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Captain Ordinary: The Missing Superhero
Anyone can be Captain Ordinary.
Would you want to be?
I’m a long-time fan of superhero movies, but
recently I’ve felt more and more that something is
missing from the genre; that a new type of hero is
required to save the day.
Typically, movie protagonists are confronted with
some evil antagonist, usually so malicious that only
someone just as strong could oppose him/her/it. But
the adversary always defines the rules of
engagement. The evil one draws the hero, and the
audience, into the Sphere of Morality Based on Force. In this sphere, force determines the
outcome. In most cases, superheroes are honorable individuals, but their strength and power
are what make them effective. Star Wars even used the term “The Force” to describe a
mysterious energy with both a good “light side” and an evil “dark side.” Good force to fight evil
is decidedly an easy sell. The inevitability of the need for force is so inculcated in American
culture that it is rarely, if ever, questioned.
Moreover, superhero movies invariably rely for their entertainment value on a less than
praiseworthy human motivation: revenge. The evil one(s) perform despicable acts, that they
often enjoy, and we cannot wait for them to get what's coming to them. As a boy, I watched
David Carradine portray Caine, a humble and peace-loving Shaolin monk in the television
series, Kung Fu. I patiently viewed his kind and gentle behavior in the first part of each
episode, but I was really waiting for Caine to beat the hell out of the bad guys at the end.
I had been invited into the Sphere of Morality Based on Force, and had not noticed. There is
an undeniable satisfaction in revenge and schadenfreude that sometimes masquerades as
reverence for justice. The revenge motive has been a staple formula in movies for decades. It
is everywhere. I don't think we notice how this message relentlessly and subtly subverts our
sensitivity to more useful approaches to conflict. It blinds us to more complicated causes and
conditions for what we consider evil in the world.
More recent superhero movies occasionally provide an evil character that did not seem to
spring fully-formed from the jaws of hell. Rather, the evil one(s) are more complicated, maybe
portrayed as psychologically damaged. Or maybe their goals could even be perceived as
justifiable from their viewpoint. Eric Killmonger in the popular Black Panther movie, for
example, grew up impoverished in Oakland and his stated purpose was to liberate black
people. But his embrace of violence was pathological. Typically the depravity such characters
display is so extreme or twisted that whatever redeeming qualities they may possess shrink to
near insignificance. Otherwise, the sugar high from the final revenge exacted by our
superhero would not be sufficiently satisfying to the audience.
So, the defenders of justice we love in movies have certain requirements. They must operate
in the Sphere of Morality Based on Force to provide the excuse for adrenalized action to
which we in the audience have become accustomed. And they need to provide viewers with
the satisfaction that comes from watching the hero finally deliver richly deserved retribution.
Unfortunately, this movie mentality bleeds over into our everyday consciousness. Or perhaps
more accurately, it reinforces a mentality that already exists. But what if fighting and punishing
wrongdoing, though not unnecessary, was not considered the biggest piece of the puzzle?
Might other less heroic approaches be more effective in the long run?
Perhaps “Captain Ordinary” is the champion we really need. What traits would distinguish
“Captain Ordinary” from the superheroes to whom we have become accustomed? To
understand let's set aside movies for now and concentrate on everyday life where the origins
of what we call evil are more complicated.
Understanding, Not Force
A few years ago, David R. Dow, a Texas death penalty lawyer, delivered a mesmerizing TED
talk. Dow defends death row inmates who would, by most people, be considered evil. But
Dow has come to understand the complicated evolution of “evil” behavior. He exemplifies the
kind of empathy that can arise if one steps out of the Sphere of Morality Based on Force and
step into a Sphere of Morality Based on Understanding.
When Dow first began to defend these inmates, few lawyers had the interest and expertise to
defend such men. Understandably, lawyers would choose inmates who were closest to
execution because their cases were most urgent. But over time, lawyers like Dow had begun
to shift their focus to earlier in the death penalty process. They learned that the sooner you
intervened in a case, the greater the likelihood that you're going to save your client's life.
For Dow, a watershed moment of insight occurred at his dinner table. He looked at his 11year-old son and realized that Will, one of his death row clients had, at the same age, already
been living on his own for two years. Prior to that, at the age of five, his client had been
chased by his schizophrenic mother with a butcher knife. Later he joined a gang, committed
serious crimes, including murder, for which he was ultimately executed. For Mr. Dow, there
was no satisfaction in this man's execution. He saw his behaviors as the result of having been
brutalized by his early life experiences, not some form of inherent evil.
