On Morality 2: Substitute Heroes

Perfection is a terrible substitute for reality.

That’s what I need to keep in mind on days like this, days when I’m not satisfied, days when I’m not feeling it. Days like today.

Perfection is for eulogies, when we forget the person we loved and idealize the idea of that person.

Perfection is the realm of ideas, of concepts, of hopes. And when we get confused about which things are real we get in trouble. Mileage may very, the trouble may be deep or shallow, but it’s always trouble.

There’s this Funny Super Hero team, The Legion of Substitute Heroes. Decades before The Tick introduced us to Four-Legged Man and Sarcastro, they were a team comprised entirely of members whose powers were so questionable that even the Legion of Super Heroes wouldn’t accept them. The Legion accepted such luminaries of questionableness as Matter-Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy into their ranks, so being a Substitute Hero is a kind of inverse achievement.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

There are some stories where the Substitute Heroes save the day, because of course there are. A guy whose arms can pop off or an oddball who can turn into a (immobile) rock are still easily distinguishable from the heroes you want, need, or deserve if your day needs saving.

If only things were so easy in the real world.

Day to day, I find myself confused by a bewildering array of substitutes for reality. The Internet, webcomics email, Netflix– they aren’t just time wasters. They provide the illusion of accomplishment. I’m a completionist, so even watching another episode in a web series feels like a kind of achievement. It’s something on my internal ‘to do’ list, something I’ve been meaning to do, something with no real impact on myself or anything else. It’s easy to do, and nearly impossible to do incorrectly.

It’s a closed system where nothing of any value is accomplished. It’s perfect. And since I’m one of those people who regularly feels like doing stuff is a burden, that finishing anything should get me off the hook from having to do anything else…it’s a very effective substitute for life.

I like games– no, I love games!– for very similar reasons. You can learn a lot from games but the stakes are typically low. They provide simulations of tactics, strategies, adventures, even other worlds and all they typically ask for is your time. They also provide good excuses to bond with other people; the shared experience is often the only direct benefit you get from a game. Which is good. Friendship is never perfect but it’s always good.

A good game, of course, is very nearly perfect– complicated but finite, difficult but comprehensible. I’m starting to believe that perfection is the first symptom of illusion, of unreality. Given time, the perfect is always replaced by the epically flawed, poorly written reality we all share. It’s not a happy conclusion, but it is a useful one.

There’s no such thing as a neutral life. If we’re not doing good then we are consuming, using up resources that someone else needs. It’s not my duty as a human to judge anyone, begrudge anyone food or health care, but there is a cost underlying every human life. If we’re trying to create something, give something back, then things get better for the world as a whole. We get better. It’s not a perfect system, so I figure it’s probably real enough to work.

I like to think of us– humanity– as flawed heroes, silly but striving, capable of unexpected victories and unanticipated depths. We don’t do good because we’re the Justice League, judging the world from our satellite. We do good in spite of ourselves, in spite of our very unlikely talents, in spite of the fact we were never built to win.

When did the Substitute Heroes become so real?

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