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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 10/04/1999
Column 21

Right here and now, you can begin to find out who you really are.

In fact, there is no other way. You can't go back and change things, and you can't go forward to change things. To explain more fully: - for many weeks now I've been inviting you to read my memoir, An Unlikely Prophet. I intimated that it will give you a new way of looking at the world. I also explained that many aspects of the book came out of my experience writing comics, especially Superman. But now I'd like to amend some of those statements, make them clearer, in fact.

Many of you who read An Unlikely Prophet wondered whether it's all true. My answer: - it doesn't matter.

Many of you seemed to feel it would offer a way of changing your life. Not exactly. Only you can do that.

Some of you wrote me and raised questions about reality, about the role of comics in your lives, what the whole idea of the superhero meant. In fact, I should mention here that the late Paul Newman, that very prolific comics writer, stated toward the end of his life that he wouldn't write another superhero comic under any conditions. He was down on the whole idea as it was being exploited in this decade. Did Paul have something?

To tie all these things together and enable you to make all the decisions about how to use any of this material to get to where you want to go, I invite you here and now to consider how you got here in the first place. You do that by examining the paths you never took. Almost like comics plotting.

Think about that for a moment. You are where you are now because at various points in the plot of your life, you made choices. Each of those choices passed up a probable direction your life might have taken. Maybe it was a job offer you refused. Maybe it was a talent you elected to deny in favor of a talent you favored more at the moment. Maybe it was the choice of a mate or a marriage partner.

Take a close look at it. Everyone of those decisions probably changed the track of your life in some major way. Go back over the years and recall those bifurcating paths. And then realize, that in choosing one probable course over another, you gave up an entirely different probable self. You entered a different probability.(Which is why great psychics are often wrong) And how many of you, in recalling such decisions, think back and suppose that perhaps you had chosen the wrong probability? How many of you think, if you could go back and change it - everything would be different.

Of course everything would be different. But not necessarily better. Besides you can't go back. All those other possible selves are out of reach, shadows, possibilities that we carry with us. As trace experiences. This is my key point. Somewhere, somehow everyone of those abandoned probable selves gets lived out. Nothing is ever lost or unrealized. But they are not you. But how do you know they're out there?

Because they are related to you, as inescapable traces in your own reality, as part of your dreams, as sly and sudden preferences, as visions that move you, faces that touch you in ways you do not quite understand. And in regrets for paths not taken. So really, those doors are not entirely closed. Our probable selves, those paths not taken, do indeed obtrude into our lives. But it seems more as regrets and yearnings. You can't go back and change things, and you can't start with a future and more favorably influence the way things are now.

You can't? That depends on what you believe. For as soon as you deal with beliefs, you enter the present and the only doorway through which not only the future, but the past can be changed. I'll start with some conventional examples of the sort that have been repeated over and over again so you'll know they aren't just random bits of anecdote. Let me start with the widely known story of the man who had a life threatening cancer, then learned from certain medical journals that a new cure had been found (in this case, it was something called laetrile), got his doctor who also believed in it to prescribe it - and was fully cured. The cancer disappeared. But some years later, reading some more advanced research in another med journal, the "cured" patient learned that laetrile turned out to be useless. The patient's cancer immediately resumed and he died shortly after.

But lest we view this as an isolated instance of remission, we are beginning to learn today too how the so-called placebo effect can alter the body and introduce remarkable healing changes. More and more evidence comes to light on this phenomenon. We know how healers of all sorts perform all sorts of cures on strong believers. We know that "imaging" - creating strong beliefs in wellness - has become one of the latest acceptable methods of combating cancer with a truly formidable success rate. We also know that many of these cures don't work because, in actual fact, they take place in a scientific climate that rejects them. They don't fit into the cause and effect structure of most contemporary science, although findings in particle physics are gradually eroding away this hard-edge of Newtonian causality. But we're far from there yet. Besides, I'm using medical examples here because they're the ones that come to mind most easily. Underneath all that, however, lies the thought that if you fully believe that you're healthy, you will be. If you believe in illness, you'll be ill. Our thoughts color our world. And the fulcrum from which we govern our thoughts is precdisely in the here and now.

There is ONLY the here and now. All the old psychological methods of searching the past for what is wrong do not work, because you then overlook what was right. Remember, the past is a collection of neutral data. What you look for determines how you will color it, so that past only mirrors the failures, mistakes and errors that now face you. Because you bias what you're searching for. And you're surely setting yourself up to construct your future exactly as you see it in the past. You end up magnifying lacks, because your search is based entirely on what went wrong. In the end, this can poison even positive past experiences. So, if you believe something is wrong with you, you will find it. If you don't start out with that premise, if instead, you start with the here and now, then you can affect and color what you see in the past as you choose. Because it's all data, an undifferentiated mass. Clay in your hands. You can remake your lives by changing the POV, as it were. Change the beliefs with which you view yourself. And I'm NOT talking about positive thinking. You must acknowledge that things are not the way you'd like. But you don't have to believe that they must stay that way. You can know you're sick, but you can start changing the image of yourself as sick. You don't deny things. You acknowledge them and then stop treating them as finalities that are unchangeable.

I remember many years ago, in Saul Bellow's second novel, The Victim, one of the characters offers something of this sort of advice to another. Why think the worst? he asks. "Why be measly? Is someone holding you by the neck?"

All right. Great stuff. How do you believe what you can't get yourself to believe? Easy. You're a comics reader. You suspend belief all the time, and choose your way through the story. And it seems that one of the most powerful story media we have is that unique combination of individual writer and individual artist each doing their thing in synchrony. You can do that. Look at it this way. Beliefs can change the way the body's hormones function. Certain kinds of nightmares, it is now known, have healing capacities since they put the body under a kind of stress that activates important hormonal changes for the better. Belief can and does change you. Just give it time. The body moves more slowly than the mind. Disregard (but don't deny) what seems and hold to what is. As Hamlet said: "These but the trappings and the suits of woe; there's that within which passeth show."

And so back to the present moment. Now go ahead and read (or reread) An Unlikely Prophet. Don't worry about whether the story is true or false. Just let it carry you. You'll be amazed at the ride you get. I promise you. In fact, instead of this always coming from me, let me hear it from a few more of you. Challenge me. Query me. Put me on the spot. That's what I'm here for. Otherwise, there's not much point in exploring the Golden Age. Unless I can bring you something from MY golden age, the rest is gossip. Not worth much.

Would you believe, I don't really know how old I am? Of course I know what it says on my birth certificate. But that's someone else's idea. There were once societies in which no one ever knew their actual age, so they weren't called upon to act their age according to a preset pattern. How many preset patterns are you carrying around right now? Think youth is the greatest? Not necessarily. Think old age is a time of decline? Don't ever believe it. Get rid of those false commitments. Choose your own life-NOW!

Alvin Schwartz

<< 09/27/1999 | 10/04/1999 | 10/11/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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