attitude of entitlement) but he has no one who truly knows him or to whom he tells his story. And Slade lives for his mask. The mask is part of his very biochemistry with the miricuru controlling him and his purpose has become vengeance rather than closure. He is extremely intelligent, very sly, and quite evil. Yet as a character we love him.
Why? I believe we love the villain because we see the potential of who he could be. We knew Slade before he was this monster and we appreciated him, even loved him. He saved Oliver countless times, trained him, and cared for him when he was Broken. We saw Slade injured and dying, we saw his love for Shadow and his utter devastation when she died. We understand his pain and see potential in him if only he were to change the direction of his purpose. I believe this is how God sees the “villains” of our world. Not for what they do, the manipulation, lies, masks, or self-obsessed attitude, but rather for who they could be if they backed up a bit to the Vigilante stage and changed a few things. This is the story of redemption. And the Villain, however far lost he has become, is closer to becoming a hero than many others.
Those who become heroes do so because they are able to put their purpose (from the Vigilante stage) into an “other-minded” focus. In other words, while they are Vigilantes they are “purpose driven” but the hero is “other driven.” The hero’s purpose is molded to become other minded and carried out both with a balance of fighting for a cause and compassion for others.
Oliver makes this transition very slowing starting at the beginning of season 2 when he realizes that his purpose is bigger than killing people on a list. He begins to use his memories from the island to help those around him and then in episode 12 of season 2 he discovers that love is one of his powers
It’s really neat how they use love in this episode as a (super) power. Love changes people. Oliver has been trying to transform the city through his persona of Arrow. He is cleaver, dedicated, and willing to fight for others but he has not used the power of love to reach people…until he tries to help Roy. Helping Roy to focus on love, Oliver gives him the ability to use his strengths for good. To make a difference, help the city, change lives they must use their physical powers in combination with love. The disguise, although strong, inspirational, and empowering is incomplete. “Arrow” has limits. He changes things through force and fear…the costume is not able to reach others on a level of love…but “Oliver” can. For Arrow, the Vigilante, everything is anonymous. He is not known by those he cares about and is willing to protect…Oliver is. When he sees Roy full of strength but detached from love he recognizes that the cover of Arrow will not be able to complete this disconnection, and so he reveals his secret…he is not just Arrow he is Oliver Queen, a person who understands loss, defeat, and love. His secret, our secret, and the secret of transition to the hero stage, is that our true identity can connect with others on the level of love.
Stage 5: Hero
The Hero. This is where we are all striving to be. Yet those who get to this stage are very unlikely to think of themselves as heroes. Our typical definition of a “hero” usually involves some great act or performance. This definition requires public approval and admiration. However, I believe that a true hero is unlikely to fit this traditional description.
Oliver doesn’t consider himself a hero. I don’t think most heroes do. Most heroes have been through too much, lost too much, and seen too much to consider what they are, or do, to be heroic. When someone remains quiet, shuns recognition, or rejects statements like “you’re a hero,” it is probably a big sign that they are a hero or at the very least that they have been through something that has made them see the complexity of the world.
Heroes see others. They understand depth. The hero has an objective that revolves around relationship and the betterment of the lives of others. They are not undirected and they are not alone. Because of their experiences, because of their scars, they are able to understand perspective and see a multitude of possibilities in every situation. Recall from back in the Playboy to Broken transition that the extent to which a person is broken determines the extent of a hero they can become. Their familiarity with brokenness makes the Hero very nonjudgmental in their area of experience.
As a result they are able to have a lasting impact on the lives of others. A person who went through bankruptcy, and reached the stage of Hero, can now understand someone in financial crisis and would be one of the best financial planners and advisors out there. The gravely ill, who have reached the hero stage, can guide someone just diagnosed. The pain in the Heroes past breaks through the darkness of the Broken. Their influence is unlikely to be fleeting because they are connected to others with the depth of character they have built during their previous stages and they have the structured purpose found in their Vigilante stage that maintains their focus. The Hero can see past the ignorance of a Playboy, sympathize with the Broken, train the Surviving, and guide the Vigilante. So they make an impression on the world.
The true Hero has been through a lot to get to this point. They are scarred, damaged, and their road to becoming a hero has not been an easy one.
