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The Lone Ranger: A Hero Born in Suffering
By J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW

When I was a boy, the highlight of Saturday morning was watching the Lone Ranger and his friend Tonto heading right into the center of trouble to help, ultimately foiling the bad guys and saving the day.

Forty years later, as a social worker counseling people struggling with painful challenges, I have a deeper appreciation for my old hero. I now see how grief changed his life and suffering opened his heart.

Originally the Lone Ranger was an ordinary Texas Ranger on the hunt for an outlaw gang led by the dastardly Butch Cavendish. When Cavendish ambushed the ranger and five companions, one of whom was the Lone Ranger’s brother, the outlaws rode off, thinking all the rangers were dead. But the Lone Ranger was still breathing—barely. Tonto found the Lone Ranger lying on the ground and nursed him back to health. Tonto buried the five victims but dug six graves, concealing the fact that a lone ranger remained.

To understand the Lone Ranger, we must understand that his identity is born from this immense trauma. He was the one left to grieve and carry on. The fact that Tonto dug a sixth grave was not just strategic but also symbolic. When we lose someone we love, a part of us dies with him or her. Without his brother and companions to share life’s winding trails, the Lone Ranger lost an important mirror onto himself. Normal routines and roles were shattered along with assumptions about the future and how the world works. He must absorb the meaning and impact of his loss and by doing so transform his understanding of who he is. In a sense, he died and was born into a new way of being, a new identity. The Lone Ranger’s power came from suffering and healing.

There is no single blueprint for integrating the emotions, thoughts, and questions grief can unearth, and no foolproof formula for transmuting suffering, whether it is from loss, trauma, relational troubles, depression, or isolation, into healing and growth. The journey is full of stops and starts. At times it can be difficult to know which direction to take.

However, if we look at the broad themes of the Lone Ranger’s life, we see guideposts to the ways such emotional pain and crisis may deepen our inner lives and spur us on to new ways of being. Three of these themes are the courage to move toward rather than away from others who are suffering; the ability to connect with people on a fundamental, less superficial level; and the emergence of new values and priorities that clarify for us what is most important.

Moving Toward Others’ Suffering
It is a truism of psychotherapy as well as many of the world’s spiritual traditions that when we suffer, we may deepen our empathy and compassion for others who also suffer.

In his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, Jack Kornfield, PhD, refers to such suffering as one of the “gates of awakening.” When we experience deep sorrow, he writes, there may arise in us “the wondrous power of compassion … the fluttering of the heart in the face of the pain of any other being.”

The journey toward such compassion can be long. There may be seasons during which we retract behind personal defenses or become heavy with depression or guilt, unable to focus on others. We may travel a circuitous road before gaining enough perspective on our suffering to feel compassion for another’s pain. It may be longer still before we feel an impulse to move toward another’s suffering, reaching out as one who has felt sorrow and been changed by it.

Coming out on the other side of his grief, the Lone Ranger knew this compassion and was guided by this impulse toward others who are struggling. When he saw people in trouble, he moved toward them with the intention of alleviating suffering. He knew there were dangers, whether incurring the wrath of a local gunman or the possibility that his own pain would again be stirred. There always were risks but, enlivened by compassion, the Lone Ranger was willing to take them.

Enhanced Capacity for Connection
In real life, the Texas Rangers were known for their bloody clashes with Native Americans and people of Mexican origin. In the context of the time, rangers viewed these groups as enemies. The idea of someone with this background having a deep friendship with a Native American would have been unthinkable, yet for the Lone Ranger he had no closer friend than Tonto. It was a friendship based on respect, trust, and affection, unconditioned in the slightest by ethnic background or the need for a common history. So deep was their friendship, that Tonto called the Lone Ranger Ke-mo-sah-bee, which means “trusted friend.”

What accounted for the Lone Ranger’s ability to see beyond the superficial divisions of race and the entrenched social narratives that can separate us? In her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach, PhD, who, like Kornfield, writes from a Buddhist perspective, tells us that such bonds often grow out of a sense of our “shared suffering” with other human beings. Recognizing that our suffering mirrors the suffering of others and that it is part of our shared humanity helps us, as Brach puts it, “see past surface appearances” allowing us to “recognize how we are all the same.”

The same inner pain that deepened the Lone Ranger’s compassion and fortified his resolve to help allowed him to see beneath surface appearances and realize that we are all interconnected. As it turns out, he was not alone at all. He was knitted into the larger family of humanity by empathy, compassion, and a willingness to engage people on the level of their inner being rather than being distracted by surface divisions.

