As I write this, Hanukkah is in full swing and Christmas is days away. Typically around this time of year you find something in the air that people call “the Christmas spirit,” which is basically something that inspires people to commit small acts of kindness that serve to warm each other’s hearts in spite of the winter chill. One has to wonder why, if being kind feels so good for everyone involved, it isn’t something we try to do all year ‘round. Maybe it’s because it wouldn’t feel as special if it happened all the time. Or it could be because we all like to tell ourselves anyway that we are already the nicest people in the world and our daily lives already reflect that. Sometimes that’s true, but more often than not, it’s all a bunch of bullshit and we could all benefit from being more compassionate.
It’s times like this where I stop and reflect on morality. For instance, why do we get each other gifts? Is it because we feel the need to spend a day at the end of the year thinking of what other people need, or is it because our capitalist society uses holidays like this one to obligate us to stimulate the economy? Why are we nice to each other? Is it because we genuinely feel we should be, or because a religion tells us to be or because it’s expected of us by our family and our neighbors and the people in TV commercials?
Where does morality come from? What is it that taught us right from wrong? A religion or a government? When I stop and question these things in myself, I find that the greater part of my morality comes from comic books. Specifically, superhero comics. Specifically Batman. Now, in recent years it has been shaped heavily by my studying and practice of Zen Buddhism, but it seems to me that even this might just be an extension of what Batman taught me as a kid.
My parents didn’t raise me to be religious or to have any sort of political bias, outside of my Mom telling me early on that hating gay people for being gay is wrong (in relation to a news story about homophobia that came on the radio once) and that war is never justified (in relation to her time growing up during the Vietnam War). I consider myself lucky in that respect, as I’ve seen some very bad examples, especially here in the Bible Belt where I currently reside, of what happens when people raised under fear of deviating from their parents’ often antiquated belief system have to reconcile it with their own adult lives. I was able to decide for myself what my thoughts were on existential and political matters and I knew that whatever I decided, it wasn’t going to change the way my parents thought of me.
I think I was about four years old when I discovered the old Adam West Batman TV series (which was, needless to say, utterly mindblowing for me as a kid). I remember I always wanted to be Robin because I liked the idea of Batman being a mentor or sensei figure. Then right after that the Tim Burton Batman film came out and I saw a less silly version of the Caped Crusader, a version that looked like it could be happening somewhere in real life. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So it all sort of came together for me. Here was this guy with no superpowers who was so determined to live by the rigid standards of his own moral code that he became a superhero, and probably the best superhero at that. And if he ever came across a troubled kid who had their lives affected by the crime in Gotham, he would take them aside and teach them how to turn their loss into a way to help others.
Batman was always a dark character, and lately he’s become a very morose character, but his enduring quality is that he isn’t mean-spirited or psychotic or obsessed with revenge. Underneath all of the demonic trappings and theatrics, he represents two very important pillars of human morality. The first is that you don’t need an authority figure lording over you to do the right thing. If you have the discipline and the strength to do it, and you are comfortable enough with your own dark side to use it to your advantage instead of letting it hinder your actions, you don’t need a law or a police force or a god to tell you when you should and when you shouldn’t help other people (as well as when to not abuse your powers, such as killing in the name of justice).
The other thing he represented was compassion. Batman teaches us that people, regular human beings, aren’t perfect, but through discipline and exercise and mediation, we can find something within ourselves that is perfect, a compassionate nature that in this context is called a “supehero.” In Buddhism it’s called “Buddha nature.” This is the part of you that can go out into the world, whether it’s Crime Alley or your local Walmart, and help people that can’t help themselves. Batman also understands that crime is not a disease, but a symptom, and that the criminals that he fights are still ultimately members of the community that he is struggling to save.
These are some pretty heavy themes I suppose, but the mythology of Batman is so brilliant that his core themes are easily absorbed by the youngest of minds, even if it takes them more than twenty years to figure out that’s what they were learning in between all the “Bap!” and “Pow!” sound effect cards. And as I got older I found that those ideas could be elaborated upon in a more mature manner by studying Buddhism. Now, I don’t mean to say that I have even a tenth of the moral fiber that Buddha had or Batman has, but achieving those heights is certainly not unattainable by me or by anybody, provided the right level of self-discipline is employed.
So that’s what I think about during the holiday season. How Batman made me a Buddhist. Or something like that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of last minute Christmas shopping to attend to. I could really use a butler right about now.