The Ultimate Superpower

Dear Will:

I think just about everybody has fantasized at least once about having superhuman powers. You can test this theory the next time you are with a group of friends and the conversation starts to lag. You’ll fill a good hour (easy) by simply asking: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” You probably know what your answer would be because you and your friends have already discussed it. Admit it.

There are literally thousands of characters in the Marvel Universe alone, which suggests that there are plenty of powers to choose from, but in my experience, most people select from a very short list. Your conniving, suspicious friends will generally opt for Invisibility so that they can do stuff without getting caught: stealing your vintage Iron Butterfly album, for example, or listening in to find out what you’ve all been saying about them behind their backs (that they’re conniving and suspicious—duh). The jocks will go for Super-strength, because, I guess, it’s cool to pick up heavy stuff and throw it—and also to not get hurt when doing something more obviously practical like, say, trying to run through a wall. Your hyper-motivated, overextended, busy types will generally opt for Teleportation or Super-speed (something like that), the better to get stuff done. (Boring.) Then there are the fun-loving goof-offs who pretty much choose Flight every time, because—hello!flight?

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in those kinds of conventional superpowers. For one thing, they’re kind of played out, ruined for the rest of us by summer blockbusters and CGI. More to the point, it seems like when you’re endowed with Super-strength or Spidey Sense, you have to fight crime and wear spandex. No, thanks.

Me? I’m much more interested in just plain powers. For example, the power to Repel Mosquitoes. Go backpacking in the summer and leave the DEET at home. No more long sleeves on a hot day. No more scratching your welts till they bleed. No bug nets. It would be tremendous.

Or maybe the power to Say the Right Thing. I’m already imbued with the power to Insert Joke Here, which, as you may have observed, is too often associated with the power to Say the Wrong Thing. I’m just looking for a bit of a course correction, in other words. It’s not asking too much, I think.

But if I could choose only one, I would gladly endure the bug bites (well, not gladly) and foot-in-mouth disease if I could just get a small portion of what I think may be the greatest power of them all. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the Ultimate Superpower—a true game-changer if deployed with any degree of scalability. I refer, of course, to the power to Bring Out the Best in Others. I’ve witnessed it in action, and it’s amazing.

In real life it looks something like this:

  1. Hang around humans.
  2. Believe with all your heart that each one is stupendous.
  3. Let them know over and over until they start to believe that it actually might be true.

It’s a logic-defying, gobsmacking, incomprehensible . . . well, superpower. There’s really no other way to describe it. Because see, I’ve hung around humans. And we’re mostly not stupendous. We are full of glaring flaws and hard-to-ignore shortcomings. It’s impossible not to notice. But we have a friend who does this all the time—effortlessly, it seems. She gives you more credit than you deserve (“That’s one of the things I love about you . . .”) and sees you in such favorable light that while sharing a plate of tacos you find yourself yearning to be a better person. It’s as if she can only see your true potential for good, so that somehow, post-tacos, you feel yourself moving closer to that imaginary ideal. Or trying to anyway. It’s the only truly transmittable superpower I’m aware of, and it lifts and inspires everyone around her. Without her even realizing it, I might add. She almost certainly wouldn’t be aware that we’re talking about her right now.

It’s a magnificent, remarkable gift. She makes the world and the people in it better while simply going about her day. Unlike Flight or Invisibility or what-have-you, it’s the sort of superpower that could actually save the world if the rest of us could just figure out how she does it and start using it on each other.

Just think of it. There might not be any crime left to fight—and we wouldn’t even have to wear spandex.  

PW

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Check Out My Perpetual Happy Machine

Dear Will:

I cannot deny that sometimes, when I learn that my school’s rivals are losing a game they were expected to win, I have flipped over to their radio feed just to hear their announcers whine about it. I’m not proud to admit that listening to the losers’ consternation has brought me a sort of wicked satisfaction. It’s just one more example of how, even years after her death, I continue to disappoint my mother.

The Germans have a word for this—schadenfreude—which Merriam-Webster defines as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” That there’s a word for it suggests pretty clearly that I’m not the only one afflicted with it. And if it’s true that “misery loves company,” then for sure there’s someone reading this right now taking pleasure from my affliction—which provides a sort of elegant symmetry when you think about it. Schadenfreude may also help explain why bad news spreads so much more quickly and widely than good news and why gossiping is so much fun. Perhaps we see schadenfreude as an antidote for envy—albeit one with nasty side-effects. (Ask your doctor if schadenfreude is right for you.)

Here’s a possible side-effect that had not previously occurred to me: A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Covid-19 news reports in the United States have been significantly more negative than those from sources outside of the US. That negative tilt is apparent in US news outlets from across the political spectrum, and the gap is enormous. Last year, 51% of international news reports about the virus were negative, compared to 87% in the US. Why the difference? Researchers aren’t sure, but their number one theory is this: News outlets are simply giving Americans what they want.