I have to admit…I didn’t like Oliver at first. His character felt overdone to me…I thought he was over muscular, over dramatic, and overly idealized. However, as they began talking about his scars I began to like him more and more. I like the contrast between how we (as an audience) see his scars, how others in the show see them, and how Oliver sees his own scars. The person who is marked or scarred usually sees their marks/scars as a horrible/shameful/evil thing because they know what was involved in getting those scars. The outsider, like Laurel, usually romanticizes the scars seeing them as “amazing.” But we as the “all knowing” viewer who knows both sides of the story and can see the whole process, see the scars as much more. Scars add depth to the person, they make their story easy to relate to, and they open up a redemption element. We, as viewers with “the God Perspective” as I call it, see Oliver as lovable because of his scars.
Where Oliver has his scars on the outside of this body for all to see most of us do not. Most of us do not have such an obvious marker of the long process we have been through but our scars are still there. The hero is in the process of understanding that scars are interesting. Each one holds unique brokenness and contains its own story. Scars show we are marked, they remind us of the past, they hold knowledge, and they open doors. There is a special kind of power in scars.
The Church encourages us all to become heroes, to reach out and change lives. We go out and serve at soup kitchens, half-way houses, medical clinics and the like and there is nothing wrong with this, the Playboy has to be woken up after all. The true Hero, however, is likely the one doing these “good deeds” quietly in the background. They are the one who gives with their right hand while their left doesn’t know they are giving. The true hero does not just “decide” to be a hero one day, they go through a process and because of this process they are able to build relationships with those in need. These heroes in the shadows are the ones having a lasting impact.
Trouble in the Hero stage? Yes. Heroes are still growing. The largest obstacle a Hero faces is that of balance. The Hero is able to use their memories now, but how much memory telling is too much and which memories are useful in what situation? The Hero has a new identity but how does that fit with the old? The Hero has a new group of friends/sidekicks. How does he fully utilize their assistance while also supporting and allowing for their needs? The Hero is reaching others but how does he do this while also providing for his own needs?
These questions of balance must be grappled with during the Hero stage. The person who has overcome a financial crisis must learn a balance between financial advice and trying to prevent someone else from experiencing the pain they did. Those with a grave illness must balance their own health with time devoted to others. A person who lost a loved one must balance the memory of their loved one with their new life. These issues of balance are not easy. They cause fluctuations in the Hero’s life and activities.
An essential component in finding balance as a Hero is a willingness to use BOTH your Vigilante side and your Broken side. Both Oliver and Arrow must come together. The hero must learn to blend who they were before (Oliver) and who they are now (Arrow). Where Oliver is the person and Arrow is the vigilante, it is a blend of Oliver and Arrow that make up who Oliver Queen really is now. It is a composite of the Playboy Ollie, the Broken “Kid,” the Surviving Assassin, and the Vigilante Arrow that create the Hero.
When Oliver first begins transition to hero it is this balance that he faces right away. As he begins training Roy he is conflicted by when, how, or if he should reveal other parts of his identity. Later he finds that it is Arrow who can train Roy and fight the evils of the city with Roy but it is Oliver who can reach Roy on a level of love. With this realization he begins using both parts of himself…Arrow and Oliver…his fighting skills and his compassion/love for others. However, all through season 3 he must learn to integrate Ollie, Kid, Assassin, Arrow, and Oliver together.
This is the second need for the developing hero. A hero needs an unbroken identity. They must solidify their identity by deciding where they stand, who they are, and what they value for every component of their new self. A Hero is a person who will not blink in the face of evil. They do not sway with the shifting sands or change their beliefs to suit the opinions of others. They have the strength of character to face evil, to confront their own failings, and to stay on path even when facing extreme stress, pain, and isolation, and, through it all, the Hero knows exactly who he is.
Reaching this point is not an easy task because any deep brokenness affects every aspect of our lives and who we were before. Truths we embraced and even proclaimed in our playboy stage are reevaluated. A new perspective is created and new personal goals and dreams are formed and perused beyond the purpose of the vigilante.
Creating this new identity is difficult. All our names of the past rise up and fight for a place in our new self. Who are we now? Who is Oliver? Is he Ollie, the Kid, Oliver Queen, The Arrow, Al Sah Him, Wareeth Al Ghul, friend, boyfriend, brother? Throughout season three Oliver attempts to select one of these identities to become but this clearly doesn’t work. After a life altering event, one strong enough to break us and our former identity into pieces, we must become someone new. Oliver must become someone else, and so must we.
