I’m a big Superman fan. I’m not an expert, not by any means—I’ve mostly just watched the movies. And I should clarify that I’m probably more a fan of the idea of Superman. He has so much power, such limitless energy, such a compassionate view. I love the thought exercise of imagining what that would be like.
But I also get mad at Superman—a lot. Since I was young, whenever I’ve watched him as Clark Kent sitting at a desk at the Daily Planet or flirting with Lois Lane, or as Superman, doing one of those pleasure trips through the skies to the far reaches of the earth, I’ve cringed, maybe even shouted at the screen a little. Because in those down moments, those little moments of human interaction or fun, what is he doing? He could be saving people right now—and that’s always, always true. When he’s chatting at the watercooler with Jimmy Olsen, someone, somewhere, is screaming for help. And because he has the powers he does, he could hear those screams—if he chose to listen. He could go to that person. He could save the day.
And he doesn’t. In fact, most hours of most days, he’s probably not saving anyone at all.
What do we do with that? I ask because on some level, I think we all have the same problem: we can always do more. We can see—when we allow ourselves to, anyway—what we’re not doing. Just for myself, I could exercise more, read more, sit more, take more walks. And even those are things for me, I can still feel a kind of guilt about not living up to my expectations, my ideal. If I expand out to the people around me, it starts to get painful. I could spend more time with my kids, listen better, help out more around the house, work more, work better, be more present to my community. And if I expand further, it can become overwhelming. I could recycle more, speak out more, march more, give more up, just simply give more.
In every moment there is suffering—both what we can see and what we just know is there, must be there, all around. Someone, right now, needs saving; someone, somewhere, will not be saved. That is always true, and it always will be.
I want to resist something simple here, like “First, you need to take care of yourself” or “Notice all the things you are doing.” I also don’t want to tell you to get out there and find your outside limit, to stretch yourself as thin as possible. Neither, for me, is the point.
So first, I just want to acknowledge it: this knowing, this awareness of efforts not made, is painful. But we shouldn’t try to talk ourselves out of that pain. That rawness in the face of suffering, that heartbreak—that’s supposed to be there.
The question becomes not “How do I get over this feeling?” and not “How do I solve all of it?” but instead, “How do I hold this?” How do I fight the impulse to tell myself a happier story while also not succumbing to despair?
I think vow is one way forward. Shantideva, the eighth-century Indian scholar–monk, literally wrote the book on vow, The Way of the Bodhisattva. He wrote:
For as long as space endures,
and for as long as living beings remain,
until then may I, too, abide
to dispel the misery of the world.
Maybe this is too simple, but what takes this out of the realm of ordinary thinking is that there is no measurement. There is no enough—he isn’t talking about working enough, loving enough, giving enough, practicing enough. He takes that away by simply making it forever. In this vision of a life, we never stop trying, never stop chipping away, never give up an opportunity to perform a rescue. But we also fail. And we never finish. We just get up every day, with that rawness and that pain fully present, and we keep going.
Superman has different limits than we do, but he has limits. He can’t be everywhere at once. As we watch him stop that runaway train, for us, the music soars, but I don’t think it does for him, at least not so loud. Underneath it, he hears the whispers and the laughter and the cries for help of all beings. He wants to save every one of them, but right now, he’s here, saving the ones in front of him. That isn’t failure, and it isn’t success. It’s just his life, and tomorrow he’ll do it again.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.