An idea that has long resonated with me is that a culture picks its leaders to reflect what the culture as a whole is working through at the moment. This argument gives U.S. Presidents as an example: when we felt crippled by the Great Depression, we elected a man in a wheelchair; when we felt victorious and powerful after World War II, we elected a winning general; in the paradigm-changing 1960s we elected a visionary; in the “me generation” of the 1980s, a former actor who looked good but had little substance. Clinton was a prototypical Adult Child of Alcoholic while George W. Bush was a recovering alcoholic. And Obama, a half-black, half-white man, represented the beginnings of acceptance of how diverse our society really is.
So what the hell is going on with us now? Why have we elected our current president?
Another place we can look to see what it is our culture is working out is the movies: the heroes or antiheroes that we create and the situations we put them in. This guest post by Zachary Feder on Batman v Superman provides an interesting lens for viewing the current situation as a struggle between the healthy and the unhealthy aspects of our collective psyche.
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originally posted on April 6, 2016 on Zachary Feder’s blog.
There’s a new kind of story that film makers are telling in greater numbers than ever before. It’s a more explicit version of the hero’s journey, upgraded for the complexity of a 21st-century psyche. Batman v Superman (BVS) is one of those movies. It shouldn’t simply be judged by the fact that there are too many opening scenes, or that the film ends three or four times, or that Aqua-Man looks like a food cart vendor stepping out of the shower with a fork in his hand ready to flip another burger. None of that really matters.
Because while our collective neocortex might struggle to make sense of the plot holes, our unconscious minds are being fed a bounty of incredibly potent archetypal coding that most other stories say almost nothing about.
The Pain of Bruce Wayne
The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, his inability to deal with that loss and come to terms with his feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, has given rise to one of the greatest defense mechanisms of superhero lore: the archetype of the Dark Knight, which captures precisely what Bruce has been going through his entire life.
At the funeral of his parents, he literally runs from the agony of their passing and falls down a hole of despair until, in his moment of greatest weakness (for which he entirely lacks the necessary support to process), he is visited by a vision of power that gives him the strength to carry on: the Bat. But bats can see in the dark, and Batman for all of his spectacular night vision … has yet to see the light.
This is the tradeoff that defense mechanisms offer us. They are strong but blind. Helpful in the moment but woefully over-simplistic. Batman is no exception. He is a single-minded, dogmatic warrior who sees no grey areas in the war against (his) terror. He is a wounded soldier who seeks to bring order to his own suffering inside by attempting to create order in the world of Gotham outside. But it’s a fool’s errand. His story is a cautionary tale that illustrates one of the great misunderstandings of our time – the idea that you can remove the stains in your basement by forever cleaning your attic. You cannot think your way out of emotional trauma or meditate your way out of dealing with dis-identified shadow. You cannot simply fight your way out of internal pain and suffering. You must meet vulnerability and pain mano a mano and lovingly let yourself be broken by it.
The unprocessed emotions of the wounded children within us all will wait in the darkness for years, if they have to, until the moment that we are ready to acknowledge, love, and reintegrate them. And until we do they will forever cause friction and turmoil in our lives as a result of their blindness. A blindness that takes its greatest and most destructive quantum leap in BVS, when, like Cain turning on Abel, Batman finally seeks to kill his own brother.
(He and Kal-el, after all, are both sons of a woman called Martha.)
Batman teaches us not just what he needs to learn, but what we all do. Because we are all Bat-Men and Bat-Women in training, all struggling to free ourselves from the projections of our suffering so we can love the parts of us that have been hurt, so we can stop projecting that pain onto something or someone else.
Batman’s fragmentation is not a fiction. It’s the ongoing story of civil war and cultural disagreements that have plagued human relationships for most of our history.
Superman and The Healer’s Messiah Complex
The man of steel struggles to lead by example. He continues to fall into the trap of taking the burdens of the world entirely onto his shoulders. He is warned repeatedly by his mother that “you don’t owe this world anything”—giving rise an internal conflict that many healers and ‘good’ people know well. For after all, if we can help—then don’t we have a responsibility to?
Of course we do, but the minute we become invested in whether we succeed or not, the minute we entangle our identity with the results we see in our patients, clients, even our world, then we have just taken the apple and inserted a worm.
Now when we succeed, or heal, we will feel loved, valuable, worthy. And when we don’t we will feel guilty, ashamed, and undeserving. Suddenly our self-worth depends on an endless pendulum swing of results that we by ourselves will never be able to control.
To think otherwise is the tragic loop of the savior complex. We feel the pain of others and want to help them by taking it all away. There is a tremendous presumption on such thinking, when we assume that we know what is best for them. But by taking someone’s pain away, we may be removing an important stepping stone to their growth. We may be taking away the very resistance training they need if they are to step up.