As we have seen the process of becoming a hero is very complex and requires more than just one person. Heroes never become Heroes without others to help them along the way. Everything has to come together with just the right balance of right and wrong, self-reliance and dependence, fight and flight, reality and dreams. Reaching the stage of heroism is admirable and changes those around you. However, becoming a Superhero requires something beyond heroism.
Becoming a superhero means being a Hero in multiple areas of your life. In other words, we can be at the Playboy, Broken, Surviving, or Vigilante stage in many different aspects of life…family, friends, individual relationships, our health, our house, job, financial status, spiritually…etc. When we are Broken in one of these areas we then have the potential to become a Hero in that area…when we are broken in multiple areas we have the potential to become heroes for each of the areas for which we progress through the stages. If we do become heroes in multiple different areas of life, we are superheroes.
Diggle is working on this. He has been a hero right from the beginning of the show…purpose driven (to rid the world of the evil that harmed his family but other focused (he accomplishes these purposes through helping others). We can see this not only in how Diggle helps Oliver through his stages but also in his interactions with his wife and his confrontation with Deadshot (the person who killed his brother) in season two. Here he has the chance to avenge his brother’s death by killing Deadshot but he chooses not to (a hero with loss of a loved one). He becomes a Hero in his relationship with his wife (a hero in relationships) and when his daughter is born he finds balance between saving the city and being there for his family (a hero in regards to his job). He is becoming a hero in multiple areas of life…a superhero.
Stage 6: Superhero
Finally we have arrived. A superhero can exist here in our world as someone who has become a true hero in multiple areas of their life. As for Oliver, it is clear that he is becoming a Hero in his purpose of saving the city through helping others. However, he is not a hero at all with his relationships, family, or job. This is what I hope for Oliver, that he can become a hero not only in fighting for his city, but with his family, with his friends, with his relationships, in his job, with his money…etc. That would make him a superhero.
The genius of this show, and something we must remember, is that we can be at different levels all the time. Oliver is becoming a hero in one area of his life but is still just surviving in other areas (i.e. family issues) and is a vigilante in some areas (financially…he uses money for his purpose but not for heroic reasons) but not even broken in others (I would say that Oliver has not yet been broken in relationships…he still treats his romantic relationships very much like a playboy…in an out, always changing, no risk of being hurt).
We are much the same. Personally I am in multiple different stages depending on the area of my life you consider. In regards to finances I am still a Playboy (I have experienced very little financial hardship in my life). Concerning my experiences in Romania I am a Vigilante, and with chronic illnesses I am becoming something more.
Another important note to make is that the “islands” we have been through in life will always be a part of us. They will impact our lives and who we are or are becoming. It is the type of hold we allow them to have, the purpose our “island” experience gives us, and the sidekicks/help we accept (or do not accept) along the way that will determine the type of power these experiences can give us. Will we be tied up, bound, by our island or will we be headed, bound, for something greater because of our island.
Whenever you are wondering, understand that this continuum of stages is not a straight line. We flux back and forth between stages. For example, when Oliver experiences his “island” (Slade) showing up in his living room he goes from Hero immediately back to the Survival stage. He pulls himself up, straightens his back/shoulders, lifts his head up, takes a deep breath, and tightens his body. He is taking a “fight/flight” position, he’s got flashbacks rushing through his head, and he’s afraid. Although minutes before he was in the Hero stage he has now seemingly gone back two stages. Yet this is all part of the process. He reverts from Vigilante to Surviving after his best friend dies. He goes from Hero back to Vigilante as he tries decides not to kill and has to find a new way to enact his purpose, and occasionally when he “slips up.” However, watch more closely and you will notice that each time he moves back up through the stages more quickly. The skills he has are not lost and he is supported as he continues to grow.
This is my hope for the Church. That as a community we could learn not only to recognize in ourselves which stage we are in for a given area of life but also that we can learn to see others for the stage they are in. It is much easier to understand why a person in financial crisis would diligently follow a plan one minute and then go out and spend all their money the next if we know they are in the Survival stage. It is much easier to respond with compassion to a teenager who jeers at a disabled person if we can see they are in the Playboy stage. It is easier to understand the tunnel visioned purpose of our friend when we realize they are acting as a Vigilante and need a sidekick. And it is easier to love the Villain when we can consider what they have gone through to reach the state they are in. We may even be able to see the hope for redemption that God sees in their lives.
Your islands are an important part of you. They give you so much more than scars, tainted memories, or regrets. They are molding you into a living superhero.