Christmas carols have emerged from eleven months of hibernation, filling the air with a mountain of merriment…and, perhaps, a touch of annoyance (I’m looking at you 12 Days of Christmas!) One song which brings mixed reviews is The Little Drummer Boy. The criticisms of the song tend to flux between attempts at humor (playing drums for a newborn is a terrible gift!) and discomfort with the repetitive nature of “pa-rum pum pum pum.” Heck, I’m thinking someone just read “pa-rum pum pum pum and started twitching. Both critiques have some merit and I would never dismiss the subjective nature of music. To be candid, however, I am a bit biased on this particular topic as The Little Drummer boy was one of my favorite Christmas carols growing up. It was also a favorite stop motion Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass Productions. I have grown fonder of the song as I’ve aged, and not just because of Bob Seger’s rendition!
Am I Good Enough?
The first stanza sets the scene, complete with the “finest gifts” being brought to “lay before the King.” Tension arises in the second stanza as the little drummer boy confesses to being “a poor boy too” and having no gifts “that’s fit to give” to the baby before him. Pain and embarrassment coalesce in those lines as the little drummer boy feels inadequate when looking at the other gifts that have been offered. Comparison can often be a terrible weapon we wield against ourselves. The boy seems momentarily paralyzed by the fact he has nothing of material worth to offer. How tragic that material lack can foster a belief in lacking personal self-worth. Beyond the song, does this moment cause some discomfort to the listener because of personal identification? Have you ever felt saddened or small because of the gifts you could and could not offer loved ones? Joy and self-incrimination can not exist simultaneously.
Yes You Are.
The pain of having no gift leads the little drummer boy to ask the plaintive question, “Shall I play for you…on my drum?” I hear fear in that question for what if the answer is no? What if that which I truly have, my talents which, in this case, rise from the drummer boy’s artistic soul, aren’t welcome here? Then what? Mary, thankfully, nods approvingly. Nature acknowledges the magic of the moment as “The Ox and Lamb kept time.” Can you remember an occasion when time slowed and all seemed to be right in your world? Is one gracious, open hearted response like Mary’s all it takes to make that happen?
Buoyed by Mary’s acceptance the little drummer boy played his drum and played it his best, causing the child to smile. Yes, little drummer boy, you and your gifts were most welcome in the manger. The selfless sharing of your talents, your core being, bringing joy in ways the “finest gifts” could not.
A Final Note (See what I did there? Very clever!)
The gifts we carry in our arms often pale in comparison to those carried in our hearts. The friends and family who warm our hearts by simply entering our homes. The smiles and stories we share deepen ties and enliven spirits. So this holiday season share the music of your soul and enjoy the wonder it brings those around you. Pa-rum pum pum pum.
Obi-Wan Kenobi can now be watched in its entirety on Disney+. While it is wonderful to witness Ewan McGregor effortlessly slip back into Obi-Wan’s robes the show also allows for reflection on the impermanence of trauma and the power of resilience. I fear the phrase “impermanence of trauma” may have struck some readers as either cold or unrealistic. I often fear we live at a time when trauma is commonly believed to be an unconquerable force. Therefore, we fail to encourage psychological sturdiness and resilience. Noam Shpancer, professor of psychology at Otterbein University, reminds us, “There is brokenness to every life. Yet making trauma someone’s defining feature reduces them to their injury….a trauma centered narrative itself may make moving on from trauma difficult” (1)
Obi-Wan’s trauma is linked to his failures. And, yes, failure is real. One piece of bumper sticker wisdom I loath is the idea that failures aren’t real, they are just opportunities in disguise. While this thought is uplifting it creates a bypass, a way to avoid addressing the psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain of a failure by rushing to find the opportunity. Conversely, one must avoid relentlessly wallowing in the darkness of a failure for this creates stagnation, not strength. Before we delve into Obi-Wan’s fictional tale let’s pause for a real life example of facing failure.
In the 1984 NBA Finals Magic Johnson failed in the clutch. He made a bad pass in the final minute of game four that was stolen by Robert Parish. He also missed two crucial free-throws in overtime. The Lakers lost game four. They also lost game two for a variety of reasons, not least among them was Magic dribbling out the clock in regulation, preventing the Lakers from taking a shot to win at the end of regulation. Celtic fans took to taunting Magic by calling him “Tragic Johnson” the remainder of the series.
The Celtics won the 1984 championship and Magic, by his own admission, felt responsible. He failed to make plays in clutch situations. He failed to make a good pass. He failed to make free throws. He also, to the Celtics dismay, recognized that failing at a task (making free throws in the clutch) does not make an individual a failure at their core. You can fail and not be a failure. Such an important lesson. Magic could never win the 1984 finals again, he failed to do that and the opportunity to win a championship that year was indeed gone. He could, however, come back with a vengeance and create the opportunity to win the championship in 1985…which he did (2). He stood in his failure and took what action he could to transcend it.
I fear that when we diminish the reality of failure we also diminish the reality of resilience. I write that with a sense of dread for I am a teacher and schools seek to teach students resilience while attempting, on a regular basis, to erase failure. Dear American educational system, you can’t have the light without the darkness.
Obi-Wan’s Failure and Trauma
As Obi-Wan Kenobi opens our protagonist is burdened by the weight of his failures and trauma. Professor Shpancer warns that there is danger to “…assigning the trauma label to any upsetting, angering, challenging, or disappointing experience. Stretching the trauma label to cover generic life challenges…amounts to a form of emotional grade inflation, diluting the meaning of the term” (3). Magic Johnson, for example, failed to make plays in the 1984 NBA Finals. That, according to Shpancer, is not trauma. A powerful and public failure to be sure, but not trauma. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, can rightfully be viewed as traumatized.
Let’s look at his ledger. He engaged in a brutal lightsaber duel against Darth Maul alongside his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn. Maul was defeated but Qui-Gon was killed while Obi-Wan was momentarily sidelined behind a laser shield. If only Obi-Wan was faster perhaps Qui-Gon would have survived. As Qui-Gon dies he secures a promise from Obi-Wan to train young Anakin Skywalker. This, as all Star Wars fans know, does not end well. Anakin rejected his teacher, turning to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. When Order 66 was issued Vader storms a Jedi temple and massacres younglings just learning the ways of the Force. Obi-Wan tracks down his former apprentice and defeats him in combat. In the course of the fight he dismembers a young man whom he had great affection for, leaving Vader for dead as flames engulfed his body. This was no victory as the old republic, which Obi-Wan swore to protect, was falling into ruin as Revenge of the Sith ends with the Empire ascending.
To recap, Obi-Wan watched his mentor die, had a beloved padawan succumb to the dark side and “killed” him even as the galaxy fell into chaos because the republic he swore to protect was crumbling. Damn. I’m having a good day. How about you?
The Power (Force?) of Erik Erikson’s Theory
“There is brokenness to every life.” No one, as Dr. Shpancer points out, is free of struggle and pain in life. The renowned psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), in his theory of psychosocial development, illuminated how strengths and weaknesses became ingrained as part of an individual’s character. He also warned that strengths would also be tested by life. “The strength acquired at any stage is tested by the necessity to transcend it in such a way that the individual can take chances in the next stage [of life/development] with what was most vulnerably precious in the previous one” (4). In short, you will develop strengths and life will provide gut punches to test its sustainability. Erikson cautions us that, in adulthood, a symptom of dread and fear overwhelming an individual would be that person falling into a state of isolation – which is where we find Obi-Wan at the onset of the series. The isolation is not only from others, but from himself. This self isolation is on display in both his hermit lifestyle (social isolation) and his disconnect from the Force (isolation from self).
His personal disconnect also manifests in his mission as a silent guardian watching over Luke Skywalker. While he does perform this duty it is with a passionless, robotic disconnect. He performs this duty (watching over Luke) but does not even keep himself “fit” enough (Force attuned) to be of profound service if a serious threat should arise. This disconnect is also revealed in his ineffective but desperate attempts to connect to Qui-Gon’s Force ghost.
Erikson taught that, if one fell into isolating habits between the ages of 18-40, another debilitating trait could develop. As life keeps rolling on, the isolated 40 year old may develop a sense of stagnation between the ages of 40-65, thus losing interest in growth and service to others. Obi-Wan does not appear to be walking a terribly healthy or heroic path when we are reacquainted with him.
Habits of the Mind
Stephen C. Hayes, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Nevada, stresses that healing means to become whole again and that the process can take time (5). Time, however, does not heal wounds alone. Time merely grants us the time to heal. According to Hayes part of the healing process includes embracing a sense of purpose. That’s a strike against Obi-Wan. He is fulfilling a duty by watching over Luke but the sense of purpose is lacking. Pain, Hayes teaches, without purpose becomes a meaningless struggle.
The capacity to reach out to others is also imperative in Hayes’ teachings about healing. The mind can utilize “needless defenses” to help avoid pain. This, unfortunately, has the side effect of hindering healing. By isolating himself Obi-Wan is not only nurturing destructive habits that lead to stagnation, he is also failing to utilize one of his greatest strengths.
Obi-Wan’s Greatest Strength
Obi-Wan Kenobi has always been, if nothing else, a man of great compassion. His care is balanced between individuals around him and the vast, intergalactic struggles which are part of his life. While a master of the Force and a skilled warrior, Obi-Wan’s compassion is what keeps him going from adventure to adventure without succumbing to the immense pressure of his various missions.
