I strive to teach my son about superheroes, and they are not professional football players. They are men who return love to diffuse hate.
“The hero, it might be said, is called into being when perception of a need and the recognition of responsibility toward it are backed up by the will to act.” – Mike Alsford
Twelve years old; Here I am screaming, hitting, kicking and throwing anything within eyesight. Filled with rage, I only hear the echoes of laughter from my amused audience of family members and a handful of neighborhood kids. It was a show to them, their entertainment for the evening, all while I am crying inside.
“He can not hurt you,” they cackled to each other.
Then the yelling and screaming turned to tears. That was the real pain, I was a hurt and confused teenager and expressing it the only way I knew; with anger and rage. More chatter and laughter from the enthralled crowd intensified my inner torture. While this was outwardly conveyed with more violence and destruction, I am slowly dying on the inside, scared and lost.
I grabbed a baseball bat. It stopped being funny.
One person in that room saved me from killing myself, or perhaps others in that room. I’ll share exactly how this all transpired at the end of this article.
First, I want to tell you about the story of two boys. The story begins when they are around seven-to-eight years old. We will call them “Boy A” and “Boy B,” for simplicity.
“Boy A” awakes in the middle of the night with typical late-night hunger and heads to the kitchen to make a sandwich and accidentally cuts his finger on the knife. Scared, he rushes into his father’s room to cry and tell him something is wrong. The father responds by hitting him and telling him that he is, “too fat anyway,” followed by a couple more smacks to the face.
In childhood, we are trying to figure out if the world is safe or unsafe and it is our primary caregivers that give us this message. The message being received is, “You are a bad person. You are overweight. Don’t come to me with your problems.” As these regular beatings continue, the neurological pathways are put into place in the developing brain reaffirming his perception of himself and the world. He fears the world, he is not allowed to cry or show emotions and express how he feels. Everything is stored deep within his subconscious, but he has been trained that it is not OK to be himself.
His mask has been created.
Now, there is “Boy B,” at age seven-to-eight his father comes home and tosses around the football with him. He teaches him about football as well as life lessons associated with the game; such as being a part of a team, work ethic, discipline, sacrifice, fighting through pain, perseverance and commitment. His mother offers warmth, kindness and compassion, along with unconditional love and support.
Encouraged to do well in school, treat others with respect, and do the right thing, “Boy B” receives positive reinforcement. He trusts the world, believes in himself and his life is filled with meaning, purpose and hope.
Back to “Boy A,” his father decides to get re-married and his new wife wants to start a family of her own. To her, “Boy A” is a reminder of this man’s past life and interrupts her vision of a happy family. She takes it out on him by abusing him with electrical cords and whipping him with curling irons.
The same message comes around again, “I am a bad person, a jerk, and I am no good. I am getting in the way again.”
Already ingrained in his mind and belief system, the same thing comes up again and only deepens his self-perception. Adolescence is when our personality is formed as these neurological pathways are created, strengthened, or dropped altogether based on experiences and reactions. The teenager also acts first on emotion rather than on analytical thinking or rationale (due to the natural evolution of the brain) which means more “acting out.” When “Boy A” acts out, everyone’s perception that he is a bad person or jerk is vindicated. Including his own perception of himself.
At the same time, “Boy B” is excelling in school while his parents are putting in extra time communicating with teachers and coaches to ensure their son is growing from child to an adult. The teachers see that they are involved and care about their son, and in turn, spend additional time with their child making sure he is successful. He is applauded for his extra efforts, given awards and is generally liked by most people. He is free to explore the world on his own, views the world as a safe place and is optimistic about the future. Whenever he is in need, his family is there for him for any advice, assistance, or general support.
And, “Boy B” happens to be naturally gifted in athletics. Along with his revered genetics, he has been raised to work hard, study and strive for greatness. As he gets older, he begins to receive specialized instruction from the finest coaches around the country. And while he has a burning passion for football and for success, if all fails in college he still has a loving family and community that will forever be supportive.
“Boy A” is now growing up with the negative labels connected to his name and any good act is ignored. Like the Hell’s Angles motto, “When we do right nobody remembers, when we do wrong nobody forgets.” Only seeking acceptance he acts goofy, outrageous and spontaneous. This is the only thing that gets attention, and any type of attention is good for him. A beating is better than nothing at all.
He misses school and gets in different kinds of trouble. As the struggles progress, he becomes more scared, hurt and alone with nowhere to turn. His father’s disgust for him hasn’t faded, if anything, it has intensified. His father destroys gifts the child receives from his biological mother; he is not allowed to see his mother and is beaten and left outside the house all day on a nearly daily basis.
In school, he has no support. He is in fights, disrupting class, has failing grades and the teachers only see a lost cause. Still seeking acceptance, he willingly puts on any mask for approval—the clown, rebel, etc. Anything that grants him the love that every person deserves, the love that he was cheated out of during his childhood.
