Even in the small, mundane moments of life, we have inside us the potential for greatness and heroism. And it starts with love.
Maybe love really does create superheroes.
I’d like that. My dream is still to one day grow up and become a superhero so this idea gives me hope.
I finished reading a non-fiction book this week called Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall. Ever since I’ve put it down I’ve felt most affected by the fact that the story is true. I drank in the final words of the last page and felt happiness grow inside me like it was alive, gratitude for being fortunate enough to have danced on a planet where such inspiring events have occurred.
There is a scene involving some members of the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, a Native American tribe located in northwest Mexico that’s known for producing some of the world’s greatest long-distance runners. While a pack of ultramarathon athletes are galloping along a 100-mile race track that hovers in the paper-thin atmosphere of Colorado’s peaks, a scientist, who specializes in the mechanics of running, watches from the sidelines.
He wants to know why the Tarahumara are so exceptional at moving across our world in sandals, as naturally as a leaves enjoying the shoulders of the wind. When the scientist watches a woman who has more long-distance running records than I have fingers labor up an incline and then the Tarahumara trot up that same slope with smiles on their faces to an eventual victory, he thinks that he’s found their secret:
The Tarahumara love to run.
I think about that previous sentence now and realize that there is no way to consummately explain what I actually mean. So, instead, I’ll say this: Fighting through the hallucinations that arrive once the sun has slurped enough nutrients out of your overheated body, sucking air that’s like oven heat into a mouth as dry as a dead volcano, popping the gelatinous blisters that have swelled in between your ass cheeks after a hundred miles of flesh-on-flesh friction, running through the bloody toenails that have long since softened and peeled away like a banana’s skin, arguing with your desperate self about why drinking your own urine is not the best way to quench the thirst, and leading with your face as you fall into the brown earth with the sun’s yellow arms pushing against your burned back and telling you to stay the hell down for your own good …
… are hardly challenging enough to stop the Tarahumara from finishing the race.
Like the scientist in the book, I sometimes wonder how love affects our biology. I know oxytocin, often referred to as the love molecule, nudges couples closer together, blesses us with orgasms, and even eases the agony of childbirth while strengthening the emotional bond between mother and newborn. I’ve read the stories of a 22-year-old daughter lifting a car to save her father and a possessed son swimming through a Japanese town that had been deep-throated by a tsunami to find his mother. There are these moments in humanity that comprise the best of us, dizzying feats of heroism and penetrating acts of compassion.
But what about those tiny slivers of life, simultaneously as routine and spectacular as a star exploding into nothingness, when everything is small and as stale as your Monday morning desk, and there is no stage to showcase how awesome we are or the fact that oxytocin is setting off supernovas inside of us – threatening to launch us into 100-mile races out of our offices and across deserts and, eventually, into epic crusades throughout the universe because we’re endlessly questioning, experimenting, building, failing, building again, failing some more, and circling back to new questions before we start to build again and create a way to cover new distances on account of the fact that we can’t stop loving – on account of love living in our fingernails and behind our kneecaps, coloring our eyes and flavoring our breath.
It hurts to love when you can feel the sun cooking your skin.
That’s why it’s only natural to ask why someone would keep running.
But sometimes love molecules are the largest elements among us.
In my novel, there’s a woman named Sheila who’s in love with the emotionally unavailable Ethan, a complicated young man with superhero potential because he has the spirit of a powerful warrior living in his soul. One day, the warrior tells Ethan that living in the deepest parts of him is the “single greatest joy and torment” of his life because humans are complicated which has made Ethan’s soul both a “beautiful city” and a “warzone.” Ethan, a depressive ex-con, desperately trying to drink and hump his way to a happy life while creeping along a tightrope stretched between hope and self-destruction, expresses shock when the warrior tells him that pieces of his friends, through their love for him, have found a place in his soul as warriors who fight the darkness that haunts him, including Sheila.
“That woman does not trifle when it comes to showing her affections,” the warrior said. “Here, they call her the head collector.”
“… the head collector,” Ethan said. “Why? She’s just nice to me.”
The warrior then pauses and waits for Ethan to remember how big niceness can be.
I like the idea of looking in the mirror on a Monday morning and believing that a superhero lives inside me, and how that faith interlocks with the occasional desire to burst out of the office and race across the world. I want to keep racing until the sun that’s been cooking my skin transforms under my will into an ally that will now only keep me warm. I want to stop running only to drink deep from the rivers flowing with oxytocin.
I want to be a superhero when I grow up.