A Reflection on Anxiety and Awareness by M.W. Bychowski

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Matthew 11.28-30.


By M.W. Bychowski

Too often people marked by the signs of mental illness or disability are dissuaded from identifying with hyper-able figures like Superman. They are categorized into different realms of ability and disability. They get called “sensitive snowflakes” while he is called “the Man of Steel.” Indeed, the Son of Krypton doesn’t just have vision, he has super-vision and he is not just able to walk, he can leap over buildings. Yet as a quintessential Christ figure, despite being a supernatural savior from another world, there is something identifiable to ordinary mortals in his humanity that may help in better understanding the extraordinariness of those who fall outside the norm in one way or another. In particular, we might look at how versions of Super-Man (or his alias, Clark Kent), like Christ, exhibit a hyper-awareness of the world’s problems, which ultimately he takes on in a material way, inviting others to look at him as an empathic embodiment of their suffering.

A “Marvel” fan-girl at heart, I was not in a rush to see the newest Superman movie (A “DC Comic” franchise) until I saw a certain scene in the trailers: a boy Clark Kent hides in the closet in the midst of a panic attack brought on by his special vision coming alive and overwhelming him with information. The camera closes in as he whispers to his mother through the door, “the world is too big, Mom.” Offering sagely advice, Clark’s mother tells him, “Then make it small. Focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island out in the ocean. Can you see it?” “I see it,” he confirms.

What attracted me to this scene was the way that it tied together an experience known by many people with diverse forms of cognitive difference, suffering, and super-empowerment. Too often people who suffer panic attacks connected to anxiety or autism are made to feel their suffering is brought on by some deficit in their brain. Approached through this scene, however, we might turn the critique around. What if extreme outbreaks of worry were brought on not by lacking some capacity but from an extraordinary perception and sensitivity?

New studies in mental health and neural diversity are beginning to suggest that a certain amount of anxiety and panic may derive less from internal disorders and more from a hyper-awareness of external dangers. For some, a high capacity to absorb information (physically, intellectually, emotionally, etc.) can bring on a greater degree of stress than is processed by the normate population. In a certain sense, the world may appear bigger to those who perceive more of its bigness.

A critical take away from this observation lies in how we respond to individuals (friends, strangers, or ourselves) undergoing anxiety or panic. This person is not afraid because of some fear or behavior malfunction but because there is something that is scary which they may perceive more than others. Current psychological studies are showing how environmental factors which may be less evident to privileged populations, such as sexism, homophobia, and racism, can cause extreme stress-related health conditions for women, members of the LGBT community, and racial minorities. Such a reading changes the target of critique from non-normative populations to ongoing problems in the world.

Locating disorder in the environment rather than the person does not mean that there still isn’t a pressing need for personal care. Even the Man (or boy) of Steel needs his mother when facing down the bigness of the world. Toward the goal of responding to panic, the above scene offers a version of care that is personal and insightful but not medical or professional; she doesn’t has or need special training,; she might be anyone, a friend or family member, with personal investment in him. Adapting a segment common to superhero movies where the initiate must learn to focus their unwieldy abilities, Clark’s mom reframes the trope from one centered on professional training to one of self-care. Even while hyper-awareness can make certain people good litmus tests for problems in a community, there is a reciprocal need for members of a community to respond to such persons with care.

It is also important to note that the instruction, “Make it [the world] small,” is not a message of isolation or rugged individualism but a tactic of embracing our relative smallness as a person or people. The metaphor super-mom one settles on is an island amidst an ocean. Again, conventionally, an island is a signifier of solitude and separateness, but the added detail, “out in the ocean,” is a good counter-balance to remind us that however alone we may seem or feel, we nonetheless remain a part of a wider ecology that is constantly changing and connecting with us. What we are left with in the scene is not Superman on top of the world or Clark closed up in a closet but a mother connecting with her son through a caring voice.

In the end, Super-Man, Christ, and others who are hyper-aware of the complexities of the world, there are problems in the world that demand to be faced. Likewise, there is also a need to turn back from those big issues towards those suffering from the anxiety and breakdowns they cause. The world can be just big enough to inspire super-heroes and just small enough to invite personal care. May we likewise train our perceptions to be able to see the gifts and the needs of one another.

M.W. Bychowski is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow and Lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. Ph.D of Trans and Disability Theory in Medieval and Early Modern Literature from the George Washington University. A pastor’s-wife, she also serves on the executive board of the UCC Mental Health Network, helping with matters of communication.