It is noteworthy that in his TED talk Mr. Dow was not making a case against capital
punishment. He was arguing instead for prevention of the crime in the first place. Fully 80
percent of death row inmates come from seriously dysfunctional childhoods. He suggested
that if we as a society spent our resources intervening when these people were young, the
murders they commit likely would never happen. Unlike many movie characters, Dow had
discovered that real life murderers most often begin as victims of dysfunction. With an
analysis based on caring rather than vindictiveness, we could intervene in their lives early and
forestall their crimes by encouraging them off the path of crime, if as Dow suggests, “we think
about nudging them rather than just punishing them.”
Dow never denies criminals should be held accountable for their crimes. But by experiencing
their basic humanity, by being able to view his clients both as victims of dysfunction and
perpetrators of violence, he mitigates the impulse for revenge—that urge to “give these
people what they deserve.” Is he a Captain Ordinary? In many ways, Mr. Dow is still a heroic
figure because his work requires an expertise and steely persistence that few would be able
to muster. But his embrace of understanding in lieu of force, and compassion in lieu of
punishment, and his ability to experience perpetrators of terrible crimes as fellow human
beings, albeit damaged fellow human, are indeed reflective of a Captain Ordinary.
So to really understand Captain Ordinary we need to ask what it means to be “ordinary.” In a
culture saturated with calls for accomplishment and self-improvement, being ordinary is
understood quite negatively. So undesirable is the term “ordinary” that most people resent
being considered so. When asked about almost any category, many of us will claim we are
“above average”, in other words, better than ordinary. But maybe our viewpoint is a bit too
limited. After all, most of what we accomplish in a day is unremarkable. For instance, I don’t
consider myself an unusually talented grocery shopper, pumper of gasoline or housecleaner.
My reading speed, meal preparation expertise and ability at math are other examples of me
being quite commonplace.
Yet, like most people, in most categories, I want to consider myself “better than ordinary” at
minimum; excellent, if possible. Perhaps considering oneself “better than normal” is the
signature mark of the ordinary person. But we can go further. All of us are likely to be good at
something, maybe even more than one thing. Can we say that being “better than normal” in
one or more categories is, in fact, still ordinary? The point here is that thinking one is better
than the mainstream and, further, even being “better than normal” in some categories is, at
the end of the day, ordinary.
But in America, such a premium is placed on winning and accomplishment that we may begin
to doubt that even “better than ordinary” is good enough. To assuage such doubt and any
other feelings of inadequacy, have we embraced the mindset of ongoing self-improvement as
the holy grail, the pathway to happiness?
The Self-Improvement Maze
Being “better than ordinary” is not an abstraction. It means being better than other people. As
youngsters, we are taught to measure our self-worth by how much better or worse we are
than the others in our class, on our team, in our family, even among our friends. By the time
we are adults this orientation has been internalized. Our self-worth becomes mentally bound
to our level of accomplishment, even if only in one narrow area. This is not surprising. As we
mature, it is normal to acquire skills and accomplish educational milestones, as is comparing
ourselves with others. It seems only natural to continue on, getting ever better, enhancing our
status in the world. The omnipresent siren-call of self-improvement beckons. We may
successfully ignore it in many areas of our lives. But typically we have found some activity in
which we try to improve.
But if improvement is normal, what's the problem? This may not be so much a question of
whether to improve, but how we think and feel about it. Certainly, we need to achieve levels of
skill that allow us to integrate into and contribute to society and hopefully to thrive in our
personal life. These are normal healthy ways people grow and improve.
Notably, such improvement is different than our thoughts and feelings about that
improvement. Typically, we can measure objectively our accomplishments—we can run faster,
compute more accurately, perform more difficult procedures—and the benefit to ourselves
and others is more or less obvious. But our beliefs and feelings about our accomplishments
are less objective, frequently don't align with reality, and far too often become a source of
personal unhappiness and conflict with others.
Difficulties begin as we develop a self-image, which is a normal part of maturation. But what
we tend to overlook is that self-image is not an objective view, like a photo on a sunny day.
Self-image is first and foremost a conceptual construct. It is assembled from how we view
ourselves, how we believe others view us, and how we compare ourselves to some ideal—
how we would like to see ourselves. Unfortunately, self-image tends to be inherently unstable,
susceptible to every form of self-doubt or external criticism.
