I Wish I Was Clark Kent (And I Wish You Were Too)

Every blog post should be written like a love letter.

Donald Miller implores every blogger to remember that you are writing to a real reader, with a real life, a life that may actually be impacted by what you write. According to Miller, every writer should fix the reader in mind, by loving them (http://donaldmilleris.com, September 16, 2011). In that sense, I suppose, every blog post is like a love letter. However, love letters are never written only for their intended reader. Philosopher and theologian, Peter Rollins, reminds us that love letters have another purpose, as well: 

“Love letters always get to their destination. Love letters always get to the person they’re addressed to, because, in a sense, love letters are addressed to the one who’s writing them. That’s why we often write love letters that we don’t even send…they’re there for us to work through our feelings, to work through our emotions… the one who is speaking it is the one who really needs to hear it” (February 20, 2011).

I think that is true of my blog posts so far: I am writing to you, but I am also writing to myself. (Even shrinks need to be reminded that life is a story, that redemption is slow, that shame undermines our story, and that we all need new, fresh voices to help us narrate our lives.) But I think that is especially true of today’s post. You see, I’m a cautious person. I was the kid who avoided the cracks on the sidewalk, not for fun, but because, “Who knows?” I figured my mother really needed her back, and I wasn’t about to mess it up for her. My nickname in my church wilderness group was “Shy Fox,” and my Sunday school teacher once told my parents that she was concerned about my mental capacity because I never talked. For a kid like that, it’s very hard to imagine yourself growing up into a hero. I mean, Clark Kent may wear his glasses askew for effect, but let’s be honest, when you’ve been jumping over buildings for most of your life, it’s not much of stretch to imagine yourself a grown hero. However, when you’re a third-grade boy named Kelly, in your third new school in three years, and on the first day of class when your name is called the boy next to you says, “She’s not here,” and you shrink down and can’t imagine correcting him, well, being a hero seems like a serious longshot.

Yet, I’m convinced that deep down, we all yearn to play the role of a hero in our own story. I think we want it, not to satisfy our narcissistic need for attention and acclaim, but because heroes save and protect and leave the world a better place. Somewhere in us, we know that if our story can be about those things, then when the credits roll, we can be at peace with ourselves and the stories we have told.

But I wonder if we have given up on real-life, I’m-living-it-out-in-the-world-of-flesh-and-blood heroism? If the young people I meet with in my office every day are any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The kids that I’m talking to are insightful and articulate, and they have something to say: They look around their world, and they see parents whose stories are about scrambling to make mortgage payments and fighting to protect their fragile egos (by the way, I’m guilty as charged), and they wonder why, if that is the story awaiting them in adulthood, they should try so hard to grow up. They have parents and teachers who are telling them that life is all about being in the top quarter of their graduating class and getting a step ahead of their competition, and they sense that their authority figures have lost the plot. They see the aimless stories being lived out around them, and no one is giving them a better story to join. So, many of them have given up on being someone meaningful in their own story. The consequence is that they are bored to death. Most of the kids I talk to are not delinquent or rebellious or disturbed—they are bored. Question: “What would life be like if you quit smoking pot?” Answer: “Boring.” Question: “What would life be like if you quit having sex with random people?” Answer: “Boring.” You get the idea.

But it isn’t all the drugs and sex that has me thinking about this as a crisis of heroism. After all, teenagers have been having sex and doing drugs for a very long time. Rather, it’s the video games. It’s the games the kids are playing that have made me realize how much our kids are hungering for a story in which to be a hero. The majority of the most popular video games being played today are called role-playing games (RPGs for short, or “first-person shooter games;” think Call of Duty and Halo), in which the gamer is playing the role of a hero within the context of the game’s “story.” The stories themselves are not particularly creative: the world is in danger of annihilation, whether at the hands of zombies or aliens or some other sinister force, and it is your job to almost single-handedly save the world from destruction. Now that’s a hero. They play for hours, because with controller in hand, they can step into the role of a hero and save something big, whenever they want. And with no other alternatives being offered in their real lives, a generation of adolescents is abdicating heroism and sacrifice to the video game console and the movie screen.