Compassion, according to Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein, enhances resilience by fortifying human connections while also nurturing the belief that we can make a positive difference (6). Obi-Wan is not only a Jedi Master, but a master of compassion…or at least he was before the Republic collapsed. His beliefs have been shaken to their core. He is driven by a sense of duty but it is not connected to his overarching sense of compassion, hence he becomes a disconnected husk of his former self, incapable of connecting with the people around him or through the Force. In fact, he has effectively cut himself off from the Force almost completely. His ability to access the power now a memory like that of an aging athlete who recalls what he or she could once do but…those days are done. If not for the abduction of young Princess Leia we do not know when, or if, he would have been freed from his atrophy.
His quest to rescue Princess Leia, however, reignited the dying embers of compassion. He struggles to use the Force to save her as she falls from a building, but at least some vestige of the connection remains. His capacity to care slowly extends to others he encounters until, eventually, he reconnects with the Force itself. His capacity to reengage with the Force, however, does not impress Darth Vader. Vader, as he feels victory in their final confrontation is within his grasp, gloats, “Your strength has returned, but the weakness remains.”
Weakness is one of the many conditions of living. Darth Vader always failed to grasp this truth. If the force can have a dark side why wouldn’t weaknesses accompany our strengths? Everything has a shadow. The shadow gains strength through repression, not acceptance. Obi-Wan, when buried by Vader, taps into his emotions (Trust your feelings, Luke). His compassion for Leia and Luke ignite an exponential growth in his connection to the Force. Vader is defeated by the resurgent Jedi. Shpancer would not be surprised as he writes, “…acknowledging and building our strengths improves our ability to deal with our areas of weakness” (7). Weakness exists but it need not overwhelm us, Darth.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi draws to a close Obi-Wan engages in two interactions that resonate his return to wholeness. For clarity’s sake when I say “wholeness” I am reflecting the words of Dr. Brooks, “A life that is not balanced or authentic is ripe for discontent, shallow relationships, and stress…(8). It is important to note, Dr. Brooks is not saying life won’t have hardships. He is not pollyannaish. What he is pointing out is that an authentic person will experience challenges with equilibrium and loyal allies.
Obi-Wan’s authenticity is expressed in a confession to Owen Lars, who had asserted Luke needed to be a child. The mature Jedi validates the wisdom of the farmer. Obi-Wan’s fractured mind led to an obsession with duty that blinded him to Owen’s insight. Humility, and the strength it provides, has returned to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan’s dismissal of self-sabotaging mindsets also allows him to reconnect with Qui-Gon Jinn’s Force ghost. As the show ends the two walk into the future at a leisurely pace.
It is important to note that, according to Erik Erikson, if adults between the ages of 40-65 don’t succumb to stagnation they develop a sense of generativity. When teaching Erikson to my students I tell them generativity is the ability to feel generous across the generations. To feel a sense of responsibility to both the generation ahead and behind us. To plow what road we can to make the next generations path just a little easier while honoring the past generation by implementing their best lessons and helping them rest easy as life comes to an end. Care and compassion are inextricably linked to generativity and, evidently, to the Force as well.
(1) Dr. Shpancer’s thoughts can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32
(2) As a lifelong Celtic fan giving credit to Magic Johnson for fighting back after the 1984 finals was painful. Don’t get me started on the beathing Kareem gave the Celtics in 1985. Ouch.
(3) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32.
(4) Erikson, Childhood and Society, Page 263.
(5) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 38
(6) This power of compassion is highlighted on page 16 of The Power of Resilience (2004) written by Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein.
(7) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32.
“You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say ‘That’s the bad guy.’ …So say goodnight to the bad guy! …last time you gonna see a bad guy like this…” Thus spoke Al Pacino’s ever defiant and self-assured Tony Montana in Scarface. Audiences have been captivated by Tony since he first hit the screen in 1983. He repulsed and enthralled throughout the film. What a challenging magic trick.
Many stories hinge on the writer’s ability to produce sinister spellbinding characters. What is Dark Knight without Heath Ledger’s Joker? Is Inglorious Bastards memorable without the predatory Hans Landa brought to disturbing life by Christopher Waltz? In only 24 minutes of screen time Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter casts an inescapable shadow in Silence of the Lambs. Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris overwhelms the landscape in Training Day. Even animated films can provide such characters lest we forget Scar terrorizing the pride land in The Lion King. A story with a bland “bad guy” often becomes a bland movie. Tony was right, we need the bad guy.
My new book Stone Souls will be released soon. In the pie chart of motivators, it is my attempt to create a mesmerizing bad guy. To produce a character that impacts the reader the way so many rogues have fascinated me. Perhaps Kurt “Stone” Adams will be your Joker or Tony, demanding your attention even when you wish he didn’t. Sharing thoughts you wish you could reject outright but, somehow, feeling pulled into his ferocious orbit. We shall see.
There were many influences that led to the creation of Kurt Adams, some were mentioned above. Allow me to share one from the study of history. In 1869 Sergey Nechayev released a short pamphlet, The Revolutionary Catechism, also called Catechism of a Revolutionary, which succinctly detailed what it meant to be a true revolutionary (1). Kurt Adams strives to be such a revolutionary. He views the maintenance of the unfolding revolutionary process essential to his life as he continues to…liberate…the Common States of America from the corrupting influence of foreign ideas, like those found in the United States. Here are three lines from The Catechism (2) that illuminate the brutal dedication of the revolutionary, a glimpse into a heart of uncompromising darkness.
“Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution.”
“When a comrade is in danger and the question arises whether he should be saved or not saved, the decision must not be arrived at on the basis of sentiment, but solely in the interests of the revolutionary cause. Therefore, it is necessary to weigh carefully the usefulness of the comrade against the expenditure of revolutionary forces necessary to save him, and the decision must be made accordingly.”
“To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force – this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task.”
From these revolutionary thoughts and fictitious fanatics arose Kurt “Stone” Adams. He is coming…do you dare say you are ready?
(1)There is debate among historians regarding whether Nechayev wrote the pamphlet alone or in collaboration with Mikhail Bakunin.
(2) Quotations from The Catechism can be found at https://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm
As I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home I was struck by the feeling that Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the Marvel Comics Icon introduced in 1962, is the perfect hero for our current troubled times. Wondering Why? Read on, true believer! (Well, read on if you’re comfortable with the knowledge that spoilers – lots and lots of spoilers – lie ahead).
Spider-Man: Born of Tragedy
Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant. Inflation. “Flash Mob” robberies. School shootings and violence. A seemingly insurmountable rise in crude and crass behaviors. Free floating anxiety seems as prevalent as oxygen. It is understandable that some people feel forlorn and disillusioned. What else could go wrong? Let’s look at Peter Parker’s life as the opening of No Way Home propels him into his own cauldron of chaos.
He is facing serious (but short lived) legal problems. While many support him, he is facing social resentment for “murdering” Mysterio at the climax of Spider-Man: Far From Home. His secret identity now revealed, his friends find their lives assaulted – intense social and media scrutiny and rejection from colleges – because of their association with Peter. Peter, being true to himself, is pained by guilt over the hardship he has brought upon MJ and Ned. A rash decision and the inability to contain his loquaciousness bring super-villains from across the multiverse to New York, placing another burden on his young shoulders. That’s quite a load, even for someone with super strength, but there’s more.
The defining moment of Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man has always been the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. In the lead up to his death Ben utters the famous line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter blames himself for Ben’s death as he did not stop the man responsible when he had the chance. Despair, anger, and a desire for revenge could consume him. Ultimately he emerges as someone who forever seeks to wield his power responsibly. The flames of this furnace melt away much of Peter’s innocence, and though he is well known as a wise cracking hero it is important to note the pain that molded his commitment.
In the MCU Peter never faced this pain. There are those who feel he did because of his connection to, and the loss of, Tony Stark. That tragedy does not fill this horrific bill. Tony was a superhero who chose a very risky path in life. Uncle Ben did not. Tony became a beloved mentor but he wasn’t there to keep the family afloat with his working-class salary. Six-year-old Peter. Nine- year-old Peter. Twelve-year-old Peter. He didn’t have much, but he had Uncle Ben. Ben was his rock as he struggled with the challenges of growing up poor, unpopular, and bullied because his greatest asset – his intelligence – made him a target of bullies. Tony was loved by Peter. Of that there is no doubt. He wasn’t, however, embedded in Peter’s soul like Ben and when something is torn from your soul it creates a terrible and unique suffering. The MCU Peter never faced that pain, well, at least not until No Way Home.
The Loss of Aunt May
When the MCU introduced Peter his Uncle Ben was already out of the picture. Aunt May was the central adult in Peter’s life. Befitting the heart of a true caregiver, her compassion extends beyond Peter as she works with the poor and views the newly arrived foes as people to be helped, not harmed. She convinces Peter that the villains who have made their way to his universe deserve to be “fixed” (freed from the ailments that drive them to villainy) rather than sent back to their universes where they are fated to die, consumed by the violent path they walk. The plan goes awry as Peter senses that the Green Goblin persona has emerged from Norman Osborn. The Goblin convinces Electro to reject the path of peace and a brutal battle erupts. Badly beaten and at the Goblin’s mercy Peter pleads with May to run, but the Goblin has other plans. His glider and a pumpkin bomb mortally wound May as he departs, leaving rubble, both physical and emotional, in his wake. Despite his power and prowess Peter couldn’t save his Aunt. Heartbroken, Peter flees the scene and isolates himself on a rooftop, wrapped in cloaks of despair and rage. It’s not a darkness he can overcome alone. Can anyone?
