All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… only you won’t admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all the struggling! God, you make me want to puke. I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are?
— Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke
Most comic book characters, whether hero or villain, have tragic backstories. Some have had their loved ones murdered, like Batman, Spider-Man and the Joker. Others have been in a horrible chemical accident or attacked by a creature which transmitted powers to them while disfiguring and ostracizing them from the human community, like the Anchoress or the Confessor. Still others were born with certain powers that enhance their abilities while marking them as freaks, like the X-Men mutants.
These characters may seem removed from our world, fantastic figments of imagination with impossible stories. But if we look closer, we can recognize ourselves in them.
An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.
— Sidran Institute, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet“
The experience of trauma tends to make one feel vulnerable, wounded and afraid. It diminishes one’s trust and colors one’s self-image, worldview and interpretation of others’ actions. Most of all, it makes one feel helpless, shorn of one’s agency and self-determination.
It takes time to heal from trauma, and the repercussions can extend beyond your lifetime, as wounds are passed on to the next generation. However, genocide survivors like Immaculée Ilibagiza and Eva Mozes Kor, as well as atomic bomb survivor Takashi Nagai, have been able to break the chains of hatred and hurt by extending forgiveness to those who decimated their families and nearly killed them.
Some superheroes, like Batman, carry survivor guilt with them all their lives, imprisoned by their anger while channeling it into crime-fighting, doing their best to save others from similar trauma. Their own suffering compels them to serve others, even at great personal cost.
Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben’s famous line is: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man’s constant crime-fighting takes him away from his girlfriend, and even endangers her when he makes enemies. He tries to keep his alter-ego secret from her for her safety, and he sacrifices his personal happiness for the good of others.
Sometimes, it is very tempting to stay in a safe bubble and detach from the world, which seems so full of miseries. However, as Christians we are challenged to be God’s hands and feet, bringing His Good News to the broken and wounded. Christ Himself is the paramount example of self-sacrifice, descending from Heaven and taking upon Himself the sins of the world so as to save mankind from eternal damnation.
Trauma tends to turn us inward, keeping us fixated on nursing our wounds, and triggering us to act in selfish ways that hurt others, like the many villains of comic books. Moving forward from trauma involves re-engaging with others in a healthy and compassionate way, acting for their good as well as ours. Although it can be difficult to regain self-control and self-dignity after a traumatic experience, we can do all things in Christ, Who strengthens us. Let us choose the good always, especially when it is most trying. At the same time, as a wise friend once told me when I was completely drained from listening to depressed classmates: “We should be giving them Christ’s Blood, not our blood.” We are not God, merely His instruments of love and mercy; let us lean on Him for the supernatural strength needed to heal the wounds of our broken world.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
— Isaiah 52:7