There are innumerable ways to define what a “superhero” looks or acts like, and the internet is certainly full of descriptions. According to Merriam-Webster, “superhero” can be defined as “a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers.” Notice that this definition does not specify what constitutes superhuman “powers.” In my opinion, that’s because what constitutes such powers is highly personal.

Moreover, I would argue that an individual superpower is likely to ebb and flow throughout one’s lifespan, even from moment to moment. The same holds true for the word “meaning” which is so important not only at this time of year but also which has been redefined again and again throughout 2020.

But first, a bit more on superheroes…

Do Superheroes Understand Meaning the Most?

I recently returned to a 2010 article that explains how superhero stories provide rich examples of psychological phenomena.1 The author cited the origin story of Bruce Wayne/Batman as a prime example of how people make meaning out of traumatic experiences and use those experiences to grow.

Unfortunately, Batman cannot make the pandemic vanish. Much to our dismay and surprise, COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon and the aftermaths are consequential. Instead, we are tasked to decide how we will live with it. If we focus only on the dire aspects, we may become dragged down along with it, which needless to say, is of no help. What can we learn from Batman’s tale? Superhero stories offer solutions. They teach us about coping and meaning when we want (or need) a way out, psychologically speaking.

Another Merriam-Webster definition for “superhero” is: “an exceptionally skillful or successful person.”  My friend and colleague, Dara Huang, MD, meets both of these definitions – she is a superhero both to me and to her patients. As matter of fact, I just nominated her for a healthcare profession award that is given to someone who has “stepped up” during the pandemic.

I nominated Dara for several reasons. First, she is a caring and compassionate physician. As an integrative nephrologist and medical cannabis physician with an impressive educational background, she established the first medical practice in New York City to use cannabis treatment2 and continues to help countless patients navigate opioid-free solutions for chronic pain, tolerate chemotherapy, and reclaim their PTSD-stricken lives. Equally important, Dara is someone who has managed to turn personal tragedy into triumph. (More on growing a practice from Dr. Kolzet.)

Her story elucidates the “why” behind someone’s choice to become a superhero. Over a decade ago, her beloved sister died from Stage IV colorectal cancer, just two years after being diagnosed at age 32. In addition, when Dara was a teenager, her mother passed away by suicide. My friend undoubtedly has survived immense grief. Yet, in the face of loss and sadness, she has demonstrated immense capacity to transcend her trauma and attend to the needs of often overlooked patient populations.

Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy

The stories of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dr. Huang teach us that meaning can be derived from the attitude we take toward our given circumstances, which can then connect us with new sources of meaning. Finding novel or even unexpected sources of meaning can be an important and necessary coping strategy.

Many mental health professionals have identified meaning as an important element of psychotherapy. Psychiatrist William S. Breitbart, MD, and clinical psychologist/psycho-oncologist Shannon Poppito, PhD, for example, created Individual Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy (IMCP), an evidence-based treatment intervention that was originally conceived of to ease the suffering of patients with advanced-stage cancer but has since been expanded to treat other populations.3,4

As an example, one may ask a client to:

  1. Share one or two experiences when life has felt particularly meaningful. Whether powerful or mundane, these experiences could be something that helped them get through a difficult day or a time when they felt most alive.3,4
  2. What is something they can do now that they can’t do in a normal year – something that may involve courage or creativity?

I discussed this approach further in an October 2020 New York City Health Business Leaders (NYCHBL) webinar on growth, meaning, and connection.

When Does Meaning Show Up?

At this point you may be wondering, does one have to experience trauma and suffering to find meaning? The short answer is no. Although meaning can arise from hardship, often taking an attitudinal shape, it can also arise from being creative, connecting with life (eg, love, humor, beauty), and from the desire to build, treasure, or leave a legacy.

In fact, there are many alternate sources of meaning and this is good news because, let’s face it, sometimes it is hard to find meaning when confronted with life’s limitations and unexpected changes. As examples, meaning can be derived from family traditions, personal relationships, a good meal, spirituality, looking at the stars, exploring a new destination (even if it’s part of a local park or nearby neighborhood you have never visited), identifying an area for self-improvement, smelling a rose, exploring one’s creative side, silly comedy, reminiscing, taking a walk, doing a good job on a project, or smiling at a stranger. We can all conjure up our own sources of meaning.

Whether it’s trauma, loss, grief, or all of these things combined, and then some, these experiences and feelings can motivate us to act in value-based directions. We can find ways to view hardships as challenges to be overcome, as opportunities for a new start, as chances to act creatively and with courage.

The Pandemic’s Villainous Twist on Meaning Doesn’t Mean It Is Lost

It is true that the pandemic – the villain to our superheroes – has made it harder to actualize some sources of meaning – but that doesn’t mean they are lost. For example, family traditions can be tweaked or reborn. Outlets can be rediscovered. And time, even if cut short, can allow us to pursue multiple, different sources of meaning throughout our lives.

Finding meaning cannot be forced, however. It is an active process that can be present even if you – or your patients – do not fully recognize it. Meaning is personal and changes from moment to moment. In our pursuit of meaning, we can turn to superheroes – whether fictional or on the real frontlines – for inspiration. We can rely on it through friends, colleagues, ancestors, poets, and mountains.

And most important, we can always turn inward and ask, “What is my why?”

I encourage you to be “meaning detectives” and “doers” like Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dr. Dara Huang, in both your personal and your professional life. I submit that meaning is our most powerful weapon and a special gift that we all have to help us cope during tough times. Meaning is an intervention and, by proxy, a superpower. Discovery awaits and evolves. POW!

Last Updated: Jun 16, 2021