After Christopher Reeve died a few years ago, I had a dream
wherein he was swimming past me in a river, his arms and body
moving smoothly and rhythmically through the water. He took no notice of me, completely
absorbed in the swim, and it strikes me now that it was like
a meditation in motion. My Psychic Dictionary lists
"classic symbol of God" as one of the meanings of "water"; also that "liquids are lifegiving
because they flow and move about, while lifeless things are still." In that dream,
I felt Reeve was reveling in his new-found sensations and movement, in the
flowing and moving about, after the enforced stillness of paralysis; he was
swimming in his Godhood, his Super Being.
If anyone deserves to experience this, he does.
About ten years ago, it was a great shock when I picked up the newspaper in a coffee house and saw Reeve's photo and the front-page report that he had been paralyzed
from the neck down in a horse riding accident,
and as I sat there, sipping my coffee, I began to ruminate on the
irony of this happening to the man who as an actor had been most
identified with Superman in the public mind.
This was not lost on the media or on the public; the
extremity of Reeve's condition, and his bravery in coping with it, led to
Time magazine's cover story, "Super Man," August 1996. Yet Reeve didn't
want to be stuck with that label or role: "It bothers me when people
say, `you played Superman, now you are Superman.' They mean well, but
they don't know what I go through in the middle of the night. I don't
know. I suppose that if part of the definition of Superman is that you
keep going even when you feel like shit, then I suppose I do
I, for one, would agree with that view of Superman as a real person
with real struggles. Perhaps it's time we redefined the caped crusader: who
is the *real* Superman? And what affinities does he have with the man who
brought him to life on the screen for us all?
One of Superman's outstanding characteristics is his honesty, his
moral uprightness--as he said to Lois Lane: "I never lie." And,
reflecting on his past experience with the disabled, Reeve showed his
unusual integrity in his admission of the discomfort he had felt,
prior to his accident, visiting disabled fans in the hospital: "It was
heartbreaking...but you would always have to admit to that secret sigh
of relief as you close the door and go back to your own life. On the
way out, I would say, `Oh, thank God.' And now I'm on the other side
of the door. And I have to be the one to stay in the room and be the
one with the problem."
It is common to feel uncomfortable upon encountering differences in others,
because they challenge us to expand and
understand, to adapt, to see in them that human essence that we all
have in common, beyond appearances. This lesson is brought home
in a particularly forceful manner by finding ourselves "on the other side of the door."
If this can happen so easily, literally in an eye-blink, a strange somersault of a man, of fate--as in Reeve's case--what then does it mean to be "normal" or "disabled"--or "super"?
One of Reeve's nurses, a man named Juice, would tell him, "You are here for a
reason." He disagreed: "It was an accident. It just happened." But
as the saying goes, there are no accidents...
Reeve said that when he first learned the realities of his
condition, he felt that he was no longer a human
being. I'm sure he gained a broader perspective on this. It's been
said that there's really no such thing as a handicapped
person--there's only experience and growth. What may look like a
tragedy may be an opportunity for transcendence.
Many have difficulty seeing anything positive in disability,
and this is partly due to the Western view of life as a one-shot deal, the perception that death of the body is the end of a person. There is, however, much evidence for the continuity of life,
the survival of the spirit. A lawyer has even made a case for this, at http://www.victorzammit.com/ . In this light, disability and other challenging experiences can be seen less as a bum rap and more as simply a learning process.
Which is not to say we shouldn't rise above our limitations insofar
as possible. "We're entitled to something more in life," said Reeve,
speaking for the spinal-injured and, perhaps unwittingly, for all
who are faced with limitations, which may well mean every single one of us.
And: "It's what you do after a disaster that gives it meaning."
In the Superman movies starring Reeve, he is often depicted as a
Christ-like or godlike being, as in the words of Superman's father
Jor-El to his son, who he named Kal-El: "It is now time for you to rejoin your new world,
and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, Kal-El, to
discover where your strength and power are hidden...they can be a
great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to
show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I
have sent them you...my only son." And the Daily Planet's news chief
to staffers: "Whichever one of you talks to him will have the most
important interview since God talked to Moses."
Superman, with his X-ray vision, ability to fly, courage, and
incredible strength (which could only be felled by Kryptonite--as a
disabled character in Iris P. Dart's novel When I Fall In Love
commented, the substance was "named after us"), does embody our
concept of what we see as godlike. But those abilities exist for each
of us, potentially, on an inner level. Just as the Bible's truth is
told in symbol and parable, so may the story of Superman be also.
Clark Kent becomes the nervous, inept persona
we perceive ourselves to be until we "take off" that garment and access our
true power; X-ray vision becomes the ability to see beyond appearances; flying
through the air becomes transcendence, rising above limitations; and
strength and courage may come down to the heroic unsung struggle:
"...you keep going even when you feel like shit..."
As Jor-El enjoined his son, Reeve lived as one of us,
discovering his hidden strength and power, showing us all that Super Beings do indeed come in many
different guises. And I'm sure Reeve, as he played his greatest role, would have echoed Superman when
thanked for delivering Lex Luthor and his sidekick to prison: "No, sir, don't thank me. We're all part of the same team."