MJ and Nedcome to Peter with two unexpected allies, Peter Parker’s from other universes, who assist in the process of helping find his footing. The three Peter’s (Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire) quickly forge a deep bond – they do have many shared experiences after all – and work together to end the threat of the multiverse rogues. Before that happens, however, we are privy to a lesson in resilience, which may well be the greatest attribute the Peters possess.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a stress management researcher and speaker, illuminates the fact that part of our stress response is the release of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that helps create a biologically driven desire to reach out to others when in pain. Our bodies knows what we need when pained, but our will allows us to resist this urge – hence Peter (Holland) isolates himself. MJ, Ned, and the two Peters seek him out and offer support and council. In so doing they tap into and build upon Peter’s already existing well of resiliency.
Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from adversity. It is built in the furnace of suffering as people face the emotional toll that the tragedy of life heaps upon them. Psychological hardiness does not come to us through birth but through living. The experience of the Peters can illuminate the important and transformative keys of resilience.
I Always Wanted Brothers
Peter (Holland) is pulled (coaxed) from his isolation in no small measure by the other two Peter Parkers. They share stories of lost love – Maguire’s Uncle Ben and Garfield’s Gwen Stacy. The three step into their shared pain together, finding coming ground in both the suffering, but also in the compassion shared and the wisdom gained (With great power…). Stephanie R. deluse, Ph.D’s writing on stress management comes to life in this scene. Dr. deluse emphasises that sometimes we need to shut down sometimes, particularly when an exceptionally painful trauma has occurred. Space and time to process is necessary. The flip side of this coin is the necessity to not allow the down time to become the only coping mechanism. As she states, “Wallowing isn’t the goal but regrouping.” The key to regrouping – in both her article and the No Way Home – is social support. She calls social support (making and keeping good friends) “one of the most important resources for coping.” The various Peters share their pain and offer one another hope as MJ and Ned allow the unprecedented conversation to unfold. In the end they find themselves in the lab, united in their vision of saving the villians and utilizing their scientific acumen to that end. As they prepare for the final battle Andrew Garfield (who I found to be a revelation in this movie) blurts out, “I always wanted brothers!” He found them and the marvelous support they can give. I sincerely hope you have found yours as well.
Watch the Self Talk
A roadblock to resiliency is negative self talk and cognitive traps that reduce our energy and efficacy. As our trio of heroes prepare for battle they engage in some brotherly banter about past foes (what else would three Spider-Men do?), Holland and Maguire reveal they have both fought aliens. Holland shares he did so both on earth and in space. Garfield then grumbles, “I’m lame” as he recounts his list does not include aliens but a “Russian guy in a rhino suit.” Maguire puts the break on the conversation, asking that they rewind for a moment. “You are not lame,” he assures Garfield. Saying it twice before stating “You’re amazing.” Garfield thanks him and they move on. How many times, unfortunately, do our inner voices conspire to cripple us. We all need friends…or brothers…to remind us that our worst voices are rarely correct, even if they are the loudest.
We Suck at This!
Well…that seems like an odd heading following a reminder to avoid negative self talk! There is a line between negative self talk (I suck) and an honest, hyperbolically honest perhaps, assessment of a situation. You can’t improve unless you assess the problem. When the battle begins the Spider-Men are out of synch with each other. They gather on a scaffolding and Maguire exclaims, “We suck at this!” He doesn’t mean fighting super villains, all three have proven to be pretty good at that! No, the problem is teamwork. Of the three only Holland has worked as a member of a team. The other two have always been solo acts. Holland offers some advice on coordinating their efforts and the trio swing back into the fray. A pause as they swing is necessary.
Dr. deluse mentions the importance of role diversity, the idea that we play many roles in life. With no ego or agenda the two older Spider-Men were willing to listen to the advice of their younger partner because when it comes to fighting as a team he had the most experience. How many times do stressful situations become worse because we don’t fulfill the role we need a given moment? Sometimes the youngest brother is correct and the right thing to do is to simply follow his lead ( I hope my younger brother doesn’t read this!).
An Eye on the Future
As the film ends Peter has made a momentus sacrifice, setting his personal life aside for the good of his universe. No one remembers who he is, effectively cutting Peter off from the social supports that are so important. He does seem, however, determined to find his place, and his joy, in this familiar yet unfamiliar setting. I can’t help but wonder is his lawyer Matt Murdock (Daredevil) will play a role in this process. One of my favorite scenes from Daredevil is the rooftop conversation with Frank Castle. In the heated debate Matt stressed the right all people have to try again when they have fallen. To seek redemption for past errors. The genesis of Peter’s dilemma was brought about by his rash decision to enlist Dr. Strange’s aid early in the film and then interrupting the mystic as he cast his spell. Peter is paying a price for his mistake. I think he will find his way. Resiliency is his super power after all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were everyone’s?
Note: All references to Dr. deluse can be found in the chapter “Coping With Stress…The Super Hero Way” found in the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration
Last week I had the opportunity to present Out of the Basement to a group of high school students enrolled in a class called Human Concerns in Literature. Michael Tanner, the protagonist of Out of the Basement, struggles to maintain his mental health as the lingering trauma of childhood abuse threatens to drown him in a sea of unresolved pain and shame. The importance of mental health took center stage in our discussion, shaped by the class lenses of identity, friendship, and success.
A particularly important point in our discussion took place during a conversation about success. We focused on a moment in the book when Michael pulled open his metaphoric door, the handle ominously pictured on the book’s cover. The door contains Michael’s spiritual, mental, and psychological torment, which poured forth as a flood, creating fierce currents that threatened to consume him. Michael, who was facing this horror in a meditative states, finds his feet and plants them firmly on the ground. Finding a sense of balance he asks, “Have I at least earned the right to stand in these waters?” The answer is yes. Moreover, it is an important moment in anyone’s struggle for mental health.
Michael was alone during this scene. After time with supportive friends, both old and new, he desired a private confrontation with his demons. It became a private victory, and it carried personal power and meaning.
I stressed to the class that such an important step does not mean Michael achieved a final victory. He planted a flag acknowledging and owning hard won progress. That is part of the journey of mental health, accepting meaningful triumphs even if others may not understand, or if you simply can’t communicate the magnitude of the moment. Not everything needs a “like” or to garner a large group’s approval. With mental health the greatest victories are often achieved alone or with small groups. Sometimes the right individual is all we need at those times.
As I scanned the room I saw students nodding their heads. I found this sad and gratifying. It was clear some students felt my words quite deeply, deeper than I wished them capable. Their reaction prompted me to state that anyone who has felt the power of personal victories should feel proud of themselves, and they should keep striving. The interaction was a reminder that many people, young and old, are engaged in unseen struggles for mental health and against psychological disorders and disturbances. Hopefully anyone undertaking this difficult journey is kind and forgiving to themselves (an area of weakness for Michael Tanner in Out of the Basement). It can be counterproductive to allow the big picture – the desire for the final victory – to diminish the power of small steps successfully taken on the long road to increased psychological prosperity.
Help Beyond Friendship
Another aspect of the class is the theme of friendship, a concept that was easily evaluated within the pages of Out of the Basement for Michael proclaims he is “blessed in his friendships.” I hope all people can make such a proclamation friends often become beacons of hope when we stand on the edge of darkness. We discussed the friendships that bolstered Michael’s spirits, granting him strength in a desperate hour.
In the aftermath of the session, however, I was reminded again of the reality that there are many obstacles to mental health. I am also a teacher. A topic I am currently covering is the impact of PTSD on veterans and how it contributes to tragic outcomes. Some veterans in the articles we read discussed the camaraderie they enjoyed with fellow vets even as they struggled to find institutional support. Their regrets were echoed by administrators of various programs who lamented their lack of resources and funding.
Institutional Roadblocks to Mental Health
It sometimes seems we live in times when talk of caring about mental health is high but true action in prioritizing it seems low. This unfortunatephenomenon is not limited to the military’s efforts to care for veterans. To anyone reading this consider your own profession. Have you ever been told by managers or administrators how much you’re valued only to have more work placed on your plate without proper support? Have you heard your leaders occasionally discuss mental health while the procedures and regulations (which contribute to stress and low morale) remain unchanged? People’s priorities often shine through in their actions, though the words they use matter as well.
If you are a teacher reading this you likely have heard the phrase “data driven decision making.” Data is often used to bolster a sense of authority and create the illusion of deeper understanding. In education this means practice is subordinate to scientific knowledge and teachers are expected to comply with what is considered the truth (Sergiovani, 1992). Of course, data is also subject to agendas. How often have you seen data from both sides of an issue presented by a leader? It is so odd how all the data aligns with their priorities. This may also explain why data concerning healthy work environments is rarely shared. When the topic is broached it is often delivered with all the vigor one dedicates to checking a box. So strange that, despite the existence of a mountain of data concerning healthy work environments and its positive impact on productivity, such information is rarely shared or embraced. Data is linked to agenda, and if you work in place where mental health data isn’t discussed then you can rest assured employee health isn’t a priority.
Back to Michael Tanner
The above passages bring me back to Michael Tanner and the multitudes striving for mental health. I don’t see enough evidence in the world to convince me a majority of leaders and decision makers either understand or grasp its value. Perhaps they just can’t figure out how to monetize it.