What Matters Most
When working with patients in hospice, I often ask them what is most important as they live the last chapter of their lives. Collisions with mortality have ways of clarifying and helping us focus on what is most meaningful in life. What seemed important yesterday—money, status, the roles we play, or our ambitions—may not be so important today. The focus often is on the people we have loved, ways we have helped, what we have learned, and the moral courage we have found during times when we’ve been thrown off balance.

It is no coincidence that these are themes at the heart of the Lone Ranger’s life: connection, service, learning from adversity, and the courage to stand firm regardless of the pressures to run. His values have been clarified by suffering and placed him out of step with the values of many of those whom he encountered.

For example, few people thought about where the Lone Ranger got his silver bullets. He and his brother (the one killed by Cavendish) owned a silver mine. Silver lured people of his day to the southwest who were looking for quick riches. It was highly valued, and the Lone Ranger had plenty of it. He was a rich man and could have retired in luxury.

After his brother and companions were killed, though, silver no longer held such value for the Lone Ranger. Instead, he molded the metal held so dearly by others into bullets to shoot the guns from the hands of troublemakers. He could have bought bullets at the general store and used the silver to fund a life of idle pleasure, could have used it to enhance his status or accumulate more wealth. But after traversing the landscape of grief, silver was no longer a temptation. Its value lay only in how it could be used to help others.

Seeing the Heroic in Everyday Life
There is a danger in looking to superheroes to define what personal powers may be found within the fires of existential, spiritual, and psychological pain. The Lone Ranger is, after all, an imaginary character. If we take such models too literally, we may romanticize or simplify suffering, losing sight of its intensity. Or we may hold these powers too cheaply and dismiss or judge those who become mired down, even stuck, within their pain and suffering.

What we need is a very sensitive gauge to detect the threads of the heroic in everyday life. We need to understand the nature of what is heroic and what constitutes power in a way that allows us to see and affirm courage, wisdom, and resilience without the bells and whistles that go with our superheroes. We need a gauge that reveals the heroic even when it is hidden deep beneath sorrow and confusion.

On some days, just getting out of bed and putting our feet on the ground is heroic, an act of will, an inner resolve to move even when we don’t feel like moving. Heroism often threads through our pain, expressing itself in moments that may appear mundane but which are anything but—picking up the phone when it rings and engaging even when there is an impulse to withdraw, allowing the tears to flow even when we’re afraid that if we do they will never stop. It may be as simple as smiling, remembering how to laugh, or learning to tell the story. It may mean recognizing that the voice inside our head is judging again, criticizing again, stirring guilt again, and then talking back to that voice and insisting it make space for imperfection, humanness, and healing. It may mean learning to accept our vulnerability, accepting that the season during which we struggle may be longer than expected, and not pressuring ourselves to heal instantly but to simply keep on going.

The value of the Lone Ranger’s story for those who are suffering lay in its promise that however painful the issues we must face, however lost or alone we feel, there are places of power within us that will help us, eventually, to heal. The compassion we find may be self-compassion. We may learn patience, acceptance, awareness, or gratitude. Maybe instead of learning to appreciate others more deeply, we will learn to appreciate nature, beauty, or the transcendent.

Helping clients connect with such powers can be tricky. While uncovering this heroic dimension and scripting it into their stories, we must be very sensitive. We do not want to pass too quickly through the pain or inadvertently place demands on people that they conform to idealized blueprints about suffering and its resolution.

It is interesting that so many of the superheroes of my youth—Superman, Spiderman, Batman, just to name a few—have their origins in trauma and grief. Like the Lone Ranger, they all suffered significant losses that altered the course of their lives and caused them to focus on serving others.

We need not compare ourselves with the Lone Ranger as we search to understand the nature and meaning of this power. He is there not to define this power for us or hold us to any standard. He’s there to remind us, as he constantly reminds me as I’m sitting with someone who is frightened or whose heart is breaking, to keep our eyes and heart open when the trails get narrow and rough, and to be gentle and patient with those who are suffering, Ke-mo-sah-bee.

— J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, has been a hospice social worker for 20 years and currently works for Duke Hospice in Durham, NC. He authored the book The Dawn Is Never Far Away: Stories of Loss, Resilience, and the Human Journey.