A funny thing happened recently as I was listening to a recording of Superman's first radio adventure. When Jor-El and Lara put their infant son Kal-El in a rocketship to Earth, I got a lump in my throat.

Why, and why now? It's not like the story is new to me. In the last 30-plus years I've probably read it, heard it or seen it countless hundreds of times. You'd think by this point I'd be immune to whatever emotions the scene might evoke, but there I was getting choked up.

The difference, I decided, is that now I'm a parent myself, and the notion of saying a final goodbye to my own son is too terrible to imagine. Suddenly this familiar scene, awash as it is in hokey melodrama and sci-fi outlandishness, has a new resonance for me, and adds a new level to my understanding of what Superman is about.

Much attention has been given over the years to the role of Ma and Pa Kent in the shaping of Superman's character. Patience, humility, compassion...all these fine traits are chalked up to the loving influence of Kal-El's adoptive Earth parents. But this tends to marginalize the importance of Jor-El and Lara. It should always be remembered that Superman's very existence is owed to their final act of love and sacrifice. In a mythos held together by acts of kindness, charity and friendship, it was their act that started the ball rolling...sort of a cosmic case of "pay it forward" that had a cascading effect throughout the legend.

Lest we think this pathos-ridden scenario is too over-the-top, keep in mind parents all over the world have had to make the same choices as Jor-El and Lara for centuries. I recently watched a documentary on victims of Nazi tyranny, mainly Jewish parents who placed their children on trains to England and other nations willing to take them in. In some cases it would be years before they saw their children again, grown and often very much changed after years apart. In all too many cases, there was no reunion at all. The act of sending their children away to foreign lands to be raised by strangers must have been only slightly less terrifying than the thought of what could happen to them under Nazi rule, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

Meanwhile, I have friends who've adopted daughters from China, a country where girls are so de-valued that they're abandoned at birth. The temptation is to think of these girls' birth parents as unfeeling monsters, but who's to say their hearts aren't breaking as they leave their babies in public parks under cover of the night? For all I know, they spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to their little girls, just praying that some foreign couple has taken them in to live better lives in a land of opportunity.

These are the kind of thoughts that must have gone through the minds of Jor-El and Lara as they said goodbye to their infant son. For them, life was over, but for him perhaps it was just beginning. Even as their world crumbled around them, their last thoughts were not for themselves but for their child, and the long journey and uncertain fate ahead of him. And like any parents, they must have wondered, "Will he even remember me?"

I like to believe this sacrifice was never far from Superman's mind; that his efforts on behalf of humanity come not out of a vague sense of altruism but as an acknowledgement of the loving sacrifice that bought him his own life. Repay kindness with kindness, render aid as you were aided, and all that. Only a heartless man could fail to be moved by the realization that his parents loved him more than life itself. They did more than point his rocket toward a fragile blue planet...with their last breaths, they provided Kal-El with a direction for his life.

In this context, the famous origin story provides not only an explanation for Superman's great powers, but also a clue to why he does what he does. Other super-types may be motivated by vengeance, guilt or obligation, but fueling Superman's crusade is the memory of a selfless act that saved him from certain doom. Thus the rest of his life is devoted to following his parents' example, preserving life and saving those in danger wherever they may be, so that each of them can have the same chance he was given...a chance to make something of their lives and, we can only hope, to help someone else when the opportunity arises.

Modern comic book fans, an often jaded lot, like to dismiss Superman as a Pollyanna, a boy scout who does good deeds for no discernable reason. Batman makes more sense to them, punching crooks in the head to avenge the killing of his parents, or Spider-Man, trying in vain to expiate his guilt over the deaths of various loved ones he's failed. But why would Superman do the things he does? What's in it for him? Personally, I like to think Superman is the only healthy one in the whole bunch. He understands what some people never figure out...that helping others is a reward in itself. That if we have any purpose at all in this life, it's to make life better for each other.

Is that corny? Trite? Sappy? Maybe all of the above. But if it's not heroism, then I don't know what is. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a baby to hug.