Regardless, your mental health should be important to you, which is why…like Michael…we need to take responsibility for it ourselves even while striving to make it a priority in the larger world. Surround yourself with true friends, those who care deeply for your well being. Discuss your mental health with your doctor just as you would a physical ailment. Share your fears and demons, they may just become smaller in the light. Seek the help of a skilled therapist if needs be. It may well be more beneficial than you think. Lastly, remember that being available for others somehow always seems to bring help back to you. It’s one of my favorite aspects of life. I have no data to support that, just joyous memories. Our small communities often succeed where larger institutions fail.
I wish you well. I hope you are free of your personal basement. Take care of yourself and others. And keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!
With the series finale of WandaVision, the MCU has completed their most ambitious foray into the realm of mental health and grief. The superhero storytelling juggernaut has, to the credit of various writers, producers, etc., stepped into those tumultuous waters before. Whether it was Tony Stark’s PTSD in Iron Man 3, Thor’s combined angry/depressed state in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the the despair fueled rage which drove Hawkeye to become Ronin following the loss of his family in Avengers: Endgame, or Prince T’Challa, in his own words, being nearly consumed by a desire for vengeance after his father’s murder in Captain America: Civil War. With Wanda, however, the format of television allowed for over four hours of development for both the character and audience to wade into the stream of suffering in a manner the previous movies did not (most notably was Clint turning away from his angry path after a mere two minute conversation with Natasha).
Building a House of Pain
There is no doubt that Wanda Maximoff, now officially recognized as the Scarlet Witch, has been through the ringer in her MCU life. Director Matt Shakman proclaimed, “Wanda has experienced more loss than anybody else in the Marvel universe.” I would suggest that, in the character of Thor, there is also a clear runner-up for that unfortunate title. A quick look at their histories reveals some stunning similarities: parents killed by outside invasion (Wanda’s claimed by a Stark manufactured missile and Thor’s mother killed by a Dark Elf invasion), siblings killed in combat (Pietro by Ultron and Loki by Thanos), and each has seen their homeland torn asunder by conflict (can Sokovia ever recover from the event of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Asgard was obliterated at the end of Thor: Ragnarok). Wanda (prior to WandaVision) saw her love, Vision, die twice (once by her own hand) while Thor was helpless to stop Thanos from killing most of the remaining Asgardians as Infinity War kicked off with an assault on our senses. Thor’s tally must include the death of his father, Odin while Wanda had to come to grips with the fact she was a victim of Thanos’ snap and then had to adjust to returning to life five years later.
I do not bring Thor into this conversation to steal any thunder from Wanda, but to highlight similarities in their response to the pain they experienced; for both characters built their own proverbial house of pain. Thor’s was a small hut in New Asgard where he wasted away for five years, drinking beer and playing video games. The walls that he erected were made of more than mere wood as few dared to reach out to him. Wanda, as befitting the power she wields, built walls (her hex) around an entire town, creating her expansive and, for a time, impenetrable house of pain.
This brings me to a purely speculative reason for bringing up Thor. As the two characters have endured so much loss and sorrow, will the duo share a scene in a future movie where they find mutual support and understanding? We can leave such conjecture behind and bid Thor farewell as we step into Wanda’s house of pain.
Sometimes the simplest of confessions are the most impactful. When Agatha Harkness released residents of Westview from Wanda’s control an incredibly powerful scene unfolded. Different residents shared their painful experiences, but let’s start with the straightforward proclamation, “I’m exhausted.” Being under Wanda’s thrall, as described by this individual, has been exhausting. Of course, it’s not one phrase alone that matters most here, but the collection that is instructive. Here is a sample of what was said.
“If I could just hold her.”
“Your grief is poisoning us.”
“…tell him I love him, and not to come back here.”
“We have your nightmares.”
This scene is the first time Wanda has truly witnessed the pain she caused the people of Westview. Sorrow can have the unfortunate impact of blinding us to the pain of others as we tend our own wounds – and Wanda is no exception. Worse, she is actively causing this pain with her power. In an earlier episode Monica beseeched Wanda not to allow Director Hayward to paint her as a villain. Wanda’s answer, “perhaps I already am,” took on an even more immediate meaning as Wanda beheld the crippling impact her pain and grief had on others and herself.
The mother speaking of her daughter expressed the wish to “just hold her” again. Wanda undoubtedly felt the same way about, not just for Vision whom she brought back, but her brother and parents. The emotional and psychological exhaustion that Wanda has built over her MCU career now forced upon others. It is little wonder one resident described himself as “exhausted.” Heroically, one of the residents makes it clear that, despite the pain of sharing Wanda’s “nightmares”, she still thinks of her loved ones, begging Wanda to tell her husband not to come home, thus sparing him this suffering. When Wanda pushes back the people fall to the ground, choking in the grip of what appears to be energy collars wrapped around their necks.
Seeing the residents suffer, acting in many ways as mirrors to her own interior turmoil and decay, pushes Wanda to free them. She does so despite the fact this process will bring an end to the family she created to soothe her grief. Grief, however, proves to be the most powerful force in the show – for it cannot be kept at bay by magic nor ignored out of existence. The only way out is through, and thus begins the dramatic final twenty minutes of the series.
“Power isn’t your Problem, its Knowledge.”
While Agatha’s line was thrown back at her (“Thanks for the lesson”) when Wanda utilized Runes to overcome the centuries old witch, it also speaks to how Wanda was able to – eventually – navigate her grief. The knowledge of, and the willingness to wade into, the pain she felt and shared caused her to change her course. Knowledge, as the old saying goes, gave her power.
The sixteenth century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila wrote and taught about the dark night of the soul. It is important to clearly note, despite the modern conception of dark nights of the soul being merely about pain, Teresa did teach that these dark times should not be conceptualized exclusively as times of tribulation and suffering. Dark nights can also be transformative (as Wanda become the Scarlet Witch). The pain pain experienced in the dark night is often the by-product of breaking unhealthy attachments (like the attachment to a past that you cannot bring back, even if your powers were augmented by the mind stone).
When writing about the dark night of the soul Teresa utilized two words – oscura and tinieblas – for two very different classifications of darkness. When utilizing oscura Tereasa was emphasizing the experience of one’s spiritual path being obscured and mysterious. The seeker of knowledge and truth is engaged in the quest but there was much they did not know. The path is not marked clearly and the correct way is blocked from sight. Therefore, the suffering seeker must proceed cautiously as they attempt to comprehend what is difficult to understand. In many ways our emotional and psychological recovery can be hindered by oscura, for who hasn’t been confused by their emotions or tricked themselves into believing the cracking ice beneath their feet was in fact sold rock? As we work through this obscuring darkness we become increasingly comfortable with the reality we don’t have all the answers but proceed, guided by wisdom gained and pulled by wisdom sought. When Wanda states, “I don’t understand these powers, but I will”, she is, in essence, speaking from the field of oscura.
There is, however, tinieblas – the word utilized by Teresa to communicate the sinister aspect of darkness. Ill intent, self-defeating attachments, selfishness, and, as Teresa is a Catholic writer, the manipulations of the devil (Mephisto, perhaps) lurk in tinieblas. Limiting beliefs and falsity attempt to trap us in tinieblas, just as Agatha attempted to manipulate Wanda by proclaiming her younger opponent would always be broken. Wanda pushed through Agatha’s manipulations, but Tinieblas, unfortunately, was still lurking as WandaVision ended.
When Wanda imprisoned Agatha within the character of the nosy neighbor Agnes, the centuries old witch protested, stating Wanda was, “Cruel.” As the accusation was uttered a smirk appears on Wanda’s face. Moreover, Wanda stated she was keeping Agatha in a place where she could be found in case she was needed as a source of knowledge (oscura). Wanda was merely imprisoning her for personal use, the roots of tinieblas digging deeper. As the final scene closes we see Wanda reading the Darkhold. I wonder, which darkness – oscura or tinieblas – will hold sway?Will Wanda, with her power and knowledge be capable of combing the two, transforming them as she did herself?
“…And There you Are”
Those words, spoken by Vision as (this version) looked upon Wanda for his last time, opened the door for the final, heart wrenching moments of WandaVision. It also opened a window to view the power of a word we don’t readily embrace, perhaps acknowledge is a better word, in the 21st century: ritual. In an essay titled Funerals: A Time for Grief and Growth written by Roy and Jane Nichols we read Roy’s description of his preparations for his father’s funeral. Roy, a funeral director for over ten years at the time, wrote he didn’t need to be a funeral director at this time, “…I needed to be a son; and I wanted to attend to the details myself – it was my dad, it was our love, it was my emotion, it was a son’s job.”
Over two thousand years ago the great sage Confucius emphasized the importance of ritual. While detractors lampooned his conviction, painting a picture of a stogy old man obsessed with details, the true power of ritual was clearly communicated. As religious scholar Huston Smith attests, Confucius believed following proper rituals deepened our humanity and relationship, helping to create life as a sacred dance with others and the endless mystery if life. As nature moved through rituals creating both seamless patterns and transcendent beauty, so too can human rituals align us with this mysterious dimension of our lives, even if it is…obscure to us.
In Wanda’s final acts with her family she is performing, with grace and strength, a mother’s and wife’s job. She lovingly created a final ritual, the funeral rite, that allows for the possibility of healing to take root. Was this, perhaps, a missing component of her healing process? She never had a single ritual to say goodbye to the litany of loved one’s she lost. How could she not stand at Tony Stark’s funeral and not feel the weight of her own loses which largely went unacknowledged (save a moment with Hawkeye at the pond).
