“What’s his power?” is the question the cashier at the grocery store asked me, pointing to the superhero on my shirt, the Silver Surfer, a guy whose appearance, whose powers and abilities, whose very history, I take for granted because it is burned into the very core of my soul. But who – let’s face it – looks a little odd if you don’t know him. Naked and shiny, riding a surfboard through space.
What’s his power, as a question, asked with a high degree of curious innocence, stopped me short – stumped me. The Silver Surfer’s “power” is so tied up with both how he got it and how he uses it that I couldn’t give a simple answer. Sure, there’s a part of me that could have given her a much too thorough rundown supplemented by brandishing an ever present visual aid: a Marvel Masterpieces trading card (1993, the Joe Jusko image) which I keep in my wallet. But I’ve mellowed in recent years. I don’t have to proselytize, nor am I the last defender of the faith. Which is to say that I have learned how to navigate these conversations using just enough detail for a mass-market audience even if I believe the particulars to be endlessly fascinating and complex.
This is what I didn’t say to her …
I want to start by saying that we need to be more like the Silver Surfer. Here’s a guy who rides the interstellar winds, who has seen galaxies flare into life, trailed his hand through the crest of black holes. Here’s a guy who said goodbye to all the things he thought constituted his life to take a chance at living a life much more vital, engaged and transcendent.
But let me start at the beginning, build slowly from the origin to the result, develop the connections. Because I truly believe we can learn how to live a meaningful life by looking into the soul of an alien who is coated in silver and navigates outer space on a surfboard.
Under the Silver…
The basic outline of the Silver Surfer’s story has been retold so many times – subjected to a variety of redactions and elisions and abridgements – that it bears canonical restoration. Be it known to all and sundry that before the Silver Surfer became the sentinel of the spaceways, herald to world-devouring Galactus and wielder of the Power Cosmic, he was a regular guy living on the planet Zenn-La, sort of unhappy, sort of pining for some kind of meaning. You see, Zenn-La was a technological paradise and its citizens had become complacent, soft in the brain.
Norrin Radd was different. He had a poet’s heart, a yearning for adventure, and he was restless under the yoke of stultifying comfort provided by his too advanced society. Norrin Radd wanted to live a vital life, one with significance and value. It is, I hope, what we all want.
What saved Norrin from this empty life was something huge, something so ridiculous that it was deadly deadly serious. Galactus, the intermediary force that exists between the cosmic abstracts of Eternity and Death, Galactus who keeps the universe in balance by absorbing the life energies of entire worlds, came to Zenn-La to devour the planet. Norrin, immediately sensing destiny, raced out to bargain. He didn’t channel his anxiety for definitive action into a tweet, nor did he avoid the sense of dread and responsibility he felt by increasing his media diet or sharing a selfie.
He understood what was happening, understood the heft and complexity of the moment, and could see his own place in the drama. He stopped listening to the larger narrative of his culture (which was somnambulant in its soul) and took decisive individual action. He looked hard at himself – not the expectations of others, not some kind of myth he had been building and which stood in for a personality. Instead of retreating, instead of wishing and hoping, or re-posting a link, he did something.
The details of what happens next are interesting (also intricate, also gospel to legions of fans) but here’s one key lesson we can learn from the life of Norrin Radd, one way to recover that depth we may be lacking. Be aware of what’s happening when it happens. And be aware of your place in it – your power, your agency to be some kind of change. Don’t stare at your phone, don’t obsessively update your favorite quotes to impress imaginary electronic people.
When something threatens to destroy your world, destroy your own life first. In the face of an increasingly pervasive online culture, a smothering expectation that you will always be available to everyone everywhere in every single way, you need to turn away from the machine if you want to be available to yourself.
To recapture whatever it is about your self that makes up your power, you need to read yourself correctly by the light of your own eyes. Because only by truly understanding our moment-by-moment existence can we reach a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with our lifestory as we write it. Only then can we escape the devourer.
What did I tell the grocery store cashier in answer to her question about the powers of the guy on my shirt? I mumbled something about the Power Cosmic, about compassion and poetry and responsibility, about perceiving both the universe and the self simultaneously. Then I handed her a few coupons and walked away knowing that I’d failed pretty much every test I’d ever faced, but hopeful for more chances to put my life on the line.
Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poems, most recently Right Now More Than Ever. The founder & editor-in-chief of H_NGM_N, an online journal & small literary press, he lives in upstate New York. www.natepritts.com