Right now is the time of year when newly hired residents are starting their clinical work at the hospital, and as such, icebreakers abound.  Icebreakers are those painfully awkward questions that teachers, camp counselors, and HR professionals seem uniformly to believe represent the sole approach for introducing humans to one another.  The questions vary from the vapid–what is your favorite color?–to the strange–if you were a kitchen appliance, what would you be?–to the intrusive–what is your most embarrassing moment?  The answers to these questions are invariably as banal as the questions themselves; respondents give safe, socially normalized, uninformative replies–thereby providing no entertainment and failing to accomplish the icebreaker’s very purpose of acquainting people with one another.

In this spirit, I recently faced the timeless classic icebreaker, “If you were a superhero, what would be your superpower?”  Before the group of assembled residents, I gave one of the standard, well-worn replies: “To fly!” “Be invisible.”  “Walk through walls.”  But internally, I wondered: What, truly, would I want to be able to do, if I could do anything?  The answer came to me more quickly than expected.  I don’t want to run at light speed, to have superhuman strength, or to move objects with my mind.  I want to understand the human heart.  To assuage pain or shame or anger when people hurt.  To dismantle fears when they feel afraid.  To bolster resolve when they fail.  To celebrate joys when they love.

Turns out, I already possess this power.  We all do.  We exercise it in the moment when we give our seat to a weary stranger on the subway.  When we help an elderly widow with her groceries at the store.  When we smile and say “thank you” to the office janitor.  When we read books to shelter kids at the local library.  When we grab a beer with a friend and just listen to the crickets and the settling quiet of dusk.  When we pause for a moment, consider the feelings and worries and needs and dreams of the people around us, and act.  Then, we have superpowers.

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