Looking at the two stories of “Boy A” and “Boy B,” as adults they are souls from two different worlds. People who have been through abuse are living an entirely different reality, how are they supposed to wake up one day and “just get it?”
This is why we need to look behind the mask.
The adult survivor of child abuse has altered brain chemistry. Early childhood development begins with the primitive structures of the brain known as the limbic system. This deals with emotional learning and survival. Our body has a natural hormone, cortisol, which is sometimes called the “stress hormone” as it is released to help our body regulate stress. In childhood abuse, the system becomes altered as the child is under chronic stress which constantly sends cortisol throughout the brain and body. At this time, the brain is rapidly developing and the child is dependent on their caregiver for protection—which has significant long-term impacts on these primitive systems. And then as he ages into adolescence and young adulthood, these constant reminders that he is a “bad person” strengthen the already disrupted pathways.
Back to the stories, “Boy B” has graduated high school with honors, receives a football scholarship and has support from friends, family and his community. He is well-prepared with education, specialized training, financially and ongoing support and guidance. He succeeds again at the highest level of college football and is dubbed a “real life superhero!” He is strong, athletic, intelligent, handsome, and he pretty good at throwing a football and has a real possibility of becoming a professional athlete.
We call professional athletes, “real life superheroes.” I see it on a daily basis. In fact, the other night Don Cheadle’s exact words on the Thursday Night Football telecast were, “These guys are real life superheroes.”
Then I watch my son put on his power rangers costume and he hits and punches. From day one we are told there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” We teach them that it is OK for the “good guy” superheroes to punch bad guys. We think it is cute. To me, it has been disturbing to see him enamored with these shows and then fired up to “get the bad guys and punch them.”
So I can bash the system which does no good or I can try to focus on the future. Which is what I am trying to do—teach my son about real life superheroes.
Back to “Boy A.” He escapes the abuse by finding a job and secretly saving money. Once he has enough, he drives four hours to his Aunt’s house, which happens to be my home as well. He is confused, lost, lacks acceptance, or any belief in himself. He has had a “bad guy” mask tattooed on his skull and has grown to believe that it is true.
Our house is crowded with five children, extended family, neighborhood kids, along with a number of chaotic pets. In the basement lives a 13-year-old child that is incredibly shy, but also remarkably intelligent. This is my older brother, he has basically withdrawn from the world at this point and is also scared and lost.
Then there is a 12-year-old boy who is angry, acting out, constantly in serious trouble and recently expelled from school—this is me. Then there was another boy, much younger, and painfully terrified of the world, but also very loving—this is my younger brother.
And, now enters “Boy A” into this home. It is a frightening situation to the outsiders in fear that he is going to destroy this home and these kids. They don’t need a “Boy A,” they need a “Boy B.” A Super Hero!
Meanwhile, “Boy B” is excelling in the classroom and setting records on the football field. His fun-loving, down-to-earth, good-humored personality makes him loved my just about anyone who encounters him. He is a good man with true humility. He is not a bad person, we do not get to choose our family and whether or not we receive love and affection—he should not be hated for that. He is an amazing man and is an exceptional role model.
Right now, his biggest concern is where is he going to fall in the NFL Draft? What kind of offense do they run? Will he be able to start right away? Again, to him, these are true worries that create anxiety. It is not his fault, it is just his reality. But in terms of real-life trauma, trials and tribulations, tests of strength, willpower, or character these concerns are not likely as significant or battle-tested as “Boy A.”
“Boy B,” could be one of many quarterbacks we see each Sunday, such as Peyton Manning. Great man, good heart, hard-working and humble. One of the best in the world in the history of his given profession—NFL Quarterback. He is often labeled, “A Hero.” In fact, quite frequently.
In researching a few different studies over the years, athletes and celebrities usually top the list of people we consider “heroes.” Currently, LeBron James tops the lists of a survey of 2,500 people age 16-35. From everything that I have read, seen, and heard, LeBron James seems like a wonderful person with an inspirational story. But a hero?
So, who is “Boy A?” This is my cousin, known to me as Little Jon, although his birth certificate reads Jon Kosiak. He enters this home, goes downstairs to the withdrawn teenager and shows him love and acceptance. He authentically cares about him, spends time with him, listens to his thoughts and interests, and gives him genuine love. He brings him out of his withdrawn sense, talks to him openly and honestly about things, and takes interest in his life. He teaches him not to be afraid of anything and befriends the kid who had all but given up on the world.
By the end of the four years that “Boy A” lived in our home, the withdrawn child is now brave and strong. He goes on to earn a master’s degree, has a family with three children and living an excellent life. He is smart, a good man and an amazing father. At a moment in his life when he was in greatest need, Little Jon was able to recognize that and willing to act upon it. Not because he felt obliged to do so, but because he wanted to do so. And not because it was difficult, but because it was natural. Little Jon showed him not to fear the world, to love himself and rise above.
