by Tony Wyman
There is a question that, on the surface, seems perfectly innocuous, but, when answered, reveals a great deal about us as individuals.
Here it is:
If you could have one super power, choosing between the ability to fly without an aircraft or the ability to be completely invisible at times of your choosing, which would you choose?
Flight or invisibility. Pick one.
To my shame, like probably half of you reading this – I took invisibility.
Why this choice reveals so much is explained in one of the best episodes of a radio show called “This American Life,” broadcast in February 2003. You can listen to it here.
In the show, author and humorist John Hodgman, asks friends to choose between the superpowers and catalogs their responses.
None of what his friends report is shocking. Most who chose flight did so for convenience sake. They wanted to save time, make things easier to do or, in the case of one man, impress women into sleeping with him. Those who chose invisibility, however, almost always were motivated by avarice or something else even more nefarious.
“So you would become a thief,” Mr. Hodgman said to a woman who reported she would steal clothes from Barney’s with the power of invisibility. “Immediately,” she replied, “until I had all the sweaters I wanted and then I’d have to think of other things to do.”
When I chose invisibility, I conned myself into believing that I would use that power to defeat evil, that I would save the lives of both Iraqi and American troops by sneaking into Saddam Hussein’s palace (he was alive then) and put a knife in his heart, unseen.
Don’t get me wrong, I would have, indeed, been delighted to use my powers of invisibility for good. Killing Saddam would have been high on my list of priorities. After 9/11, I would have had more blood on my hands than the world’s busiest butcher, but I also know the darker side of me would have demanded attention, too.
Would the power of invisibility tempt good people to do evil things?
“Typically, this is how it goes,” reported Mr. Hodgman. “People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes. People who fly, stop taking the bus.”
The point was that very few people, even those who chose the more benevolent, less creepy, superpower of flight, stated they would use it for good, to fight crime, for example. “No one cares about crime,” Mr. Hodgman said.
And that’s the problem. If we had a superpower, like flight or invisibility, what would we do with it?
In my case, using my ability to become invisible, I would want to use it to learn the truth about powerful people, to bring down international criminals, to end human smuggling, to thwart super-villains like Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon – in short, to do good. But, I’d also want to sneak into Natalie Portman’s house, too. Maybe even more of the latter and less of the former.
Five Stages of Choosing
Mr. Hodgman says in his broadcast that people choosing a superpower go through five stages: 1) Gut Reaction 2) Practical Consideration 3) Philosophical reconsideration 4) Self-recrimination 5) Acceptance. Here, in these five stages, is where we find out about what sort of person we are, specifically in stage four.
When explaining the five stages, Mr. Hodgman used, as an example, a man he met in a bar in New York who chose invisibility. The man was typical of the person who started off excited about his choice, but when he reached stage four he began to have second thoughts. The self-doubt in his voice was clear when he said this, “Invisibility leads you…leads me as an invisible person…down a dark path. Because you’re not going to wanna miss out when your invisible on … you know, no matter how many times you see a woman naked in a shower, you’re gonna wanna see it again because there’s always a different woman, right? And there’s just a lifetime of that and that’s not acceptable behavior.”
A lifetime of not acceptable behavior.
And that’s the problem with what we are learning about powerful men in America today, men who, despite their power, fame and wealth, were able to be, essentially, invisible in the way they have chosen to treat women. Prime examples – Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Al Franken.
At stage four, when self-recrimination should have directed them away from doing the morally wrong things they did, they chose to go ahead, anyway.
Chose to grab the breasts of a sleeping woman; chose to walk the mall floor looking for vulnerable and defenseless girls; chose to grab women by their genitals and ogle beauty contestants, while they were in states of undress, because he was the owner of the pageant and they mere contestants.
These behaviors can’t be forgiven because they expose who these men are at their core, who they are when either no one is looking or when they think they are cloaked by the invisibility of their power and fame. If, in these moments, they choose to sneak into Natalie Portman’s bathroom to watch her shower, instead of using the gift to hunt and dispatch men of unfathomable evil, they can never be trusted again.
And that is why, at stage four, even though I truly wanted the ability to vanish at will, I changed my mind and opted instead for flight – a superpower that I believe I am strong enough to manage for good.