We continue our Holy Week series about anime and disability with a guest post by my former editor, Allison Alexander. Her newest work, Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness, will be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, and other major booksellers beginning on April 17th.
“If you’re not busy, you’re doing something wrong.” That seems to be the mantra of the day, where if I told someone I spent the week at home doing nothing, I’d get funny looks. (At least, I would have before COVID-19.)
People wear busyness like a crown and achievements like a mantle. You’re not a “proper” member of society if you’re not contributing in some way. But for me, someone with several chronic illnesses, including severe IBS, recurring nausea, and vulvodynia, sometimes all I can do is rest. You can’t push through when your body is exhausted and you’re out of spoons, or if you do, there are consequences.
In My Hero Academia, protagonist Midorya shouts, “One million percent!” before hitting an enemy, meaning he’s giving the punch his all. He’s trying to push past his limits to defeat a foe more powerful than he is. The math doesn’t work, of course, since one hundred percent is all anyone can give.
With its mantra—“Go beyond! Plus Ultra!”—the show toys with the trope of finding extra strength within yourself. If you’re losing a fight and finding yourself at the end of your powers, just try harder! There’s a whole genre of this kind of anime, called shonen, from where the themes of “believe in yourself/friendship” and “find a hidden well of strength” originate. This idea is prevalent in a lot of American fiction, too, where the hero searches inside themself for the answer and gets an emotional jump-start at a crucial moment. It’s a message I laugh at because there is no extra well of strength in me to find. Once I’m out, I’m out. If I could will myself to have more energy, I wouldn’t; I’d will myself to be completely healed instead.
However, My Hero Academia redeems itself with its characterization of All Might, the world’s Number One Hero and Symbol of Peace. He’s not just the best superhero in the world, he’s the superhero whose very presence has brought villains to their knees and who has ushered the world into veritable peace. All Might is also cripplingly sick; his respiratory system was severely damaged in a previous battle and, at the beginning of the show, he can only manage to keep his hero form for three hours a day. The tall, muscular image that the public knows is reduced to a scrawny, bleary-eyed guy for the rest of the time. The time he can spend in his hero state decreases as the show goes on and All Might stretches himself too thin.
At first, he acknowledges his progressing weakness and his desire to train Midorya as a successor by taking a teaching position at U.A. High, Midorya’s school. But in the episode “Yeah, Just Do Your Best, Iida!” he can’t help himself from stopping crime on the way to work. I understand why he does it—societal pressures, his image, and his desire to do good are all at play here. However, as a result, All Might’s powers are all but depleted when he gets to class, and another teacher has to take over for him while he rests.
Maybe this wouldn’t have been such a big deal if villains hadn’t chosen that day to attack U.A. High.
All Might arrives to the fight a couple episodes later, with only a few minutes of his hero form left to attempt rescuing his students, several of whom are injured. He kicks himself for using up his powers earlier that day.
“I can’t believe all this went down while I was resting,” he says to himself.
All Might pushes himself in the fight to save the students; he “goes beyond” and is able to beat back the enemy with the help of Midorya and friends. But he pays a price. Thereafter, the time he can spend fighting in his superhero form is reduced to fifty minutes.
All Might stopping to help people on his morning commute to work could be considered noble, and, in a way, it is. However, there were other heroes available who could have done what he did. He didn’t need to deplete his powers before getting to his job, which severely hindered his ability to teach, something he had committed to. He prioritized his own image as a hero over training the next generation of heroes. I prioritize my own image over self-care sometimes too. I may not stop to solve crime like All Might, but I overextend myself, which leads to consequences later on.
Why do I push myself so hard? I’m not even fighting crime! It’s not like the hope of the world rests on my scrawny shoulders. But I want to be doing the same things healthy people do. I want to be “normal.” I want to be above normal—PLUS ULTRA!
In the early episodes of My Hero Academia, All Might instructs Midorya to pace himself and only use a small amount of his power because his prodigy could hurt himself by doing more. Midorya doesn’t listen, and injures himself a lot in order to help others.
I’m not surprised that Midorya ignores his mentor’s advice, because All Might doesn’t practice what he preaches. All Might constantly pushes himself too far, sacrificing himself for the people around him. Midorya almost completely destroys his own hands by following his mentor’s path.
If Midorya breaks his body, no matter how noble the cause, he won’t be any good to anybody afterwards. He needs to take care of himself and recognize his limits.
The temptation to push myself is strong, whether it’s because I feel cooped up, needy, guilty, or like a burden. Other times it’s because I want to be there for the people I love; I want to be strong for them when they need me. But sometimes true strength is faithfully counting out your spoons and not going beyond your capacity for the day.
Sometimes true strength is recognizing the importance of rest, and that my worth is not tied to my productivity. All Might is still a valuable human being even without his superhero form. HIs life doesn’t look the same—he has to learn to step back from the fight, to let others step up, to acknowledge his own weaknesses and make time for rest—but he is loved, valued, and appreciated.
It’s frustrating when people expect me to manage things I cannot. It’s worse when I expect those things of myself and am angry when I fail. I’m discovering it’s easier when I offer grace to those people, and when I offer grace to myself. It’s okay if I fail. It’s okay if I can’t do things other people can. It’s okay if I’m weak and I let others be strong.
I feel like I should, somehow, be able to give one million percent, and I feel guilty that I can’t. So I remind myself that my one hundred percent is good enough.
When errands go undone, when chores go unfinished, I tell myself it’s all right. When I cancel plans with friends, when I take a three-hour nap, I forgive myself. When I’m depressed, when I’m exhausted, I give myself a little grace. I figure if I keep doing so, I’ll eventually accept it. I can be unhappy about the number of spoons in my hand, but that doesn’t mean I have to be angry at myself because I can’t hold more. Like All Might, I’m learning to give up my image of strength for a reality that fits my body. I’m giving up the plus ultra life for a more peaceful existence.
About the Author
Allison Alexander is an earthbending Ravenclaw from Hoth who’s more comfortable curling up at home with a video game than venturing out into the wild. As an author, editor, and blogger, Allison aims to make spaces for minority characters in science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture. Also, her favourite character class in Dungeons & Dragons is a bard, so that should tell you everything you need to know about her.
From her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada—which she shares with her husband, Jordan—Allison writes books, edits novels, and mentors aspiring authors. Her book, Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness (Mythos & Ink) details her experiences with chronic illness and analyzes fictional characters who struggle with disabilities. She includes interviews with other chronic sufferers and explores how society values healthiness, doctors don’t always have answers, and faith, friendship, and romance add pressure to already complicated situations.
Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, and other major booksellers on April 17, 2020.
Featured illustration by 勺三口 (reprinted w/permission)