The Dark Knight's lessons for non-superheroes

Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from "The Dark Knight Rises." Warner Bros. Pictures
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from "The Dark Knight Rises." Warner Bros. Pictures
Posted: July 20, 2012

This season of superheroes has seen the release of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, with The Dark Knight Rises arriving this weekend. Each film restores a favored crusader to his fictional world just when it needs him most. This is appropriate as we face lingering unemployment, debt crises, and international tensions that seem beyond mere mortals' ability to resolve them.

Being constrained by the laws of physics as well as generally accepted principles of reality, we can't summon masked superheroes to save us in life. But our fictional protectors can teach us to find the superheroes within.

The protagonists of this summer's films share more than crime-fighting: Each also experienced the trauma of losing his parents at an early age. Tony Stark (The Avengers' Iron Man) was orphaned by a plane crash. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was raised by his aunt and uncle. And Bruce Wayne (Batman, also known as the Dark Knight) witnessed the murder of his parents.

These characters became heroes because these traumas changed them. Tony Stark, having taken shrapnel to his chest in a kidnapping, creates a suit that facilitates his escape while keeping the shrapnel from penetrating his heart. A radioactive spider's bite endows Peter Parker with arachnoid talents that he chooses not to use, until the death of the uncle who raised him draws him into crime-fighting. Bruce Wayne is propelled by a desire to avenge his parents' deaths.

Our heroes' transformations converge with reality in a study illustrating the positive effects of traumatic experiences. Described in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, the study may provide a road map for the rest of us to discover hidden strengths.

University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun wanted to understand why some people overcome the kind of adversity that cripples others. Starting nearly 30 years ago, they interviewed hundreds of survivors of severe injuries and loss. They found that many experienced emotional growth after traumatic events, discovering new possibilities, greater strength, and renewed appreciation for life.

The phenomenon that Tedeschi and Calhoun have dubbed "post-traumatic growth" was first observed in interviews with aviators captured during the Vietnam War. As the Times Magazine noted, a stunning 61 percent of these former POWs said they had "benefited psychologically from their experience of captivity." Furthermore, the ones treated most harshly experienced the most positive change.

Post-traumatic growth occurs only after trauma so severe ("seismic," as Calhoun puts it) that it forces people to abandon previously held assumptions. As with a young child who has never conceived of a universe without his parents, trauma can force us to relinquish ingrained ideas about the rules of our universe. This is consistent with our superheroes' experiences: Losing the people they counted on forced them to find internal strength.

This doesn't occur automatically; it requires active grappling with frightening existential questions. It isn't trauma that leads to emotional growth, but the process of letting go of the beliefs that restrain us and entering a world without self-imposed boundaries.

Trauma led our superheroes to discover previously unknown capabilities. In Iron Man's and Batman's cases, these talents are not even superhuman: Each used his native intelligence and (convenient) wealth to develop unique crime-fighting tools. Even Spiderman's arachnid-enhanced skills are heightened by brainpower and very human determination.

While most of us aren't equipped with our fictional heroes' innate talents or resources, global crises and the dread they foster may lead some of us to search within for unidentified strengths. Perhaps tomorrow, the mild-mannered accountant in the next cubicle will rip open his shirt to reveal an aptitude for solving problems that have flummoxed world leaders.

Bryna Kranzler is the author of "The Accidental Anarchist."

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