In Season 2 of the Netfilx series, “Marvel’s Daredevil,” we’re introduced to Frank Castle, played by Walking Dead fan-favorite actor, Jon Bernthal. You remember him. He’s the sociopath prone to sleeping with his best friend’s wife and furtively trying to kill him so he can have her all to himself. Oh yea, all against the backdrop of the apocalypse. I guess you could also describe him as someone with priority issues.
Anyway, Castle becomes, to those of us over-grown geeks with a propensity for reading comic books under our covers and playing Dungeons & Dragons back in the day (hey, don’t judge), The Punisher… a vigilante hell-bent on single-handedly taking out all the assorted criminal scum populating the dark and scary places of New York City. As someone who’s lived in New York City, there are quite a few of those places, so it’s safe to assume The Punisher was a busy guy. He does so utilizing a particular one-man-army set of skills that Liam Neeson would be envious of. His world view and propensity for badassness, has made him and his logo — an elongated skull on a black backdrop – a symbol for some of our finest U.S. Navy Seals.
To be sure, The Punisher is not the kind of guy you want to have tea and crumpets with, or sip a prosecco while touring an art gallery. He kills bad-guys in some of the most brutal ways imaginable, which belies his traumatic backstory – losing his wife and two children to criminal violence. In the TV show, he repeats the phrase “One Batch. Two Batch. Penny and Dime,” supposedly his daughter’s favorite book when she was little, before he murders his quarry as a reminder why he became a vigilante in the first place.
Although clearly a less violent analogy – well, I have seen a couple of Major Gift officers a razor’s edge away from going postal after spending months courting a donor only to be told they don’t have any money – many of us in the nonprofit world treasure some “thing” as a reminder why we started doing this work in the first place and that keeps us grounded. They’re sort of like the totems that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character used in “Inception” to keep him focused on the real world instead of getting lost within a dream… within a dream… within a dream… within a dream. Yes, there were four dreams. Come on. Keep up people. It wasn’t that hard to follow.
Maybe it’s a portrait made by the children in your after-school program adorning your office wall. Or a picture of some of the cats and dogs that you helped find a forever home. Or a handmade flyer for the lemonade stand you built when you were 11 to raise money for your friend who was very ill. Or a thank you note written by a domestic violence survivor you helped find her voice again.
I for one have a miniature Captain America on my desk because, like our Star-Spangled friend said to Stanley Tucci’s character in “The First Avenger,” “I don’t like bullies.”
These things help us remain focused on the now, on what really matters, to us, and to a world that sometimes seems more interested in money, fame, and all things shallow and vapid. To be sure, us nonprofit types are rare. Like Ghost Orchid rare. Like Yeti sighting rare. Like Kanye West smiling rare. I bet you still get a warm and fuzzy when you meet someone at a cocktail party that actually understands what you do for a living. After all, nobody aspires to this. When you were young, did you tell your grandparents you wanted to grow up and work for a nonprofit? Yea. Didn’t think so. You told them you wanted to be cool.
And even if you did harbor some childhood fancy for this life, I’m sure it’s because no one had the intestinal fortitude to pull you aside and shatter your tiny little dreams with a truth bomb. “Um, little Suzy, if you grow up and work for a nonprofit here’s what to expect… every day you will be constantly depressed and always feel like you’re merely stemming the tide of an all-encompassing darkness that’s literally just over the next wave. You’ll chafe up against sorrow and despair time and again, and measure your successes in small doses… in fractions even. Oh yea, and you’ll make very little money in the process while all your friends are getting bonuses at their jobs. Toodles.”
That’s heartbreaking when you stop and think about it. And there’s no way not to let it affect you. I haven’t slept well for a decade and my nightmares usually involve me not being able to save someone… ermm… from zombies. Hmm, maybe it’s not about the nonprofit world, but the fact that I keep watching The Walking Dead before going to sleep. Anyway…
In the wake of this soul-crushing knowledge about what the heck we do for a living, somehow, we all ended up here, trying to save the world. Why?
Are we just masochists, or as I posit to you, are we real life superheroes (well, both wear capes and masks, so it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes)?
And that’s the thing my fellow nonprofit warriors. Whether it’s the Punisher, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, or Aquaman (Hey Sarah Murdock, that one was for you) we are the modern-day equivalent of our childhood caped-crusaders. And just as they kept us safe from the scary things under our bed, or outside our bedroom door, they’ve transformed us into superheroes trying to save the world.
So, display that totem proudly on your office wall, desk, or computer desktop. And every time you stare at it, remember just who you are…
You’re one of the good ones.