This is tragic, because we need real-life, flesh-and-blood heroes. We need them badly. We need the obvious heroes: the police officers who dedicate their lives to making sure that drugs don’t find their way into our children’s veins, the firefighters who will climb up burning towers while those towers are falling down, or the men and women in uniform who believe so deeply in the value of freedom that they are willing to die for it. But we need the quiet and hidden heroes just as badly. We need the pre-school brother who grabs his sister’s hand so she doesn’t step in front of a moving car. We need the first grade boy who is reading books to raise money for orphans in Rwanda. We need the second grade girl who is collecting pennies for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We need the middle school girl who spends all of her social collateral by standing between the mean girls and the girl with big glasses and braces, because that girl’s tears rupture her heart. We need high school almost-men who resist the advances of confused young women, because they care more for her heart than for her body. We need leaders who leave work early to tutor disadvantaged children in after school reading programs. We need men and women who watch the snow falling and think first about the elderly woman across the street who will need her front walk shoveled. We need business people and homemakers who drop what they are doing and flock to disaster areas after hurricanes and tsunamis hit. We need people who are willing to sacrifice a season to build wells for parched tongues in West Africa.

I want you to know, I have seen the look in a kid’s eyes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to sit in front of a television to be a hero, and it thrills me to my core. Girls who choose a summer trip to the inner city over cheerleading camp. Boys who write poetry, despite the taunts of the masses, because that is what their heart is saying and they think it might make their friends better people. I have seen middle-aged men, just fired from a job that was supposed to be unloseable, decide that their stories stink and that they’re going to do something that matters in the world, even if it means cancelling a cable subscription and chewing up a 401k, and it makes me want to sing. I have seen women who have spent decades lying down while their husbands dictate everything begin to stand up straight and place themselves between him and the kids, and it makes me want to be a better person.

Thank you, to all of you who are insisting that your story be meaningful and that you play the role of a hero in this world. You give me hope.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • mindfullyhealing

    Thank you for this post. It made me stop and wonder about my own writing (something I’ve been wondering about quite a bit recently, since I’m new to blogging and sharing my writing with others). I’ve asked myself more than once “why am I doing this?”…and I think I found the beginning of an answer in your blog. To give my story meaning, to make myself the “hero” instead of the “victim”…both ring true. I’ve been mulling over a blog post about blogging, and I think you’ve given me a starting point.

    SO enjoyed reading this this morning.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I enjoyed your post about blogging, as well! You have both a passion and a gift for writing. You may not call yourself “a writer,” but I do!

  • ktina1

    As I was reading the 3rd paragraph, you had me laughing. We are so different, but so much alike. I say we are different, because our personalities are literally complete opposites, and although that may be the case, I share your passion for helping children. You wrote, “Most of the kids I talk to are not delinquent or rebellious or disturbed—they are bored.” When I read this, I shouted, “YES!” and Isaiah looked at me like I was crazy :-). I talk to them every day, in the classroom, on their lunch hour, after school, etc…and what I constantly hear from their complaints, need to talk, etc…is that they are bored. Especially the ones getting in trouble, or the kid whose grades are dropping; they are bored. Unfortunately, most of the adults around them don’t see it, and as of right now, I don’t have the opportunity to change that for them. It’s so frustrating. I encourage them, offer whatever advice I can, but it never seems enough. I’m glad there are people like you out there who are getting through to them. That brings me a little hope.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Two siblings, with opposite personalities, half a world apart, and we are struck by the same things in the kids we work with! I suppose some existential realities transcend temperament and distance. I wonder if the boredom we see is a function of the time we are living in, or if this has always been true for youth. If it’s a function of our place in history: why, what is contributing to the boredom of a generation? And if it’s a function of youth across time: at what point in life do kids quit insisting on an exciting role in a redemptive story and start to settle in to an adult life of routine and the search for comfort and ease?