Ritual allows us to slow down and feel the world and, if participated in fully, our shared humanity. While slowing the pace of her farewell Wanda (and my hat is off to the wonderful acting of Elizabeth Olsen) simultaneously touched the hearts of many viewers who witnessed the care she showed her family in their final moments as she prepared to survive them, yet again. There you are, Wanda…and thank you for being there.
In early December 2020, a valued colleague mentioned an abstract she read and the desire to find the article. The focal point of the article was the necessity for violence and the shortcomings of nonviolence. We discussed the concept for a short spell (and have returned to it since) and, in so doing, my interest in the conversation grew. Since then, we witnessed violence unfold at the Capital of the United States and, as I write, we are approaching the national holiday of the exemplar of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I must confess, I am writing this in many ways to continue the conversation with my dear friend, but I do hope the ideas presented help spark conversation and interest in your circles as well.
A (not so) Bold Proclamation
Let’s begin with a self-evident proclamation: violence exists, and it causes undeniable suffering. I know; I really jumped out on a limb right there! Generally speaking, we human beings are also drawn to violence as a form of entertainment. MMA and boxing continue to attract large numbers of fans and generate huge revenues for their respective athletic bodies. The National Football League’s popularity has soared over the past two decades and, despite increased concerns about concussions, remains a collision (as opposed to a contact) sport. Clearly violent sports make money and attract millions of fans, including me. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that I occasionally go to Youtube to look up old clips of Mike Tyson’s devastating knockouts and the classic “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler – Thomas “Hitman” Hearns boxing match.
Movies and films also present us with stories where heroes routinely utilize violence to overcome obstacles, defeat the forces of evil, and save the proverbial day. Many can relate to the feeling of satisfaction delivered when the hero of a tale subdues, or even kills, the villain through violent confrontation. Quentin Tarantino is counting on the audience enjoying that feeling!
History too communicates not only the existence of, but perhaps the necessity and utility of violence. In one of his contributions to The Great Courses, Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, Professor J. Rufus Fears proclaimed, “Violence sometimes solves problems.” He uses the American Civil War has his example as the war was utilized to end the violent horrors millions suffered due to slavery. In the mid-twentieth century Hitler was most definitely not talked out of building his “Thousand-Year Reich.”
Stokely and Malcolm
On a different field of battle, the US Civil Rights struggle of the 1950’s-1960’s, we witness a good number of voices calling for the use of violence or, at the very least, embracing the possible use of violence. The most well-known inclusion here would likely be Malcolm X. In his 1964 speech at the founding of his new organization, The Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm – under the heading of self-defense – proclaimed, “We assert that in those areas where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, that our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.” He used the concept “by whatever means necessary” eleven other times in the speech, declaring it to be his organizations motto. Violence, particularly in self-defense, was on the table. We will return to Malcolm X a bit later. For now, let’s call in another leader.
Stokely Carmichael, who served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from May 1966 – June 1967, became best known for promulgating – though not originating – the phrase “black power.” He clarified that black power was about building the economic strength of black communities, building a sense of self-worth and pride in those who had lost those important feeling, and building improved social and political institutions. He also clearly distanced himself from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s path by stating, “…the only thing nonviolent about the civil rights movement has been Martin Luther King. Now we’ve never defined it (nonviolence) as a way of life, I never have. I’ve always defined it as a tactic.” When one considers just two of the litany of horrific incidents from that era – Sherriff Jim Clark leading his “posse” against peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and, a mere three weeks after the delivery of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church – it becomes clear why Carmichael once exclaimed, “We have been too nonviolent…”
Brief Stop at Recent Days
We do not have to look too far into the past to feel the tension between violence and nonviolence. On January 6, 2021, the Capital of the United States was attacked, and briefly taken, by rioters. Many people wondered in the aftermath of the event, why wasn’t the response of law enforcement more forceful? For clarity sake if you wanted law enforcement to be more aggressive then you wanted them to be violent. I do not embrace the idea that acting in self-defense or in the protection on another is somehow nonviolent. It is violence performed in the act of a particular goal – often a laudable one – but still violence.
If a Shaolin Monk walking a dusty road in 17th Century China used his staff to beat back three would be muggers, the act of putting the staff upside the head of a person – even in self-defense – is still a violent act. Intention can make some acts of violence more palatable, but it does not negate the act as one of violence. There is a tension here between intention and action that may cause some discomfort.
Sometimes violence – as in protecting the Capital Building of the United States – is warranted. It has a utilitarian purpose. There is a reason that Charles Cobb titled his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible or that George Orwell wrote in his “Notes on Nationalism”, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
Nonviolence, You Say
Thus far we have seen a rather strong case built in favor of violence. Honestly, as I write these words, I am planning lessons on Reconstruction, the tumultuous time period following the Civil War. From 1865-1866 President Andrew Johnson did nothing to curb, or even address, the violent activities of southerners as they tried to reclaim their pre-war position of power in the South. The horror of the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (May 1-3) and the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 (July 30) spurred the “Radical Republicans” at the time to take control of Reconstruction and begin a time period of Military Reconstruction (started in 1867), which established military districts in the South and created an environment that allowed for rapid growth in southern black communities (black voter registration among eligible voters, for example, increased from 1% to 80% in 1867). Sometimes it takes a bayonet to get people to the ballots. What then can be said about nonviolence to allow it a place in this conversation? Is it little more than a tactic, and a rather ineffective one at that?
We have been told that the answer to violence lies in its opposite, the philosophy of nonviolence. Allow me another self-evident proclamation; nonviolence is a lofty ideal, one that seems out of sorts with the worlds in which we live (by worlds I mean the large world of international and even intranational conflict as well as the small worlds of our communities, homes, and entertainment choices). Yet, if we were to engage in a simple thought exercise, I wonder how you would answer. Which would you prefer to see: all citizens of the world – for 24 hours – to embrace and LIVE by the tenants of nonviolence or increase violent tendencies (as this thought exercise asks us to increase the nonviolent tendencies) for 24 hours? I think the answer is clear.
As we prepare to give nonviolence its due in this conversation it is important to note a disagreement I have with the words of Stokely Carmichael. This disagreement lies in an implication of his statement, “…we’ve never defined it (nonviolence) as a way of life, I never have. I’ve always defined it as a tactic.” The implication here is that nonviolence is “a way of life.” It would seem to me that nonviolence is not “a way of life” so much as a manifestation or trait exhibited by an individual who has developed a complex and interconnected inner world
A Pivot to Pop Culture or
Dr. King meets Luke Skywalker
I teach a course called P3: Philosophy, Psychology, and Pop Culture, utilizing song, stories, myths, and movies to help make sense of philosophic and psychological theories for my students. I would submit to you that one of America’s most beloved and iconic cinematic series endorses the concept of nonviolence to its viewers. I bring you to a galaxy far, far away as we enter the Star Wars universe, specifically into the shoes of the iconic Luke Skywalker. Let us start with the climactic scene in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi where Luke achieves his final victory over the Emperor and simultaneously reawakens the goodness within his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader.
The scene unfolds as Luke is engaged in a brutal light saber dual with his father, Darth Vader. Luke cleaves off Vader’s hand and stands over his foe, light saber pointed at his throat. The emperor cheers this situation, imploring Luke to strike Vader and become the new Sith Lord. Luke stands on the threshold of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dire prediction, “The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” King, while seeking national justice and reconciliation, was also a master psychologist. Individuals, as well as nations, can plummet into a personal “dark abyss.” King noted, in his searing and brilliant “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the need to eradicate the twin traps of segregation and racism; one the false senses of superiority and the other being the false sense of inferiority. The dark abyss of these paths can bring personal and communal destruction in their wake. Let’s return to Luke, for we paused him as he prepared to kill his father – not a pleasant place to linger. With that final blow he would be “plunged into the dark abyss.” It is here that Luke makes an instantaneous decision.
Throughout the film Luke has been attempting to bring forth his father’s goodness, now his violence has him on the brink of doing the complete opposite, killing his father and replacing him as an agent of evil. He remembers his dual mission, defeat the emperor and convert, not slay, his father. Therefore, he tosses aside his light saber, declaring he is a Jedi, not a pawn of the emperor. In doing so he is simultaneously taking a great risk and showing incredible faith.
Luke’s decision to cast his light saber aside is a cinematic example of the tension between violence and nonviolence. Violence had brought Luke to the threshold of a physical victory over Vader, but this would have been achieved at the eradication of his grandeur goal of reconciliation with the father. Therefore, he dramatically alters his course, leaving himself open to a possible assault from the Emperor. The Emperor is happy to comply and Luke writhes in agony, not defending himself, but calling to Darth Vader, his father, for aid.
Dr. King asserts that the nonviolent approach is a “means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.” It does seem the choice of whose conscience one is attempting to stir is relevant. Luke could not stir the conscience of the Emperor any more than peaceful protesters could move Jim Clark. Thankfully, other consciences, even Darth Vader’s, can be touched.
