Poltergeists, Superpowers, and The Tao

When I was about ten years old, my Mom laid down the law: I was old enough to sleep in my room with the door closed and the light off. I don’t know exactly why she felt compelled to declare such a policy at that time, though it could have had something to do with her being sick of me rushing into her room at three in the morning begging her to help me shake off the nightmares and subsequently keeping her up half the night. Whatever the reason, it backfired. As I was lying in my pink canopy bed, covers pulled up to my nose and literally shaking from fear in the moonlit room, toys began to fly off the shelves. First the plastic Barbie horse fell off the dresser with a light, clanky noise. Then the china collectibles began to crash to the floor, one after another, splintering into thousands of tiny pieces in a cacophony of tinkles and jarring miniature explosions, accompanied by my high-pitched screaming. I don’t actually remember my parents coming into the room, but the horse collection was never the same. And the light stayed on, after that, night after night for a long time.

There were other incidents, later on. Toasters, books, spice racks….thrown to the floor, sometimes even wrenched out of the plaster (as in the case of the spice rack) by invisible hands. And I wasn’t always alone to see these events, though calling anyone who has witnessed a poltergeist episode an “objective witness” is probably a stretch of the term. For years I felt haunted, hounded by supernatural forces which were out to get me for reasons I could not imagine. They followed me from house to house, often dormant for years at a time, then returning with a vengeance whenever I was already at my most vulnerable to further destroy whatever peace I had managed to create. Boyfriends sooner or later came to look at me with that wide-eyed fear normally reserved for charging bulls, and having roomates was…tricky. I, myself, managed to link these “episodes” to times when I was terribly frightened or angered…but I figured it was just the ghosts fucking with me when I was weak, and that was not exactly a comforting thought.

Years later, though, I found a book which changed my perspective on my invisible tormentors, and therefore began a subtle shift in my perception of the world which would eventually filter through to everything I could see. The book was named Poltergeist, by Colin Wilson, and was a comprehensive investigative study of the subject, complete with multiple case studies and Mr. Wilson’s considered evaluation of the causes. He noticed that poltergeist incidents, when recurrent, tended to follow people, rather than remaining fixed at a single locale. Most commonly, the initial incident could be correlated to the onset of puberty in a child in residence, often coinciding with stressful events in the child’s life. Further episodes were seemingly triggered by emotionally tense situations, sometimes settling down over the years, but sometimes following them throughout a lifetime. His conclusion was that poltergeists were not in fact supernatural beings with a sadistic streak, but rather a series of uncontrolled psychokinetic episodes generated by distraught people. I fit the profile exactly.

Remember the game of “What superpower would you have?”, played with other kids around the lunch table (or, perhaps, other geeks over a few beers)? Invisibility or flying? Super-strength or super-intelligence? Imagine if you had a superpower which you couldn’t control, one which was destructive and violent, but you just knew that if you could ever get a grip on it you could save the world (or at least make a lot of money). In recent years there has been a rash of superhero movies as geek culture gets more credibility (funny how they need us now…I always told those bastards I would get them back). Early superheros were vicarious escapes from a sense of powerlessness. Superman was just born that way, and the only thing that could take him down was a rare rock not even originating on Earth. The early X-Men were replete with amazing, in-born powers, and it wasn’t until much later that we started getting folks like Wolverine who came in with enough baggage to almost cancel out their amazing gifts…a trend which seems to sweep the board in today’s heroes. Spiderman and Batman just seem to develop more pathos as time goes by, and they are wusses compared to the likes of John Constantine or Shade the Changing Man (no, there’s not a movie about him yet, but I keep hoping), who suffer from real existential crises. The new superhero is one who, first and foremost, battles with himself. None of this ultimate Good and Evil nonsense for us. The lines are blurry, and the real war is waged in our own unruly minds, where we struggle to gain control of the subversive elements of our psyches which seem determined to undermine our quest for happiness.

