Admitting Weakness Is The True Path to Strength

Post-concussion lessons I've learned from Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America.

Posted Apr 30, 2018

It wasn't very long ago that not admitting my weaknesses was actually one of my weaknesses.  Recently that's all changed, because it had to. But let's back up for a minute. Or a decade.

Ten years ago my first book using superheroes to explore the science of human ability and achievement was published. Becoming Batman is a book about training to achieve a bit of Batman's greatness. I followed that up in 2014 with Inventing Iron Man, an exploration of how technology could amplify human ability just as we see Tony Stark's exoskeleton in action. My latest book, Chasing Captain America, investigates the power we now have to alter our own biology and truly exceed human limits.

Superhuman status seduces, beckons and can inspire. All that and more is what I expected to be writing about when I started out on this 10-year trilogy. What I didn't expect was the need I would personally have to draw on the fictional characters I was using as foils as personal inspiration to finish my Captain America book.

Three years elapsed between publication of my Batman and Iron Man books and my plan was to get on a 2-year publication cycle going forward. So, when I signed to write the Captain America book in 2013 I intended to get it out by late 2015 or early 2016.

But real life, as it does so often for so many of us, had other ideas and changed my plans dramatically. In January of 2014 I was in a major car crash that left me with post-concussion syndrome, constant headaches, tinnitus, chronic pain, deficits in working memory and other additional challenges. There is a definite irony here, because all of my books discuss and many other projects address concussion as a major health issue. As a result of that car crash in 2014, the timing and implementation of my book writing plan was officially written off along with my vehicle. Instead of two years, it took five to get this most recent book out, something I feel let down about.

I remain kind of defensive about Chasing Captain America despite the fact that no one else would be aware of my plans (ok, except you are, now that I have written about it here!) and judge me harshly for being unable to deliver on them. On some level the success of publishing another book has an aura of failure associated with it in my mind. That's all on me and clearly not a real issue. But, like many people, I am my worst critic. Instead I should celebrate that I did get that book out despite how difficult it was, you know? I'm trying to emphasize for myself that is an accomplishment for me to take solace in and celebrate. But it's hard.

Since Batman Iron Man, and Captain America all have bits of their backstories and their fictional universes that are grounded in aspects of scientific reality it means some parts of them are possible. In my writing I've talked about the fact that as soon as we recognize that there are parts of reality within fictional characters this means we can do more as humans than we ever thought we could. We humans habitually benchmark ourselves beneath our true capacity and exploring superheroes allows us to consider a different kind of achievement. One that, although inspired by fiction, can inspire our own realities.

Because of my injuries and resulting deficits, the process of completing Chasing Captain America was greatly extended and extremely challenging, far more so than my previous books. Knitting together the many chapters, themes and thoughts in the final drafts of a book requires a feeling of "loading" the concepts of the entire book into your working memory while you deliberate, edit, connect, and revise. This activity is precisely one of the things that is extremely difficult for me to do after my car crash and I really struggled with it while editing and revising Chasing Captain America. This was such a struggle that more than a year elapsed between drafts of the book at one point.

E Paul Zehr
Source: E Paul Zehr

During this time of struggle, I found myself drawing on psychological inspiration and motivation from some of those same superheroes I was actually writing about. Batman's backstory is all about training to push biology to the limit. From Batman I learned that I needed to really implement the "will to act" that I've written about before, and the determination to take decisive action and finish things. This is fairly easy to say but it takes work to learn how to apply that determination in your own life and as I did while finishing Chasing Captain America.

From Iron Man I learned to think about reinvention in a different way. Tony Stark's backstory is as a genius inventor who creates this amazing exoskeleton that enables him to be a human superhero by technology. But in his very first story in Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963 there's a large splash panel showing Tony Stark stumbling around while trying to walk in the Iron Man suit for the first time. I remember reading that panel and rereading it and being struck by the vulnerability and fragility that Tony talks about and how he has to learn to walk again "like a baby" even though he's in this massively powerful bit of technology. This made me think about reinventing myself in light of my injuries and capacity and figure out a different way forward. This of course meant addressing some of my own weaknesses and facing them down. Something I need to keep practicing every day.

While I was writing about Captain America I also learned to think about his backstory in a very different way. Although Chasing Captain America is about exploring the real science of altering human biology that is part of Cap's origin, one of the major things I took away while struggling to finish that book was a lesson in resilience and acceptance. Here's a guy, Steve Rogers, who was literally frozen in suspended animation in a block of ice across decades before being revived into "present day".

Many bits of the stories of Captain America over the years, including the representation in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, show Steve Rogers struggling with being a "man out of time". Someone who has lost almost all of his friends to old age and death and who is forced to live in an amazingly different world where music, technology and communications are fundamentally different from his most recent memories in the 1940s. When he's revived from his deep sleep, Steve is involuntarily placed on a new timeline.

But instead of being overwhelmed by his lack of familiarity with his surroundings, Steve Rogers as  Captain America comes to acceptance of his situation and his new timeline in his new life and thrives eventually leading the Avengers ("Earth's Mightiest Heroes!"). Steve had the wisdom to accept something he had no control over. He could never go back in time to his original timeline.

And this helped me start thinking about my own scenario in a different way. I have very little control over many of my deficits. The only thing I have any real control over is my behavioral responses to them and my management strategies. In common with Cap, I can't travel back in time and undo my accident. What I do have control over is my response to it and the resilience of acceptance. That is, I have to focus on my "behavioral plasticity" and acknowledge that, like Steve Rogers "man out of time", I'm on a new timeline now too.

This meant confronting something Alan Watts wrote about way back in 1957 in "The Way of Zen": "I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at the moment...that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!” Accepting what is now rather than what could have been is critical to continued ability to move forward. I must embrace who I am now, not who I was or might have been.

In my writing I explore superhero science to provide a touchstone for how all human bodies work. The method I use as my way to communicate science was in fact (and somewhat unexpectedly) useful for me as a learning method to alter my approach to my own life. Each one of us has a bit of Batman, an inkling of Iron Man, and a kernel of Captain America deep inside. It's up to each of us to find those reserves within and put them to good use. For me that's involved admitting my limitations and weaknesses so I can fortify and manage them and live life as best I can day by day.

Or, put in another way relevant to my recently released book: I was chasing something that I finally found. Not admitting weakness used to be one of my actual weaknesses. Now admitting weakness is one of my strengths.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2018)