Without Great Power Comes Great Opportunity

"ATLA" | Art by Quirkilicious. Used with permission.

It’s the ultimate nerd personality question: what superpower would you want? I wonder whether people’s answers are actually an indicator of personality—like healing powers for a nurturing person—or whether it’s about the side benefits, like using telekinesis in a magic act to make lots of money.

I’m not sure I want a superpower at all. Some of the most beloved characters in the geek world are the non-gifted teammates on a team of heroes. Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Marvel’s Agent Coulson, and Tolkien’s hobbits are “weak” and unskilled compared to other characters, but their deficiencies give them experiences other heroes don’t have. As someone without superpowers, those experiences are pretty familiar. When I’m not the strongest or most efficient person at home, at work, or with friends, I can learn how to value my unique attributes and use them well, focusing on what I can offer.

“One day…” by moni158.

Sokka and Contentment

All Sokka ever wanted was to become a great warrior, protect his tribe, and find his father. “I’m just a guy with a boomerang,” he says when he and Katara discover Aang and meet Appa. “I didn’t ask for all this flying and magic!” But he agrees to help Aang, and becomes a valuable member of the group, even though he’s the only one without bending powers.

Sokka rarely complains about feeling useless, but in the episode “Sokka’s Master,” when he can’t help put out a forest fire, he begins to despair. “All you guys can do this awesome bending stuff, like putting out forest fires and flying around… I can’t fly around, okay? I can’t do anything.”

To encourage him, his friends suggest he train under a sword master, and he hones not just his fighting skills, but his creativity, resourcefulness, and tactical thinking—skills that might have come second if he was a bender.

When I see a particularly talented musician, artist, or athlete, I quickly imagine myself having those abilities. I might even pile another activity onto my busy schedule trying to learn that skill. But that takes time away from cultivating talents and passions I’ve chased for years, and it leaves me less content and confident in my own abilities. Sokka took pride in the ways he was different from others. I can do the same.

“Agent Coulson – Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.” by JamieFayX.

Agent Coulson and Conviction

Phil Coulson first appeared on the Marvel scene in 2008’s Iron Man, and he’s been in three MCU movies since. When Loki kills him in The Avengers, he’s so beloved that Marvel brings him back for his own TV show.

“To have Coulson get added to these other movies, given more and more meaty, amazing stuff to do and… to have it connect with the fans in a way where they… waged a campaign on Coulson’s behalf [after his death] is really moving to me,” actor Clark Gregg said during a panel at Comic Con in 2013. “Because he’s them. He’s an avatar for the fans, and a human in the world of super-humans.”

Coulson never backs down from the super-human challenges that come his way as a result of working with heroes. When Loki breaks out of his prison on the Helicarrier in The Avengers, Coulson is the only person around to try to stop him. Even after Loki stabs him, Coulson distracts the god of mischief before shooting him with the Destroyer gun. “You lack conviction,” he explains shortly after with blood running down the side of his mouth.

In Coulson’s situation, I would have felt useless against Loki. I probably would have run away and tried to find someone more powerful than me to help. When I played team sports as a kid, I often felt inadequate because I wasn’t as good as my teammates. I was too self-conscious to enjoy myself and usually quit. Today, I’d still rather stay in my comfort zone, not rushing into a tricky work assignment or a video game I’m bad at. But Agent Coulson proves that it’s not how good I am that matters, but how much conviction I have when facing a challenge and how willing I am to persevere despite difficulties.

“Middle Earthers” by Otis Frampton.

Pippin, Merry, and Learning from Mistakes

Of the four hobbits in the Fellowship, Pippin and Merry are the Ones Who Don’t Quite Get It. They may realize dangers lie ahead when they pledge their loyalty to the Ringbearer in Rivendell, but they don’t grasp the severity of the situation the way Frodo and Sam do. “You need people of intelligence for this sort of mission … quest … thing,” Pippin declares, only to ask a moment later, “Where are we going?”

If I were Pippin or Merry, I might have given up after hindering the cause instead of helping it. Pippin’s nosiness in the Mines of Moria alerts the orcs to the Fellowship’s presence. He and Merry are later captured by orcs because they can’t defend themselves during an attack, and after their rescue, they become rather useless travelling companions on journeys through Rohan and Gondor.

When I’m not the strongest or most efficient person, I can learn how to value my unique attributes.

But they have their victories. Merry stabs the Witch King in battle, distracting him so Eowyn can land the killing blow. Pippin recognizes Denethor’s derangement and saves Faramir from being burned alive. If they hadn’t been tagalongs the whole time, they wouldn’t have been in position for these tasks.

Sometimes the greatest lesson I can learn while being inadequate is that I’m not at my full potential yet. This summer, I took on my first assistant coaching position for a team of high school Bible quizzers. I wanted to know exactly what to say to encourage and motivate them and come up with the best strategies. But the head coach reminded me that my primary job was to learn. It’s tough feeling content in that space of incompetence, but it helped me grow.

Some of these characters are jumping outside their comfort zone for the first time, or are facing a new, unexpected challenge. Others are the “normal ones” as part of their job description. But the passion they bring to that role encourages me on the days I don’t feel super, reminding me that without great power also comes great opportunity. If I’m willing to set aside jealousy, the desire to be perfect right away, and the longing to be in the spotlight, I can consider the best way to serve others with the opportunities I have, and that is no small thing.

Alex Mellen

Alex Mellen

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Alex Mellen likes a little bit of everything, including movies, books, sports, music, crafts, and especially Star Wars. She works as a copyeditor for a small-town newspaper while freelance writing and editing on the side.
Alex Mellen