And the younger, scared child is no longer scared. He ends up excelling at sports, receiving scholarships, and now works as a counselor. This is my younger brother. He has been transformed from a terrified child to a fearless leader. He is strong and smart, and at a time in which he needed to toughen up and face the world – Little Jon saw the perceived need, recognized it, and was willing to act.
“Boy B”, Peyton Manning, well he went on to the NFL and is called a “superhero.” He is idolized, loved, adored, and celebrated by people around the globe. He is a great man, with a unique sense of humor, oh and he can throw a football pretty well. But superhero? No.
However, I believe that Little Jon does fit that label. He spent four years in our home and molded us into better people. He was our hero.
And as for myself, well I was the angry little boy. My tendency was to smash things, threaten people, destroy property and sabotage the entire house. People would either bail or they gave in to my demands in efforts to eradicate my behavior. But, I never was really angry. Anger is just a secondary emotion disguised as many different things—for me, I was sad, lost and scared. It is an emotional response to an injustice (either perceived or real). That is the response, the rage is the reaction to the response. So the final product may be taking a baseball bat to a mirror, but deep down I felt an injustice creating pain and hurt.
In the opening story, we reached the climax of the action scene. Swinging around the bat, projecting anger and spreading fear into those who have brought me pain. Then steps in the one person that changed the course of many people’s lives in that moment.
Yep, Little Jon is there. And he refuses to move. This pisses me off to the point that I grab a baseball bat and start smashing and destroying things throughout the house.
The laughter has stopped, the show is over. The bear had been poked one too many times and all hell was about to break loose. And when the bear breaks free of the den, everyone takes off, bails and hides in the hills.
What would “Boy B” do if they saw something like this? He wouldn’t know what to do. That makes it tough to label him a superhero. We do not know who we are until we see how we handle adversity. When it comes to reading a zone blitz on a 3rd down in a playoff game, sure, Peyton Manning knows how to handle that “adversity.” So we know how he is as a football player. But real adversity, such as the situation above, can not be practiced or coached up.
This is the fight-or-flight system, the most primitive part of the brain. You do not have time to act on logic, you go on instinct, emotional learning, and survival. Nobody else in the room had the necessary tools to defuse the situation; they have not had the intense emotional learning he endured.
Most of the “Boy B’s” of the world have no idea what is going on inside the head of someone who needs love. They have never felt that and that is not their fault and does not make them less of a person. However, stop calling him a hero. If we keep calling him a hero and telling our kids he is the hero, then we have brainwashed them.
Little Jon did know what was going on in my head.
He said, “I am not going anywhere and you need to put the bat down.”
Everyone else is in fear, bailing out, and in full-blown panic. We got these two “messed up” kids about to go at it with a baseball bat and tempers flaring.
The crowd shouts, “Jon!! Jon!! Get out of there!! Leave him alone he is crazy!”
Little Jon did not budge. He said, “Listen, put it down. I know how you are feeling. It is ok Betsy.” (That is what he always called me, “Betsy.”)
I said “I am going to smash your face.”
“No you’re not,” He responded, “You just need love. Give me a hug.”
“No!” I shouted. Then, I started crying.”
The room is empty, everyone is gone into hiding or calling the police – or searching for the “hero.” But, the problem is that the hero was already in the room with me.
“Come here,” Said Jon as he approaches me with a hug.
Complete silence fills the room.
I drop the bat. I hug him and begin to cry and then the floodgates spring open and tears kept flowing. I have no idea what we talked about or what was said. I did not even know why I was so angry on that particular occasion.
But, what I do know is how I felt. Not alone. And loved.
He saw a need, recognized his responsibility, and was willing to act. Just like all other neural circuitry pathways in our brain, these continued heroic actions, develop into a habit, create character and essentially define the person.
Little Jon has a tendency to bring this feeing to everyone he is around. He gives people that feeling of acceptance and love even though it was never given to him.
He is a true superhero. He is the one we should be telling our kids about, not Batman, not Superman, not Peyton Manning.
But, Little Jon. Jon Kosiak. That’s who I want to teach my kids about. He is a superhero.
It’s time to redefine the definition of a superhero.
Everyone thought Little Jon was a trouble-maker and a bad seed. He is not. He is a good man that gives love, despite the only thing he has ever received is abandonment, emotional/physical abuse, pain and suffering. Prominent motivational speaker/author Wayne Dyer states that the most difficult thing to do in life is to return love for hate. Little Jon exemplifies that without any effort, he does so because it is natural.
By definition, if he instinctively flourishes at man’s most demanding task (returning love for hate), is there any other way to accurately portray and define a superhero?
Originally appeared at Taking the Mask Off. Reprinted with permission.
Photo credit: Getty Images