Ouch. The implication is that our national media are more likely to report on a handful of anti-maskers than on the vast majority of good citizens who are masking up to help combat the virus. I guess we would rather read about ICU overload and increasing death tolls than about neighborhood fundraisers and successful vaccine research. If that’s true (and apparently it is), there must be a lot of disappointed mothers out there.

A friend of mine recently asked me: “What’s the opposite of schadenfreude?” The question stopped me short. I had never thought about it. Apparently the Germans do have another word—gluckschmerz—which refers to “pain at another person’s good fortune.” But that’s not what my friend had in mind. He was asking, in all sincerity: What is a word for enjoyment obtained from the enjoyment of others?

It turns out that Buddhists have just such a word—mudita—which is “sympathetic or vicarious joy.” The classic illustration is a parent delighting in the accomplishments of a child. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, because everything I know about Buddhism I learned from reading The Tao of Pooh, and if mudita was in there, I don’t remember. But I love the idea of cultivating mudita, which Buddhists apparently do. Making a more conscious effort to enjoy the joy of others can only be a good thing, right?

Jesus was neither German nor Buddhist, but I think it’s safe to say that He was a mudita kind of guy. (Schadenfreude? Not so much.) Nevertheless, it seems like we Christians probably spend more energy talking about Jesus suffering for us than about how He celebrates our joy (as surely He does). We often teach the importance of weeping with them that weep; but perhaps we could spend a little more time on the other half of the scripture, “rejoicing with them that do rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Clearly I could use that sermon, in any case. Especially during football season.

If we all started practicing mudita on each other, think of the possibilities. Your happiness would increase my happiness which would, in turn, increase yours. It would be like some sort of Perpetual Happy Machine. As opposed to whatever it is we have now. Wouldn’t that be something? Just thinking about it is making me happier already.

PW

These Foolish Things

Dear Will:

I’ve always liked the idea of playing the piano, but I’ve never been much for working at it. Recognizing that I lacked both passion and talent, at some point my teacher gave up his quest to instill classical music theory and began teaching me how to fake it instead (much to the relief of real pianists everywhere). But, hey: 40-ish years later, if you give me just the chord symbols and the melody line, thanks to Mr. Swank I can still bluff my way through just about any piece of popular music. Sort of.

The problem is that when my five years of formal piano instruction ended in junior high school, I had learned mostly just the foundational chords, many of which I have subsequently forgotten. Which means that today, when I sit down to play and encounter a chord I do not know, I usually just substitute one that I do and it’s, you know, fine. Good enough for my purposes anyway.

Except for when it isn’t. Recently a vaguely familiar American standard slipped into my Spotify feed—a lovely jazz version of “These Foolish Things” that parked itself in the back of my consciousness. Then a couple of days later, a different playlist offered up this version by Nat King Cole, and—come on—when that voice sings you pretty much have to stop with the PowerPoint and really listen. It. Was. So. Nice.

So of course I had to take a swing at “These Foolish Things” myself. I mooched an arrangement out of one of Bryn’s songbooks and immediately sat down to butcher it beyond recognition. (It’s my signature style.) It was slow going, as usual, and of course I had to fudge my way past several chords I don’t know (D7-9 anyone?). But then I hit the bridge, which included a string of mystery chords for which no combination of junior-high workarounds could possibly work. So I had no choice but to stop and try to read the actual notes. Like a legitimate piano player.

As if. After all these years, my ability to read actual music notation is pretty elementary—there are just too many big words for me to get through the paragraph, if you know what I mean. But I did work it out, and when I worked it out, the bridge went from, you know, fine, to soooo fine. Both lyrically and melodically, those measures are perhaps the least interesting in the song. But when you actually play the notes as written something transformative happens. You know how at the beach a wave can sometimes pick you up and hurl you? Well, when you play C11 – Cdim – C11 – C9, it’s kind of like that. It’s a sequence that lifts and spills you into the final refrain. So much better.

As I sat there, playing and replaying that marvelous progression, I kept thinking: Why did I wait 40 years to figure out how to play an eleventh chord? It took me, what—ten minutes to work it out? For years I have forgone beauty and nuance just because I couldn’t be bothered to put in a little extra effort? And now I can’t stop thinking about the C11. Anytime I’m tempted to do the same old thing because it’s easy, or when I follow familiar, habit-bound patterns without pausing to think, once again I’m playing “These Foolish Things.” (I’ll pause here to allow the irony of that to sink in.) That mysterious, magical bridge has become a dare to stop and think and take notice, to willfully deviate from the long-established, effortless course, to allow myself to wander down unfamiliar paths and see what might be waiting around the bend.

It seems like someone somewhere said something like: “Nothing really great ever happened inside your comfort zone.” But I couldn’t tell you who. What I can tell you is that if someone had framed this image and left it on my piano about, oh, 30 years ago or so, I might not be writing this letter to you in 2021.

More likely I would be sitting at the piano, marveling at the magic of a D7-9. Whatever that is.

PW