This is the paradigm many men and women who want to ‘help’ follow instead of simply doing their work, with all their heart, and enjoying the process, regardless of what comes of it.
For example, in the most messianic scene of the film, Superman saves a young child and is subsequently surrounded by a crowd on the Day of the Dead, the festival for those who have passed. Everyone reaches to him as if Christ himself had appeared from on high. The people are covered in face paint to make them look like skeletons. The iconography speaks volumes: those who desperately reach for saviors outside of themselves are not living but dead men and women walking. Superman wants to be the symbol of hope represented on his chest, but he can feel himself being used as a catalyst for their dis-empowerment.
His dilemma is heart-breaking. How can he heal and love others without also depriving them of the value of conscious suffering?
Superman is still working on his communication skills and the holding of healthy boundaries. He and those he helps are portrayed as being in a struggling, co-dependent relationship.
Let’s take this a little deeper.
Early Childhood Trauma and Attachment Styles
If you want to understand the most fundamental ways in which you relate to those close to you, then you need to look into your past, particularly into the relationship between you and your primary caregiver. For those working in childhood trauma and adult attachment styles, the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) test dominates the field. The ACE test identifies several main attachment styles, one or the other of which we all fall into: Secure, Anxious, Dismissive, Fearful, and Disorganized. These styles cover a spectrum that goes from being able to self-regulate emotions in times of stress and conflict to having almost no ability to self-regulate with others and being unable to create lasting, healthy relationships not based on sex, guilt, or unconscious psychological and emotional manipulation.
Batman would probably score toward the high (negative) end of the ACE test. His style is dismissive. His only deep and healthy relationship is with Alfred, his childhood caretaker. Other than that he struggles with intimacy, is unable to let in those close to him, and does little to self-regulate his emotions outside of beating the hell out of criminals.
Lex Luther would be disorganized—the highest category on the ACE test, which usually suggests a violent relationship with caregivers that has severely challenged the person’s ability to interact with others.
Superman, on the other hand, would probably score as secure on the ACE test. He is healthy. He can self-regulate. He can love. He can heal. His relationship with Lois shows this. His ability to work with Batman, even as he is being attacked by him, reflects this.
However, Superman is secure but also ‘parentified’—he has been placed in a parental role by the still childish people of Earth, struggling to take responsibility for their problems and yet yearning constantly to be saved by him. This is what the Congressional hearings in the movie are about: the ‘higher’ functions of society recognize the co-dependency and attempt to take steps to sever it.
Thus the world’s attachment style in the film is portrayed as anxious. Instead of feeling real love toward or trust of the savior—whether a religious figure, lover, parent, or child—anxious people are emotionally hungry and look to those people to rescue and complete us.
Some Final Thoughts
When Batman, the avatar of Trauma, dreams, it is in a barren, bleak, dusty desert, in a concrete bunker, in darkness. His foe in these dreams is Superman, his own comrade in arms, distorted by his own projection into something violent and barbaric.
When Superman, the avatar of Goodness, dreams, his dream is lofty, inspirational, a reverie in which he has a vision of his father at the top of a mountain.
In Batman’s dream his heart is pierced by Superman.
In Superman’s dream his heart is touched by his father.
Superman’s father tells the story of how they their farm was flooded one summer. “We worked till we almost passed out. But because we held back the flood to our house the neighbor’s got hit even worse.”
Clearly we can see where Clark gets his work ethic, his need to fight until his last breath, yet also his struggle to overcome his father’s worldview, where all decisions take place in a zero sum game in which someone always has to lose if you win. This last is arguably the inner conflict that culminates in his decision to give his life in the final battle.
His father goes on, “The horses drowned and I had nightmares of them screaming for years.”
Clark asks, “Did the screams ever go away?”
“Yes,” his father answers. “When I met your mother and she showed me that goodness was still possible.”
Clark’s father may be warning him here not to fall for the lie of trauma, to believe that healing and health is possible. Goodness, without any ulterior motive other than to love, does exist.
It is this very goodness, the goodness exemplified by Superman, that hangs in the balance in the film. In the most heated part of the movie, Luthor pits Superman against Batman and says, ““Now let’s see the holes in your holiness.”
This is the crux: the struggle to believe that healing for our traumas and wounds is possible. That health and goodness are not simply lies created to deceive us. That goodness can be pure, and that it doesn’t have to have an ulterior motive.
In the end, the spell of Batman’s delusional projection is temporarily broken by the name of his mother—the heart-opening trigger recalling the healing power of a mother’s love—and Superman dies fulfilling the savior complex’s ultimate expression: to die to save another, or in his superhuman case, an entire world. He is buried, appropriately, in the season of fall.
One would hope that his death precedes a rebirth into a healthier version of what it is to be a healer and an exemplar of goodness in a world still struggling to believe that such things are possible.