“Anything for an interesting life.”
In an average day, two or three people walk up to me and ask, “if you could have any super power, what it could be?” Because I am a fickle person who cannot stick with any one thing longer than the five seconds it requires to take a breath, my answer varies based on my mood. Sometimes I say I want mega-intelligence, so I can legitimately fix the world’s problems. Sometimes I grin like a four year old with a triple scoop ice cream cone and exclaim, “I wanna be Spider-man!” When I am feeling intellectually self-indulgent, I say “magic,” and then smile inwardly at how much smarter I am than everyone else. Magic characters in comic books can do pretty much whatever they want or the story demands of them. It is like wishing for more wishes. It’s kind of a cheat.
Much of the time, however, I give an answer that is less popular and more controversial: mind reading. This usually receives a skeptical and disproving look. The individuals who are likely to ask me this question are just as familiar with the tropes and source material as I am. The superpower preferences query is not usually delivered by high powered tailored-suit wearing business professionals. Even though I hang out with people like that, like, all the time. No, people who ask that question have given it a lot of thought.
“Mind reading?” they invariably say in an incredulous tone. “But…that would ruin your life!” They are right, of course. If there is anything the numerous examples of mind reading in science fiction and fantasy have taught us, it is this: most writers are not very creative.
But seriously folks.
The mind-reading phenomenon is well explored in fiction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fringe, and Very Bad Deaths are just a few attempts to explore what the experience of being a mind reader would actually be like. It is rarely pleasant. Characters with mind reading either go insane because they are overwhelmed, or lapse into depression and loathing because they are exposed to everyone’s filthy secrets. To read everyone’s mind is to be forced to accept that everyone is horrible. Bcause we are all horrible. Everyone has a part of themselves that thinks and desires some utterly horrific things. We keep most of the horror to ourselves. This is part of what lets us function as a society. We know this, and that is why mind reading would be terrible.
There are a few counter examples. Some super heroes have it, and it works out. Jean Grey, Professor X, Martian Manhunter, and Aqualad are popular and well loved examples (although in the case of the later, it only applies to fish). But superheroes do not prove anything. Superheroes universes make no real attempt to be realistic. Otherwise they wouldn’t be superhero universes. We can accept that Jean Grey can read minds and know people’s secrets without becoming cynical for the same reason we can accept that Batman can beat the tar out of criminals and slam their heads into concrete without ever killing anyone. Superhero universes follow their own metaphysical laws. They have a genre-based, narrative causality element that lets them specifically ignore some factors of the real world so they can tell stories in a different way. There are some superhero stories and worlds outside of the Big Two that attempt to be more realistic. In those worlds, by and large, mind reading is terrible.
I do not want the form of mind reading that would leave me overwhelmed and unable to go near everyone because their thoughts are always screaming in my head. It is highly speculative to discuss an entirely fictional mechanism, but I do not think the screaming-in-the-head form of mind reading is inevitable. Humans are capable of experiencing a great deal of sensory information without being overwhelmed. There is no intrinsic reason our normal filters would not work in the context of mind reading. It’s certainly possible that itcould work that way, but in that case I would no longer be interested. I have a good healthy streak of down-home masochism, but not enough to desire a superpower that would leave me a gibbering vegetable. That level of masochism would, itself, almost be a superpower. Or something like it, anyway.
The form of mind reading where you learn everyone’s horrible secrets, on the other hand? I’ll take that one. There are two reasons for this. The first is the one I usually give: I want to know what everyone is really like. I like to tell people deep and embarrassing truths about myself, and I like when they return the favor. I would, of course, resolve to use this power for good, mostly. I would also use it for person gain, just a little bit. In a non-destructive way. So many problems could be solved if just one person in the right place with the right motivations could read the minds of others.
I am aware that this would shatter my optimistic world view. It messes me up when I find out people I care about are judgmental, or two faced. Mind reading would amplify that times a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. I am sure I would suffer a period of depression when I first got the ability. I would learn things about my closest friends and loved ones that I would be better off not knowing. I think I am strong enough to get through it. I also think, and I know this is partially speculative, that I would get past it, to a greater understanding of what people are. I do not think I would learn people are secretly horrible. I think I would learn that people are complicated, messy, inconsistent balls of self-contradiction. I could live with that.
The second reason I want mind reading is self indulgent and embarrassing. That is okay. I have a special affection for revealing embarrassing things about myself. I have written about this before. Two paragraphs ago, in fact. The second reason I would pick mind reading as my super power is this: I want my life to contain more tragedy.
Let me explain.
My life up to this point has been pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong. I have not been bored by it. I have great friends and a great relationship with a fantastic woman. I have had great fun with roleplaying games, and writing, education, reading, and many other activities. Most of the time this is enough for me. But my life would make a very boring story. This is a common situation, in this day and age. It is the ultimate First World Problem.
People with actual tragedies are likely angered when I say I want more tragedy in my life. “Easy for you to say, you rat bastard. You wouldn’t think that way if you had ever experienced real tragedy.” They are right to say that. They are right to get angry. If I got cancer, or if my wife died, or if I was taken hostage by terrorists on an airplane, I am sure all I would wish for was to be out of that situation, to go back to my normal, comfortable life. I do not want any of those things to happen to me. Not when I think about them specifically. It’s just that part of me wishes my life was crazy, and exciting, and terrible.
Sometimes I wish for tragedy in any form, just to stir things up. Most of the time I do not wish for tragedy, so much as greatness. The two are difficult to separate. Show me someone who did really great things without a life full of difficulty, loss, and tragedy, and I will explain to you how that is not the kind of greatness I am talking about. I am not talking about success. Not so much Steve Jobs as Mahatma Ghandi. Jesus is a great example, and quite possibly the main reason why, in the Western consciousness, true greatness is often linked to sacrifice.
I took exactly the wrong message from Flowers for Algernon. If you have never read it, it is about a mentally challenged man who undergoes an experiment that makes him into a supergenius. He becomes the smartest person in the world, and gains everything he ever thought he wanted. He loses the ability to connect with people, and becomes increasingly tormented and isolated the more intelligent he becomes. Ultimately he loses the intelligence, gains some friends, and realizes he is much happier this way. It is a powerful work, but mostly it just annoyed me. I wanted him to keep the intelligence. Sure, it would make him unhappy. Sure, it would ruin his life. Some things are more important than a single human life.
You have to choose happiness or greatness. You cannot have both. Not for very long. The thing that drives me crazy, the thing that really drives me crazy, is that I know that I will always choose happiness. I am not strong enough to choose greatness. I wish I was. The world needs great people more than it needs happy people. I love what I have too much. So I will always choose happiness. I know how fortunate I am that I get to choose happiness. Not everyone has that choice. A lot of people do not have happiness. They also do not have greatness. A lot of people do not even have tragedy. They are just miserable. I am naturally inclined towards happiness. It is the luckiest thing in the world. I do not deserve it, at least, no more than anyone else. I am just a happy person. A happy person’s life makes a boring story. But for quality of life, as much as I hate to admit it, there probably isn’t a super power that can compete with that.
Some day, someone is going to come up to me and offer to grant me a super power of my choosing. The day I give up on that possibility is the day I give up on life. I will not choose mind reading. I will probably not even choose mega-intelligence. Instead, I will grin like a four year old with a triple scoop ice cream cone and say the words I have said, perhaps, more than any other in my life.
“I wanna be Spider-man!”
Only, you know, without all the tragedy.