Years of study, meditation, and going cross-eyed have not yet resulted in my moving a paper clip across a table top even a fraction of an inch. On the other hand, it has been a while since anything flew off the shelves, seemingly under its own impetus (though electrical systems of anything within reach do seem to have a half-life of approximately six hours, give or take a little). We know so little about the full capabilities of the human mind that it is hard to say what its potentials are, what effects my efforts have had, or whether there is even the possibility of ever bringing such an ability under conscious control at all. What I do know, however, is that the original path I sought — that of complete control over my emotional state — has not been achieved. I still get angry (though much less often than I used to), and I still worry and get frustrated. What I did wind up with was the ability to step back and make choices which were in line with what I wanted for my own happiness, and that, rather than iron control, is what led to a lifestyle which has less use for random acts of subconscious violence. Sometimes, contrary to what the storylines teach, winning the battle within us is not so much a matter of setting up fortresses and rallying the defense as it is a matter of retreat, reflection, and learning to let go of the things which don’t matter in favor of the ones which do.

Each of us has within themselves powers they may never see or guess unless circumstances call them forth. Like Cyclops with his silly visor, our most important gifts are hidden from the world, and often we cannot see them ourselves. When glimpsed in a moment of crisis we may misunderstand and fear their nature, wondering whether they will one day be used for evil purposes, damaging those we love. We rarely ask ourselves the reverse; whether the abilities we admire in ourselves have ever been used to hurt others, and if not, why not? I have always known, for example, that I have a special gift with gaining the trust of animals. It never occurred to me to wonder why I had never turned an abused dog back on its owner, much less on the annoying Girl Scout troop down the street (well, until now…but it would backfire on the dog, so the Girl Scouts are safe…for the moment). I have never used my ability as a mediator to turn two people against each other. I have never…well, I have rarely used my ability with language to eviscerate another person (and they totally had it coming). We are far too willing to weigh our faults and fears heavier than our compassion and caring, and it is this more than anything which keeps us from being able to utilize our gifts to the fullest.

The Tao Te Ching states:

Nothing in the world is softer than water, Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.

This is because nothing can alter it.

In being completely what we are and embracing whatever obstacles life may place in front of us, we eventually will wind up where we need to be, and the barriers to that end will be smoothed over. Simply to accept and believe in ourselves is often the one quest we run blindly from, as do many of our favourite superheros. Batman fears to let anyone too close, not trusting himself to be a positive force in intimate relationships. Wolverine, deep down, knows that he does not merit Jean Grey’s affection, as he cannot even earn his own. Green Lantern, as perhaps the ultimate example of this internal battle, is capable of anything at all…hampered only by his own willpower, which turns out time and again to be quite sufficient limitation. And then we have the moralistic tale of Jean Grey/Phoenix, wherein Jean finally embraces the full extent of her powers, only to wipe out an entire solar system. Not exactly encouraging news.

Ultimately, each of us has the potential to be superheros fully meriting our own comic series. Whether we have an aptitude for mathematics, an uncanny ability to finish others’ sentences, or a gift for combining unlikely ingredients to turn out fantastic gourmet dinners, each of us possesses abilities the source and scope of which we do not fully comprehend. Each of us also holds powers which we refuse to recognize, because we fear to come face to face with what our own nature makes us capable of. Yet there is no way to escape ourselves, and so again and again we come up against our self-imposed barriers, which block our view of the future and prevent us from moving effortlessly into happiness. No amount of control will save us from ourselves if we do not admit what that self is and what it is could do. The quest to unravel our own psyche is the ultimate Hero’s Quest, and not one taken on by the faint of heart. But facing and embracing our own power is mandatory if we ever wish to earn our place in the story. From that vantage point we can look out and decide how to use our powers for good, instead of evil (assuming good is your thing, of course).

As for me, I am back to contemplate the sage words I have been studying for the last few years: It is not the spoon that bends…