This shape-shifting self-image consists primarily of transient “thought-feelings.” Thoughtfeeling is an abbreviated way of describing thoughts about ourselves that stimulate a wide
variety of feelings: pride, well being, equanimity, or dread, inadequacy, embarrassment and
fear. Neutral thoughts, such as “Water is wet.” do not stimulate such feelings. Whereas
thoughts like, “I am a terrible friend.” can stimulate strong feelings. In other words, self-image
is not what we are, but rather our thought-feelings about what we are. Perhaps most
important are the thought-feelings generated by what we believe others think about us and
what we want others to think of us. Anxiety over how we are being viewed becomes a
frequent companion. Acknowledgment or praise easily become unspoken goals, even if we
keep this hidden from ourselves. You might think of self-image as the sum total of all
judgments—criticism and praise—directed at us by both others and ourselves, divided by how
much of it we believe.
As soon as you begin comparison and judgment, though, you have stepped out of the stream
of engagement with your life. It does not really matter if you are comparing yourself to others
or to your own previous level of performance. Comparison and analysis is, quite simply, a
different state of consciousness than being fully engaged with what you are doing. Being
exceptionally engaged in what you are doing has been called a “flow state.” This is a term
coined by psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which he explains as, “being so
involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every
action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.
Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Most of us have
likely experienced “flow” at some time in our lives, maybe even frequently. I would suggest
flow might be considered on a continuum—as more or less intense—from totally engaged to
totally distracted. We may not be in a “pure flow state,” totally immersed, pumped with
endorphins, where ”nothing else seems to matter” but still be motivated by interest, curiosity,
and enjoyment and mostly absorbed in what we are doing.
The crucial difference is when our focus shifts out of engagement with what we are doing to
our judgments about what we are doing. The distinction is not always noticed. Compare this
recognition: “Wow, how about that! If I drop my shoulder my forehand shot is more accurate.”
to this judgment/analysis “Now I am getting good, I'll be able to beat Robert, and my friend
Rachel will be impressed with me.” Or this realization: “Oh my! This story seems to be writing
itself, it feels authentic and flows.” to “Hooray I'm not a loser, my writing club will finally
recognize that I have real talent.” In both cases, the first statement is a recognition, the
second statement a judgment. If the judgment is just a single fleeting thought, it is little
problem. But what so often tends to happen is that the second thought is “sticky” and attracts
a chain of thoughts generating positive or negative feelings that generate more thoughts.
Imperceptibly, what we enjoy doing (tennis, writing) becomes a means to enhance our selfimage rather than an end in itself. We may even lose the joy of the activity as it subtly
becomes a tool at the service of an unstable self-image. Do we notice that our activity, (tennis
or writing in these examples) has invited fear of failure to be its best friend?
In the pursuit of improving our self-image, do we unwittingly step into a maze with no exit?
Most people are already susceptible to feelings of inadequacy. The American selfimprovement mindset tends to exacerbate these feelings. It is hardly a revelation that no
lasting state of satisfaction or perfect self-image is to be found. So, “becoming better”
gradually becomes an end it itself. Anticipation of personal gain and fear of personal loss
become our organizing principles. Judging and comparing ourselves against others or some
imagined personal ideal becomes a habit that brings neither peace of mind nor happiness.
We live in varying levels of dissatisfaction, knowingly or unknowingly grasping for a self-image
that will finally be gratifying—some day in the future. We may even reject genuine praise if
our feelings of personal lack have become entrenched. Often missed is how these efforts to
improve ourselves reinforce our experience of dissatisfaction, separateness and isolation,
putting us in opposition to others, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
The corrosive effect of this mentality is not immediately obvious. Competition is valorized in
America and, as noted, striving to improve seems to be intuitively worthwhile and is
enthusiastically encouraged by an endless stream of self-help books and seminars. It should
be noted that the marketing of these self-help books and seminars is designed to instill a
feeling of lack in the prospective customer—a lack that, unsurprisingly, can be fixed by
purchasing the book or seminar. But we should not be too cynical. The self-help industry is
not evil; rather is a product of the same self-improvement meme that has pervaded our
culture. But Captain Ordinary asks this question: “Why is just being an ordinary person not
good enough?”
Studies show that judging oneself spills over into judging others. We find ourselves frequently
in conflict with how we are, or how others are. Or we may conceal such conflict with some
form of self-justification or rationalization. A pattern of judging self and others becomes a way
of life and also a source of stress and conflict. Though beyond the scope of this article,
studies have suggested that widespread depression, substance abuse, anxiety and feelings
of isolation have some of their origins in this way of thinking. Any anthropologist will tell us,
not that we need them to, that humans are social animals. We need to feel connected to
others. Yet our habitual critical outlook and the drive to be better fortifies our separateness
and disconnection. Perhaps it's time to question just how healthy this is. Maybe Captain
Ordinary can offer significant insights for all of us.