Vader, moved by the sight of his son being killed by the Emperor, decides to act. Vader lifts the Emperor above his head and tosses him down a shaft into the Death Star’s power core. This action, while clearly violent would be endorsed by one of the most ardent practitioners of nonviolence – Mahatma Gandhi. While always professing nonviolence as “infinitely superior to violence” Gandhi did concede, “…where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Here we must pause to realize the difference between realizing there are no other options available to merely choosing to ignore other options and strike back with violence. Vader had no other options available than to assault the Emperor. This was not a man who could be talked out of his perspective or moved by silent protest to stop the slaying of Luke Skywalker. The Emperor would never abandon his dreams of domination. The only option left was violence. Vader stepped into the tension point between violence and nonviolence.
The Emperor, when hoisted above Vader’s head, loses control of the energy flowing from his hands. His power, rage, and violence engulf him and Darth Vader. When the Emperor is tossed to his death we see an energy wave erupt from the shaft and quickly recede to its source, the Emperor’s corrupt energies seeming to cause his death rather than the fall. Vader, near death, thanks his son for saving him, bringing him possible redemption at the end of his life (my willingness to embrace Vader’s redemption is a topic for another essay).
If I accept the film’s message that Luke did in fact redeem his father, it was not by using his skills in combat, but the strength of his character. In the song Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan sings, “for the warriors whose strength is not to fight” This is the strength Luke found, a strength that liberated the universe, that allowed the proverbial “chimes of freedom” to liberate the soul of Darth Vader, and freed Luke from the fear of becoming a Sith Lord like his father.
King stressed, “It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat…if there is a victory, it will be a victory…for justice and the forces of light.” It is so important to remember, and so daunting to consider, that Dr. King saw evil itself as his opponent, not unjust and bigoted people. Let’s be clear, these were not mere words from King, these were the words that grew from an inner world configured in such a way that truly sought the elevation of all. His words are routinely parroted by people on both sides of the political aisle, but the tone of these individuals often drips with disdain and reeks of moral superiority. Reconciliation and fellowship of humanity is not the goal of many, despite how magnanimously one presents themselves.
A Hard Road
It should come as little surprise that King often felt isolated and, according to some members of his inner circle, became very anxious and depressed at times. How exhausting it must be to regard the transformation of the human heart from calloused to compassionate as the ultimate goal. While changing laws mattered, and King clearly understood the importance of laws, it was the inner landscape of people where King sought true changes. In an interview granted to NBC’s Sandor Vanocur King wearily noted, “I must confess that dream that I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.” He admitted to having many “agonizing moments” in the years following the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963. Agonizing and doubting are words that can also be used to describe the Luke Skywalker we meet in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
In The Last Jedi an embittered Luke has exiled himself to an island on largely unknown planet. We learn the road to this life began when he started a new Jedi temple and sought to train his nephew, Ben Solo, in the ways of the force. When he felt the depths of Ben’s darkness, he considered killing the boy rather than risking the damage that Ben’s dark inclinations would cause. Going so far as drawing his light saber as Ben slept, Luke stood once again on the precipice of violence and nonviolence, the darkness within himself roaring for release. Luke stopped himself, but Ben awoke to see Luke standing with his light saber drawn, unaware that his teacher had already stepped back from the temptation of preemptive violence to choose, yet again, the transformative path of nonviolence. Ben pulled his hut down on Luke and fled, killing various other students as he left. While not giving in to the temptation of violence, Luke was left with the knowledge of his “agonizing moment,” a moment that – while he did not act on it – led to a cascade of violent acts. The “dark abyss of annihilation” was calling yet again.
Meeting Malcolm on the Hard Road
It is time to bring Malcolm X back to the fore. I believe it essential to note that, despite his more aggressive rhetoric, Malcolm X performed as many acts of violence (according to my studies) in the 1960’s and Dr. King did – none. While not dismissing the possible use of violence, Malcolm lived a largely nonviolent life. He also experienced the inner transformation that King declared the nonviolent life could cause. Consider this excerpt from an interview Malcolm X granted to Gordon Parks:
He stopped and remained silent for a few moments. “Brother,” he said finally, ”remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant — the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the whites get together — and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying?”
“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”
“That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days — I’m glad to be free of them. It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country. I’ve learned it the hard way — but I’ve learned it. And that’s the significant thing.”
Reflecting on that interview, Malcolm’s friend Ossie Davis stated, “Malcolm was free….he had completely abandoned…separatism, and hatred. But he had not abandoned his…bristling agitation for immediate freedom in this country not only for blacks, but for everyone.”
As I look at Malcolm’s, as well as Davis’, words I can picture Luke Skywalker in exile; a zombie, making a fool of himself, his decisions costing him years, and even his attempts to turn Ray away as Malcolm had the college student. Ultimately Luke kept his strength (As Malcolm did in his quest to agitate for freedom) while releasing his self-loathing and personal recriminations (abandoning hatred) and coming to the aid of the universe (abandoning separatism). Sometime, however, multiple teachers are necessary to help us reach the end of a hard road successfully.
Ok…Bring him Out
Hello Yoda. Master Yoda makes his appearance in The Last Jedi as a Force ghost, offering council – yet again – to “young Skywalker.” Stirred from his malaise Luke decides that this may be his time to be a martyr, but he does so in a way that fuses violence and nonviolence into a beautiful deception that delays the First Order and allows the beleaguered rebels to escape. Using Force projection, Luke created an illusionary copy of himself that enticed (not that it takes much) Kylo Ren into a lightsaber duel. Let’s look at that again, a goal was achieved (the rebels escaped) because a man was tempted to violence (a lightsaber duel) with a phantasm that, but its very ethereal nature could not perform an actual act of violence, because it has no physical form. The tension of violence and nonviolence was released and deeper well-spring of humanity, where the “forces of light” reside was opened.
Yoda’s final words to Luke in The Last Jedi were, “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of another burden “masters” must face. When describing Gandhi, Tagore wrote, “Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and as Christ failed to wean men from their inequities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come.” The burden of the master could well be that feeling of failure for they have laid out a path to follow but few walk it. This could well be the existential source of King’s “agonizing moments.”
Why can’t we follow those roads…those difficult paths laid out by exemplars we supposedly admire? Could it be that attempting to live by the idea “what ought to be” instead of following “what is” is just too difficult? Is it because the road demands so much inner work to be done and we live at a time that gives short shrift to our inner worlds? The inner life of people is a world largely ignored, dangerously misunderstood, and possesses a depth tragically denied by our culture. It may also hold the keys to our ultimate successes. So why not dare to learn and walk the path? Could it be we are afraid? If so, let Luke’s advice to Rey in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker become a call to action, “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi.” Battle on, fellow Jedi. May the Force be With You.
In my previous post, American Addictions, I presented my addiction model for viewing the history of the United States. At the end of that piece the question, “Could understanding and embracing these national virtues – the glory striding alongside the shame – be the keys to a more sober nation?” was posed. Now we will take some time to reflect on those ideals. In 2010 I included a chapter in my book The Comic Book Curriculum where Captain America was utilized to highlight a vision of American Virtues. The chapter only presents Captain America from the comics as the character would not appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe until 2011. I am posting this chapter here to highlight those virtues that we can all aspire to, for by pursuing high ideal we can’t up but elevate all those around us.
Chapter 17: Captain America
Steve Rogers, the man who becomes Captain America, is a man with a sense of mission. The roots of his story reach back to a dark time in American and World History. During World War II the great evil of Nazism threatened to spread across the globe. This is not merely a plot line, but the actual history of the character’s development. Captain America’s first appearance was in March 1941, before America was actively engaged in World War II. The comic routinely depicted Captain America battling the Nazi menace. The first cover of Captain America Comics pictures Captain America, in full red, white and blue uniform, punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Captain America was created to be the defender of America and American values. He would become a symbol of these values as well.
Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America was a conscious decision. Physically frail, Rogers failed an army physical and was not allowed to enlist. His physical weakness belied an exceptionally strong will. Rogers volunteered to participate in a top-secret government project called Operation Rebirth. Seeking an advantage in the war, American scientists invented the super soldier serum. This liquid would, once injected and consumed, imbue the drinker with enhanced strength, dexterity, constitution and endurance. The goal was to generate an army of super-soldiers who would easily overwhelm the enemy and end the war with far less bloodshed and suffering. The experiment proved to be a success as Steve Rogers almost instantly became the personification of physical perfection. The hope for generating an army of super soldiers was quickly crushed, however, because a Nazi spy killed the inventor of the serum and destroyed all his notes. Steve Rogers became the only man to take the potion, making him America’s greatest soldier, coined Captain America by the government.
Super Teams and Astounding Individuals
Rogers fought the Nazi’s and the Japanese throughout World War II, before the war claimed him as well. During a mission in the North Atlantic, a plane crash seemingly claimed the life of America’s greatest soldier. He survived though, encased in a block of ice. Eventually he is awakened from his suspended animation and rejoins the world, a man of the present with the ideals of the past. Is he a walking relic or a walking reminder of all that is good and hopeful about America? Do his values hold sway in the modern world? Perhaps some ideas need to pass away for they have no purpose in the modern world. Such problems plague Captain America, who is physically young and in his prime, but his mind is from a different era. Most of Steve Rogers’ friends are deceased or senior citizens while he is in his early thirties and in prime condition. Such a paradox causes Steve Rogers some confusion, but Captain America is his stabilizing force.
In comics, as evidenced by the X-Men and the Justice League, sometimes superhero groups are formed. These groups are formed for a variety of reasons and the ties that bind them are equally diverse. The Avengers was one such group and they are credited with finding Captain America, but he quickly puts his stamps on the team and, although he does not always lead them, they often follow his example. Such is the strength of his character, even if he, at times, seems displaced in time and the least powerful member of the team. The Avengers line-up has included some of the most powerful heroes in comics, including the technological wonder called Iron Man, Thor the Norse god of thunder, Zeus’ son, Hercules and the Scarlet Witch – whose reality bending powers may make her the most powerful of them all.
