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Our True Essence and A Super Man

Recently I came across a passage by Viktor Frankl that stirred much reflection.  It is from his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  In the writing he shares his experience in the German concentration camps during WWII where lives were being destroyed for not fitting into the perceived utopian ideal.  The subsequent work he did (after surviving the camps) focused on our inherent need to find meaning and purpose in life.   

In this specific passage he was observing how individuals sometimes confuse the word dignity with usefulness.  He points out that every life is worthy, and should be valued, no matter what form it takes.  This is at the foundation of the palliative/whole person care and hospice philosophies.  To the last breath, to be honoured and held with dignity.  Worth being supported and cared for in the most loving and compassionate way.

This caused me to revisit a moment I had many years ago with the actor Christopher Reeve at the height of his career when he was known for his role as “Superman”.  Vancouver, BC. is a hub for the film industry.  At the time, Christopher was in town filming the made for TV movie "The Sea Wolf” with Charles Bronson.  For one of the scenes, they were using an old heritage mansion as the film set for the day.  I was invited onto the set rather thrilled that I would get to meet Superman! 

At one point I was sitting halfway up the steps on the grand staircase that led down to the main foyer of the mansion, as well as to the upper floors.  This gave a vantage point to watch the crew members preparing for the initial scene to be filmed.  The backdrop involved men and women in period clothing, including lavish gowns, while waltzing and mingling at a function in the main room of the heritage home.  Christopher (in his role in the film) was due to make his big entrance during the festivities.

As I was sitting on the steps of the sweeping staircase, who walked in (right at the foot of the stairs) but the dashing Christopher Reeve himself! Tall, dark hair, handsome, chiselled jaw and wearing a tuxedo.  He had tissue hanging off the back of his shirt collar as he was still being readied by the make-up team.  I watched as he connected with the director, and they prepared for the upcoming segment to be filmed.  At one point Christopher looked up at me and we exchanged smiles.

Then something very hard to put into words happened.  My perspective seemed to open to a broader view.  Like a deeper inner perspective that was revealed.  Suddenly, I saw a different view of the man in front of me.  Instead of the grandeur of it all I had a sense that he was boxed in by his celebrity status in the world and on screen.  All the projections toward him as “Superman” held him to this popular image, but I inwardly questioned who he really was?  This expanded sense of him was much broader than what was in front of me.  Beyond the dashing, movie star exterior, who was this man at his core?  In the moment it felt like the notoriety was restricting his true authentic self to be fully expressed. This shifted me from somewhat enamoured to feeling a sense of compassion for him.  It was palpable, this sense of him being boxed in.  Did the deeper part of him have room to be voiced when he was being held to this projected ideal?  This view beyond the external held for the longest time. I just observed and continued to  wonder if one was to take away all the outer accolades and image, who would he be?  From the inside out.

Perhaps I was simply projecting onto him a question I was grappling with, in my own mind and heart.  At the time I was curious about the world of film and acting (I elaborate on this more in my blog “True Beauty”) while I was involved in my initial work as a hospice volunteer.  Though the day of being on the film set was fun to experience the deeper vision I had seen, beyond the surface appearance, remained in my heart and lingered.

At the time I did not know hospice would become a calling and my life’s work.  Perhaps his presence was metaphoric for an invitation within me, while at a crossroads, to carefully choose a more authentic life path that I could serve in.

Leap forward a few years later and Christopher ended up in a tragic horse back-riding accident in which he became a quadriplegic. Can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like for an active man such as he to awake and discover that he could no longer function in the same way physically.  It had all been stripped away.  When he first awoke realizing what had happened, he just wanted to die.  His wife, Dana, bless her heart, is to be honoured for her commitment and love for him.   She knew his true essence and simply said to him; “You are still you”.  Wise words and such a profound acknowledgement that he was far more than the outer portrayal all had come to know.  His life story after the accident is documented in the books Still Me and Nothing is Impossible.

Though I did not know him personally and had only briefly met him years before, when I heard of the accident, I was shocked.  Brought right back to the moment on the staircase questioning who he really was beyond the celebrity role.  What was the true expression of him at his essence?  After the accident I became even more curious and inspired by his life, his impact on the awareness for the needs of those with physical challenges along with his support of the latest research at the time. 

Even more so, I was inspired by the depth of the loving partnership between him and Dana.  When he eventually died, she died not long after.  Her illness was not something that was expected at the time.  Their union and life together, though no doubt filled with a myriad of challenges, was clearly one full of love, purpose, meaning and service. 

Christopher had three children.  One boy with Dana who was young when the accident occurred and two other children (a boy and girl) with a previous partner.  It has been twenty years since his death.  Recently I watched several interviews from the Sundance Film Festival in which his now adult children were speaking of their father and the impact he had on their lives.  A new documentary is soon to be released on his life highlighting the lived experience they went through together prior to and after the accident.  I was moved by how the children spoke of the many ways he had influenced them by his example alone.  How his presence and connection with them deepened after the accident.

I have not yet seen the film but am looking forward to it.  His life has been impactful for me to witness from afar.  From the dashing movie star on the film set that day to the man in the wheelchair who was even more of a “Super Man” in the end.  He became an even greater voice in service to others and for compassion in the world.

A profoundly rich and dignified life.

Hopefully we won’t wait for an extreme life event or life-threatening illness to bring us into greater alignment with our true essence. 

When given space to reflect, somehow each moment seems perfect in design and quietly carries an invitation to open to a greater love and awareness within.  Though it can be hard at times to see while amid the turmoil at play. 

A dignified invitation indeed.


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