Thanks to Marvel comics and movies, superheroes with the title Captain are both male and
female. We know that superheroes are a fantasy, perhaps our collective image of the socalled “ordinary person” is also a fantasy. Could it be that the ordinary person comes
equipped with gifts that we overlook because we've been conditioned to only see “better” or
“not good enough” —because we are imprisoned by an attitude that we must strive to be
better? Becoming Captain Ordinary is important because, if we do, we break free of this
confinement and experience more intensely our connection to others in such a way as to
change our own behavior and potentially influence the behavior of others in a favorable way.
The marvel of Captain Ordinary is that he or she has discovered a secret identity. Simply put,
self-image is not our identity. Our secret identity, lying cloaked behind our self-image, is free
of feelings of lack, inadequacy or anxiety. It is open, receptive, curious, interested. Our secret
identity begins to emerge as self-criticism ceases. If we pay attention, we may recognize it
when we are with close, non-judgmental friends. When we are “simply being,” if you will,
feeling safe, accessible and responsive. It remains “secret” because we so often fail to
recognize its presence. This identity is always available but we may think it can only appear in
special circumstances. It is obscured by our preoccupation with self-image.
To consider this preoccupation with self-image as wrong is not helpful. Ironically, doing so
only adds one more aspect of ourselves we feel the need to “improve.” It is more helpful to
view it as a culturally reinforced misperception—the default misperception most all of us share
—that we are autonomous individuals dependent on our accomplishments for our self worth,
separate from others, and competing for limited resources. Yet, all of this is a seriously
distorted view. Humans are exceedingly interdependent, and our survival is far more
dependent on our cooperation than our competition. Notice that we don't require only the “The
National Plumber of the Year” to clear our clogged drain, or only 4-star restaurants to enjoy a
good meal. Without any competition, we rely on and trust others continually to go about our
daily lives, from the Starbucks barista to the unseen technical wizards who keep the internet
functioning. To experience our human interconnectedness is not extraordinary, it is ordinary—
requiring no special heroic efforts. It is, however, not common.
Captain Ordinary does not have X-ray vision. But she/he does see what tends to remain
invisible to eyes that are blinded by critical judgment of others or distorted by the
consciousness of self-improvement. In fact, perhaps the defining trait of Captain Ordinary is
his or her ability to perceive and experience the invisible connection between people.
Captain Ordinary is not negative, does not acquiesce to mediocrity, or retreat into some form
of self-justified apathy. His or her perception is simply not narrowed by the tunnel vision of
persistent self-interest. With a more inclusive perspective, one can see that caring for oneself
responsibly helps everyone else. Conversely, caring for others responsibly, helps oneself. Our
pervasive feelings of separation and competition are learned, and reinforced, but not
Of course, we are not one-dimensional beings. We may often feel warm-hearted toward
others, especially friends and family. But we may fear to show that side to strangers for fear it
will be interpreted as weakness and they will take advantage. We fall victim to the classic
Prisoner's Dilemma. If I fear the other person may cheat me, I will never do the right thing,
only the defensive thing. Taking a chance is scary because experience tells us that we may
end up cheated. And this is not unreasonable. Kindness is seen as weakness by a
percentage of the population. If we could identify this percentage ahead of time, we would be
able to respond to them appropriately without needing to limit our warm hearts to only family
and close friends. So, from that standpoint, I must concede that becoming Captain Ordinary
does require some level of courage, and also discernment.
To experience the freedom of becoming Captain Ordinary can we step out of our
autobiographies for a while—to recognize our similarities instead of strengthening our
differences. To understand we are “fellow human beings,” if you will, and experience what we
all share. Maybe experiencing our “ordinariness” is in itself, without any further enhancement,
a gift to others. A person who has discovered his or her “secret identity” can be guileless, noncompetitive and non-judgmental, which puts other at ease. Feeling safe and comfortable in
our ordinariness may also be a way of encouraging the compassionate heart that beats in our
chest. And what may seem surprising, this allows space for others to experience their own
compassionate hearts. In contrast, such compassion is not encouraged by the drive to be
In fact, those driven to be exceptional often lose sight of their ordinariness. Taking pleasure
and security from their talents and abilities, they may become more insulated, their
relationships more transactional. The person who embraces being ordinary can discover how
easy it is to connect with others through simple openness and kindness. He or she can feel
the warmth that others are inclined to display when they feel acknowledged as having equal
dignity and not challenged or threatened.
Embracing our ordinariness, we can enjoy other people without envy or contempt. We can
feel our connection at a deeper level. And the best part is that we already have these abilities.
They are included in the gift of being human. We don't need an advanced degree to be kind.
We don't need to practice 10,000 hours to be warm-hearted.
