Big Picture: Meet the real-life superheroes

Text by Robin S. Rosenberg, picture by Peter Tangen from the Real Life Superheroes Project. E-mail [email protected] with your Big picture ideas

Superheroes – at least certain kinds – don’t only exist in fictional worlds. Some men and women dress up in their own unique costumes (and have their own code name, such as Life and NYX, top and bottom left respectively) and set out to ‘do good’ in some way. Unlike most superheroes, whose destiny is to battle criminals and villains, the real-life superheroes (RLSHs) have a wide range of ways to do good. Some engage in relatively low-risk missions of helping homeless people (by providing them with bottled water, toothbrushes, and other important supplies). Others (e.g. Master Legend, second from right, bottom row) take on higher-risk activities, patrolling to prevent crimes or to intervene if they find one taking place. Like fictional human superheroes, these higher-risk RLSHs have an uneasy relationship with police departments. After all, they are only a step away (or according to some, a step past) vigilantism themselves.

When real-life superheroes (RLSHs) are asked why they do what they do, a frequent (though not universal) response is that they feel the police, legal system, or social service system isn’t doing enough, and they want fill that gap and make a difference. Their motivations are prosocial. For some RLSHs that I’ve talked to, this desire to ‘do good’ stems in part from post-traumatic growth (or stress-induced growth). That is, they had some type of traumatic experience in the past (such as getting assaulted) and, like Bruce Wayne after witnessing his parents’ murders, find a silver lining in their traumatic experience and make meaning of it by dedicating their lives to helping others.

Dr Robin Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist and editor of Our Superheroes, Ourselves (see p.764). For more on the Real Life Superheroes Project, see uperheroes – at least certain kinds – don’t only exist in fictional worlds. Some men and women dress up in their own unique costumes (and have their own code name, such as Life and NYX, top and bottom left respectively) and set out to ‘do good’ in some way. Unlike most superheroes, whose destiny is to battle criminals and villains, the real-life superheroes (RLSHs) have a wide range of ways to do good. Some engage in relatively low-risk missions of helping homeless people (by providing them with bottled water, toothbrushes, and other important supplies). Others (e.g. Master Legend, second from right, bottom row) take on higher-risk activities, patrolling to prevent crimes or to intervene if they find one taking place. Like fictional human superheroes, these higher-risk RLSHs have an uneasy relationship with police departments. After all, they are only a step away (or according to some, a step past) vigilantism themselves.
When real-life superheroes (RLSHs) are asked why they do what they do, a frequent (though not universal) response is that they feel the police, legal system, or social service system isn’t doing enough, and they want fill that gap and make a difference. Their motivations are prosocial. For some RLSHs that I’ve talked to, this desire to ‘do good’ stems in part from post-traumatic growth (or stress-induced growth). That is, they had some type of traumatic experience in the past (such as getting assaulted) and, like Bruce Wayne after witnessing his parents’ murders, find a silver lining in their traumatic experience and make meaning of it by dedicating their lives to helping others.
I Dr Robin Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist and editor of Our Superheroes, Ourselves (see p.764). For more on the Real Life Superheroes Project, see www.reallifesuperheroes.com.

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