All of these incredibly powerful heroes listen to and follow orders from Captain America, not because of his power but who he is. It is most definitely not the starred and stripped uniform and indestructible shield alone that makes Steve Rogers the respected hero Captain America. Many could wear the suit, few could be the man and fewer still could lead the Avengers so effectively. This truth raised the good Captain up and, at times, threatens to wear him down.
Since it is not his powers so much as who he is that makes Captain America special, it is important to understand how he viewed his mission and how successfully he pursued it. Captain America’s own words can be used to begin this process. In a startling chain of events Captain America is killed in March 2007. The Avenger Thor was not on Earth during this episode, but upon his return seeks to say goodbye to his friend and comrade in arms.
Using his mystic hammer, Mjolnir, Thor recalls Captain America’s soul from the afterlife. During the brief conversation, Captain America declares, “All my life, I fought to become a symbol. A symbol of all the things that were right about this country. All the things I loved.” An important question that this raises is what are America’s greatest virtues? We also need to evaluate if Captain America successfully symbolized these virtues. Any number of lists could be generated, but for this chapter the list of American virtues presented by Jacob Needleman in the book American Soul will be used (1).
Needleman discusses not only American virtues, but also the accompanying shadow. Needleman’s list begins with the very American ideal of liberty.
Political liberty means first and foremost the social conditions
necessary to allow this search for one’s own moral or spiritual
light. But this ideal and right has been taken to mean merely the
right to satisfy one’s own subjective desires, whatever they may
be, without any reference to the existence of the moral law within (2).
This definition of liberty speaks to the heart of Captain America’s original mission. The Nazi’s could be seen to symbolize the worst possible scenario of a country dedicated to satisfying one group’s subjective desires. While not all personal desires are as destructive, America has seen its share of the elevation of personal wishes above the existence of any moral law. Liberty debased to a “do what you want when you want” slogan lacks the power to inspire people to stand up for others for a prolonged period of time. Reducing liberty to such a simple base, in fact, saps the momentum out of any civil rights movement or desire for self-improvement. A segregationist in 1962 or an alcoholic in 2009 could both claim to be merely “doing what they want, when they want.” Meanwhile, the black families in the south or the family members impacted by the drinking suffer. When the liberty embraced by an individual or group causes or intensifies the suffering of another then liberty is being threatened, not celebrated.
True liberty demands not only that we act on our individual desires, but develop the compassion to see others have the same rights as well. The defense of liberty demands that stands be taken, some struggles being more obvious than others. In one storyline Captain America attempts to thwart the schemes of the evil Dr. Faustus. Faustus, an arrogant and well-educated man, invents a unique gas. Whoever inhales the toxin becomes a thrall to the whims of Faustus. At one point, Captain America becomes intoxicated but is freed by the intervention of the superhero, Daredevil, who helps awaken his core values.
It is worthwhile to note that Captain America does not free himself from the brainwashing concoction by mere force of will. As Faustus’ pawn, Captain America’s starred and stripped shield was painted over with a blazing swastika. While battling Daredevil oil spills on the shield, causing the swastika to erode. The stars and stripes now visible, Daredevil exhorts Captain America to look at his shield. The narration box informs the reader that, “The light from above glistens across the starred and stripped surface seemingly boring deep through the layers of his befogged mind and into his innermost being!” The symbolic meaning of his true shield awakened within Captain America his “moral or spiritual light.” The symbols that inspire sometimes are far more liberating than mere human will. Captain America’s shield, a symbol of liberty, liberated his mind. As the story continues we see that true liberty as a liberating force is a theme of the story arc and Captain America’s life.
Faustus walks along a catwalk in his zeppelin, gloating to a captured foe that he will soon begin the process of releasing his gas in New York City, placing the entire population under his control. From that point he will patiently allow his influence to spread until he controls the country. Naturally, Captain America arrives and stops the release of the gas. In the struggle between Captain America and Faustus’ mind controlled goons the aircraft crashes into New York Harbor (near the Statue of Liberty). Captain America emerges from the crash, dragging Dr. Faustus behind him. Faustus cries out, “Why…didn’t you let me drown? Faustus…cannot be saved…by you!”
On one level Faustus’ dismay at being saved by Captain America is merely the disgrace of being saved by an archenemy. On another level, however, Captain America is now taking the place of his shield as a symbol of the liberating power of liberty. Faustus represents the lowest form of liberty, seeking his own gratification at the expense of the populace of New York City. His refusal to be saved by Captain America can be seen as quite odd as he is in the process of being saved, at least physically, by the star spangled hero. What he won’t be, what he refuses to let Captain America do for him, is raise him up from his level of thinking. He will not be saved; Captain America and his symbols will not alter his worldview. Faustus’ will and the power to lord over others give him meaning and he refuses to see meaning, or salvation, beyond those desires. This short sightedness mirrors the lack of vision exhibited by the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.
Dr. Faustus’ refusal to be saved by Captain America does not come as a great shock. It also does not disturb Captain America very much that Faustus remains true to his malevolent inclinations. There are times, however, that the refusal of others to pursue the highest virtues of liberty causes Steve Rogers such distress he questions the value of being Captain America.
Doubts of a Hero
An example of this distress is found in the aftermath of Operation Galactic Storm, a storyline that brings Captain America and the Avengers into an intergalactic war. In Galactic Storm two extraterrestrial empires (The Kree and Shi’ar) fight a bitter war, a war that could consume the earth. The Avengers act on Earth’s behalf, hoping to intervene as diplomats and negotiate the wars end or, at least, prevent the use of stargates that could threaten the Earth. Their negotiations are unsuccessful and various teams of Avengers find themselves in small skirmishes and battles. The war continues until the Shi’ar ultimate weapon, the Nega-Bomb, is detonated. This action is taken by the Skrulls, a third alien empire with a long history of hostility with the Kree. The Avengers had once intervened in a Kree-Skrull war years before. The Skrull, a race with shape-shifting abilities, had infiltrated the Sh’iar court with the intent of escalating the war. Their use of the Nega-Bomb kills billions of Kree. This devastating explosion ends the war. Sh’iar Empress Lilandra, though not authorizing the bombs use, takes advantage of the chaos. She declares that the remnants of the Kree Empire will be annexed by the Sh’iar.
Adding to the dreadful conclusion of the war is the discovery of the machinations of the Kree Supreme Intelligence. The Supreme Intelligence is an organic computer life form over a million years old. The being is an amalgamation of the greatest mind since the history of the Kree. Upon the death of any exemplary Kree thinker (scientist, philosopher, general, etc.) the brain patterns are assimilated into a computer and added to the consciousness of the Supreme Intelligence. The Supreme Intelligence orchestrated most of the events of the war, including the use of the Nega-Bomb, because he believed that the Kree had reached an evolutionary dead end. The radioactivity caused by the bob’s fallout would enable the Kree to evolve further. Therefore, the Supreme Intelligence sacrifices the Kree’s present (including the billions of lives lost in the explosion and their independence) for the hopes for a better future.
The Avengers, outraged by this thought, seek to kill the Supreme Intelligence for the crime of genocide. Captain America points out that the Avengers are not executioners. The Supreme Intelligence should be brought before a war crimes commission not hunted down and executed by a super powered mob proclaiming to be pursuing justice. Iron Man disregards Captain America’s orders and heads a group of Avengers to execute the Supreme Intelligence. This action leads to Captain American questioning his capacity to inspire, lead, or even fit in with the Avengers.
His sense of alienation begins with his orders being ignored and a group of Avengers seeking vengeance on the Supreme Intelligence. It deepens when, in the aftermath of the war, the Avengers vote not to have disciplinary action taken against the members who killed the Supreme Intelligence. Captain America’s dejection reaches a nadir when only three superheroes show for a seminar he is giving on superhuman ethics. He apologizes to the three attendees and leaves the dais.
Later that night, Clint Barton (a member of the Avengers who goes by the moniker Hawkeye) invites Steve Rogers out for a drink, hoping to cheer up the living legend. Tony Stark, (Ironman) discovers where the two heroes are and meets them at the bar. Tony, who led the rebellion against Steve’s authority, declares he and Steve need to talk alone. Clint leaves to play pool and the two estranged heroes exchange words.
As the conversation progresses Tony confesses that there was a point during Galactic Storm when he believed Steve was dead. In that moment Tony realized that he would miss Steve Rogers greatly if he died. He confesses, “You’re an inspiration to me, Steve. To a lot of us. We may not think like you or act like you—but we still respect you and appreciate what you do and the way you do it.” With these words, Tony Stark expresses an unfortunate truth, the best role models often can seem daunting because they do things in a way we cannot. While Faustus refused to be saved by Captain America, Tony Stark’s awe expresses not a refusal by a sense of inadequacy that prevents him from being as good as Captain America. He even asks Steve for forgiveness. Steve quickly points out his own shortcomings and compliments Tony on his courage (Tony is a recovering alcoholic and still entered a bar to meet with Steve). This scene is a great reminder that one never knows for certain how their presence inspires another. Steve is comforted by Tony’s words, just as Tony is inspired by Steve’s capacity to live his ideals even in situations that are far from perfect.