  • Shari Flanagan

    Hi Kelly, I love your blog, stumbled on it this morning. Hearing kids say they are bored is one of those things that drive me crazy:) I think that the video games, like the drugs and the sex, are just another way to get high. Real life just doesn’t provide the same excitement. How boring is it to wash the same dishes every day, and the same clothes every week? I have read a little about mindfulness lately, but even that doesn’t really change the fact that a lot of what we do every day is boring. But like the good examples you cited above, you don’t just give up and stop trying. There are so many books to read, so much to learn, and so much beauty in art and nature, and even in humanity. Boredom is laziness.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shari, I’m so glad you found the blog! I so much appreciate your thoughts here. You raise a great point. I talk about at least one of the implications with the kids I see, as well. We talk about the difference between movies and real life. One extension of the metaphor that seems to resonate with them is the concept of all of the scenes in a movie that end up on the cutting room floor. I think it helps them to appreciate, just a little, that heroism doesn’t happen in two hours. The product on the screen is, if it’s any good, a labor of love, with many mistakes, outtakes, etc., that didn’t make it into the final cut. And we have to live those scenes out in our real lives, even if they aren’t going to make it into the final cut. This includes studying, taking out the garbage, etc. That helps a little. But I think you’re getting at even something more? That facing into our boredom sometimes must simply be an act of willpower? That life includes many, repetitive boring activities, that we simply need to do in order to live our lives? I’d be interested to hear what other people who might be reading this comment think, as well. Cultivating mindfulness can be an invaluable practice in the face of such activities. Yet, mindfulness is not necessarily intended to make everything rich and exciting, is it? It’s intended to make us more aware of everything that is going on in the present moment, including feelings of boredom. What happens when we are fully aware of our boredom, rather than trying to make it go away? Do we get more or less bored?

  • JRPittman

    I’m glad I visited your blog today, Kelly – I love this post, and recognize my own inner wanna-be Clark Kent. I don’t get bored much… and I’ve noticed that, when I do, it seems to be due to a general lack of appreciation of life. I don’t know how that translates to my kids, but, in my opinion, boredom really IS a state of mind.

    How else can one be perfectly content one day and, with nothing changed, be completely bored the next? It’s easy to feel stuck in a rut, so to speak, when you’re doing the same dishes every day, or vacuuming the same floors, or even doing the same job – but it seems that, if we remember how blessed we are that we have dishes to do (we had food), or floors to vacuum (we have shelter), or a job to do (we have work), it’s equally as easy to enjoy life and not feel the boredom.

    Again, how does that translate to the kids? You’d probably know better than I. Your statement about the video games really struck a chord. A lot of things about my 12 year old son make sense suddenly. Thanks for that, and thanks for sharing another love letter with us!

  • Jess

    My kids are young (4,6,and 8), but I have always told them that only boring people are bored and since they are interesting people they will always be able to find interesting things to be interested in. If it were necessary to find something to blame our youth’s boredom on I would say it is the e-pacifiers. My kids don’t play angry birds as they wait in line at the grocery store, and they look out the windows of our car rather than at a dvd player. Our world is a fascinating place! Let’s enjoy it.

  • J. Doe

    A friend linked to one of your blog posts on Facebook, so I followed it here and have been reading. A lot of what you say is definitely worth reading, especially for young parents… but if you want to talk about kids and video games, you need to get your terminology right.

    Halo and Call of Duty are very emphatically NOT RPGs, or “role-playing games” – a Role Playing Game is a game where the player is invited to take on the persona, or “role” of the game protagonist, and where the decisions of the player-character can have meaningful impact on the story or the world of the game. Halo and Call of Duty are FPS (first-person shooter) ACTION games, where the emphasis is on player skill and reflexes in overcoming game-created obstacles, usually through violence or athleticism, while proceeding through a linear series of those obstacles to progress through the story. Notably, those two series of games have exactly zero significant player choices that impact the game world – player choices are limited to tactical decisions, which will not alter the outcome of the game’s story in any way. (Note that there ARE first person shooter role-playing games, though they are pretty rare – Mass Effect comes to mind – but Halo and Call of Duty are NOT them.)

    A better example of RPGs are the Fallout games, where players geniuinely have the opportunity to make choices which, for better or for worse, significantly alter the game world around them. Do I risk myself and save this little town from bandits, or do I join the bandits and enrich myself at the town’s expense? Which of these three flawed but well-meaning political organizations do I support, or do I reject all of their ideologies and strike out on my own? Those games, which show real consequences to player actions and emphasize at every point player agency, can instruct players on the burdens of privilege and the responsibility that comes with power. (Of course, players can choose to be evil little bastards, too, and run the world down into violence and terror, which is part of the fun, and can also be instructive.)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Johnny, Thanks for the clarification! You actually just made me a better clinician. The young people I work with will appreciate that I have this knowledge. Thanks again!

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