Embracing being ordinary is another way of embracing being human. By embracing being
human, we do not become better than human. We become fully human. But even this is not
right. We were always fully human. We simply recognize it. And recognizing it in ourselves,
we can also recognize it in others.
What About Ambition?
Ambition takes many forms. Dedicating your efforts to a meaning and purpose larger than
yourself is a message that has been promoted through the centuries by religions and
philosophers. Modern examples include Viktor Frankl's discovery of the importance of
meaning from having survived Nazi concentration camps. Even contemporary atheist
philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has stated the importance of this principle. This motivation to
dedicate your actions to a deeper meaning or larger purpose is quite different from that of
improving your self-image, trying to become better than ordinary. Ambition that promotes
one's own interests at the expense of others tends to cause unhappiness—we can easily
alienate others and become self-absorbed, preoccupied with our own goals. But ambition to
contribute to the common good tends to have better results. Confusion persists because, if
you have dedicated your life to something larger, you do feel better about yourself and often
you are viewed more favorably by others. The difference is that this happens as a byproduct
of your efforts; not as a goal. But ambition is tricky in America's distracted, rushed life. Even
those most motivated to serve others can lose track of their purpose.
In the early 70's at the Princeton Theological Seminary, a selection of students were chosen
for a study. They were instructed to give a short impromptu speech in another building. Some
subjects were to give a talk on the jobs in which seminary students would be most effective,
others, on the parable of the Good Samaritan. What they did not know was that on their
journey to the other venue they would encounter a person slumped in an alleyway, who had
been planted by the experimenters to see who would stop to help. The seminarians were
broken into three groups. The “high-hurry” group were told they were already late and needed
to hurry, the “intermediate hurry” group was told group to leave immediately because the
audience was ready for them. The “low hurry” group was told they had plenty of time. (You
can see the study here: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Darley-JersualemJericho.pdf)
The point for this article is that of the students who were the most hurried, only 10 percent
stopped to help, compared to 63 percent of the students in the least hurry. “Subjects in a
hurry were likely to offer less help than were subjects not in a hurry. Whether the subject was
going to give a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not did not significantly affect
his helping behavior on this analysis.” These were people who were dedicating their lives to
God and service to others. Yet, when rushed and preoccupied with their own agendas, their
behavior was more self-centered and less charitable. So even “good” ambition can blind us to
our fellow human beings.
If visionaries are the ones who move society forward, and this is arguable, possibly it is all the
ordinary, kind, compassionate people that hold society together. If we can step into our role as
Captain Ordinary, we can become the glue of society, the pillars, the fabric—even, I would
suggest, an inspiration to others.
Is there not real value in recognizing our self-worth—irrespective of our accomplishments—
and our connectedness to others as humanity? This seems quite reasonable when we bring
our attention to it, yet it is largely obscured from our everyday consciousness. Captain
Ordinary lives this recognition. Understanding and caring may, in the long run, be more
effective than punishment, as the attorney Dow explained so eloquently. Openness and
sensitivity may, in the long run, be more effective than force. The poets and mystics have
proclaimed this for centuries. If more of us become Captain Ordinary, maybe we will be able
to find out. There has never been a more crucial time to do so. It may be long into the future,
if ever, before Captain Ordinary is included in the pantheon of celebrated movie protagonists.
Skilled directors and writers will need to hold a new vision of what's important in society and
how cinema can serve its viewers.
More important is to ask ourselves if we want to become Captain Ordinary in our own lives.
Allowing ourselves time and space to “just be” can help in discovering that secret identity
which feels no lack, that is open and receptive. It requires a process of recognition not a
process of achievement. Oddly, the process of recognition is most aided by the action of
divestment. Recognition tends to happen naturally as we reduce our judgments of self and
others, step off the hamster wheel of relentless self-improvement, reduce our competitiveness
in favor of cooperation, replace feelings of inadequacy with trust. Cynthia Bourgeault, a wellrespected theologian, observed that, “When you remove judgment, what’s left is compassion,
not indifference.” Is this true? It seems a worthwhile topic to investigate. We might discover
that warm-heartedness, openness, cooperation, equanimity and good will toward others are
completely natural, ordinary and sources of joy, surprisingly available even in difficult
situations. Many wise individuals in history have promoted this view. Captain Ordinary agrees.
Being Captain Ordinary is not a “big idea” or ideology. Discovering our ordinary humanity will
always be personal to each person. Yet, being Captain Ordinary is available to all of us.
Captain Ordinary will always remain mostly unnoticed—unexceptional, flying under the radar
—yet joined with others as the unifying, invisible glue of human connection.