Fittingly it is the American virtue of independence that caused the relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers to weaken. The highest manifestation of independence is the ability to move beyond the conditioned self and the conditioned response to events. This conditioning comes from society, our culture, family, and friends. The conditioned self becomes subject to evaluation and, possibly, fidelity to these exterior factors becomes subject to a growing interior conscious self. At the basest level, independence is nothing more than fidelity to one’s own ideological position and “egoistic idiosyncrasy” (3). An authentic sense of independence balances the desires of the individual with the needs of the community and the independent person can freely choose loyalty to the common good, the country, and a cause. Independence does not mean isolation and dismissal of moral law.
Perhaps the best example of Steve Rogers exemplifying the ideal of independence was when he tendered his resignation as Captain America. The President formed a commission that includes, among other U.S. Government officials, the head of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. This commission discovered a document Steve signed in 1941 when he agreed to participate in Operation Rebirth. By the terms of the document Captain America works exclusively for the U.S. government.
Captain America points out that, since his revival from suspended animation, he has been serving the country as a member of the Avengers and as an independent agent. The commission dismisses this argument and states its position that Captain America must have all his activities and assignments cleared by their office. Steve takes twenty-four hours to consider the commission’s demands.
Alone in his apartment he muses that, “…going back to my wartime role as a glorified agent of America’s official policies, I’d be compromising my effectiveness as a symbol that transcends mere politics.” This thought makes it clear what Steve Rogers is going to choose. He returns the next day, dressed in civilian clothes not his Captain America uniform. He acknowledges that Captain America was originally a soldier, bound by a strict chain of command. In the years following his return, Steve Rogers made Captain America much more than that. To become a government agent would force situations where Rogers would have to compromise his ideals for orders. This is a completely unacceptable situation. Therefore, he turns in his uniform and shield. The American ideal of independence, and his effort to live those ideals, prove more important than even the persona he adopted and molded to best inspire others to recognize and live the true American dream.
It is important to note that Steve Rogers does not bear his country malice for the government’s role in his resignation. Taking the title “The Captain,” Steve Rogers resumes being a superhero and works with the Avengers. Thor, returning from a mission in space, visits the Avengers and is surprised to see the changes in Steve Roger’s costume. Upon hearing what has happened, an enraged Thor declares “madman” run the U.S. government and that he will go to Washington to overthrow them. Steve calms Thor down, emphasizing he still believes and respects in the American system of Democracy. His issues with a single administration do not negate his love for country just as his love of country does not dictate the need to be a pawn.
The next American virtue is practicality. Practicality can also be viewed as a form of honesty, an honest forged in experiential reality. Needlman sees American practicality as rooted in ancient Athens and Socrates. This practicality also exists in Christianity and, though it had no influence on the founding of America, Buddhism. One’s inner search to achieve a level of honesty (which would only strengthen one’s liberty and independence) “must be experienced, and not only believed in as dogma or inferred on logical or conceptual grounds” (4). This form of honesty, openly seeking and evaluating the truths of life, has, in Needleman’s estimation; greatly degenerated and American “honesty” is most commonly expressed as a form of cynicism.
Captain America faces this cynicism on a regular basis. Many people, be they government agents or uniformed policemen, view him as a glory-seeking individual. This is an unfortunate aspect of cynicism; the projection of the onlookers motives into the actions of others. If someone cannot conceive of him or herself acting without self-aggrandizement as a primary motivator then they fail to see, or dismiss as delusional, that trait in others. If the cynic decides altruism is misplaced selfishness this enables them to belittle the helpful individual and enables the capacity to comfortably do nothing.
Captain America portrays the higher aspect of this virtue, the experiential reality that expands the scope of one’s vision, in subtle ways. An example of this can be found in the quiet aftermath following a battle. Captain America, the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division), and the Hulk dismantled a vicious organization called the Corporation. One of the villains, a woman who goes by the code name Vamp, was rendered mentally incapacitated by the battle. A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, perhaps angered by all he had to endure to achieve victory, is seen verbally abusing the woman. He calls her tramp and threatens to hit her with the butt of his gun if she does not follow the other captives being led away.
Captain America snatches the agent’s gun and breaks it. He proclaims the woman deserves pity, not abuse. The agent can only see a helpless enemy, one easy to demean and push around. Captain America sees a defeated person. Captain America, who witnessed the cruelty people can heap on the helpless when he freed Jews from concentration camps, does not tolerate the abuse of others, even defeated enemies. With the battle over, he feels malice for none. The agent attempts to hit Captain America, calling him self-righteous as his hand nearly breaks on the hero’s shield. Other agents look to intervene, but are stopped by a stern warning from Captain America, who proceeds to take Vamp into custody.
The Rule of Law
The action of taking a criminal into custody is an apt introduction for the next American virtue – the rule of law. In Needleman’s analysis, as in the life of Captain America, the rule of law is meant to enhance people’s liberty and independence. The laws created by the government are often punitive, designed to punish those who harm the common good. This punitive function of the rule of law is also protective. Government laws protect society. This is done to help create an environment that allows society to orient itself towards the greater dictates of the conscience.
Ralph Waldo Emerson also noted the existence of these two forms of the law, stressing that the laws of man are subservient to a deeper, eternal law. When Emerson wrote, “Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law,” he was not dismissing the laws of man, but merely voicing the desire to see them reflect a greater purpose. This is why he would continue to aid his parents, support his family, and be a good husband, but do so in “a new and unprecedented way” (5). He would not be a slavish follower to the laws of man, but joyfully surrendered himself, after putting forth the serious effort demanded by the highest dictates of liberty and independence, to the moral law of conscience.
The opposite of this position is to allow laws and statutes to replace the conscience. This position demands the acceptance of what is legal as being the equivalent of what is good. In such a system people surrender the highest form of liberty and independence because there is no system above the works of human beings. The founders of America, who routinely broke the laws of England during the years leading up to the American War for Independence, surely were not endorsing such thinking. It is a thin line that separates the rule of law from the tyranny of the law. It is also not Captain America’s understanding of the law, as he stated when he resigned, “My commitment to the ideals of this country is greater than my commitment to a 40 year old document.”
The Rule of Law and the Butcher of Diebenwald
Captain America exhibits his respect for both forms of the law in the field as well as when standing before a government commission. In a dramatic story with a simple beginning, Steve Rogers moves into an apartment building. One of the tenants, Anna Kapplebaum, always invites new arrivals to dinner. Steve, who does have a strong respect for traditions, accepts the invitation. He and Josh, a resident who extended the invitation for Anna, have dinner with her that evening.
When Steve meets Anna he sees numbers on her wrist, a souvenir from World War II. In a flashback Anna explains that her family had been sent to Diebenwald, a concentration camp invented for the story. They were taken captive after Kristallnacht. Her mother and father died in the camp when she was twelve. She stayed in the camp throughout the war, but her death seemed imminent as the war neared its conclusion. The commandant of Diebenwald ordered all records in the camp to be destroyed and all remaining prisoners to be executed. Anna was poised to share her parents fate, but Captain America arrived and saved her. She never realizes that she is sharing a meal with Captain America in his civilian clothes. Nor does she or Steve realize she will soon meet Captain America again.
Leaving a butcher shop a short time later, Anna bumps into a man she recognizes. Not only recognizes, but is terrified to see again. She faints and Josh rushes her to a hospital. The man she encountered was Dr. Mendelhaus, a man known as the Butcher of Diebenwald.
In the hospital Aaron Heller, a Nazi hunter, and his daughter, Marie, visit Anna. He shows Anna a cane that has notches carved in it, one for every Nazi he has visited justice on. Aaron, who also bears a concentration camp brand, is in poor health. He wishes to bring Dr. Mendelhaus to justice before he dies. Anna agrees to help punish the man directly responsible for her parent’s death. A neo-Nazi working in the hospital as a janitor sees Aaron leave Anna’s room and quickly organizes for her to be kidnapped.
Anna is brought to an abandoned church, where she sees Dr. Mendelhaus kneeling before a picture of Adolf Hitler. He tries to explain that he has been forced to the church and is as much a prisoner as Anna. His past, and his inability to remember Anna, earns him no sympathy. As the Nazis prepare to take their two prisoners to a boat Captain America makes a dramatic entrance. He is once again battling to free Anna from Nazi’s.
As Captain America routs his foes, one Nazi leads Anna and Dr. Mendelhaus to the boat in an attempt to escape. Aaron and Marie Heller intercept him, but Aaron suffers a heart attack and he drops his gun. The lone Nazi gunman takes aim at Aaron, only to be disarmed by Dr. Mendelhaus. The doctor proclaims that there has been enough killing; that it has to end. Anna picks up the gun and prepares to shoot Mendelhaus, even as Captain America arrives and objects to the execution. Much as he did during the Galactic Storm storyline, Captain America seeks to bring the villain, in this case Mendelhaus to the courts. Good people, like Anna, shouldn’t need to kill to feel safe. Captain America’s understanding of the rule of law as a protector of citizens is on full display in this scene, though the reader may wish to see Anna pull the trigger. In the end, Captain America’s words cause Anna to hesitate.
Marie Heller, cradling her dying father’s head, does not hold back. She shoots and kills Mendelhaus. His last word is “Anna.” Marie then tells her father, “The Butcher of Diebenwald is dead… it’s finally over.” Captain America does not echo this victorious sentiment. Justice that is not balanced by mercy cannot bring about release from the vicious cycle of violence. The story does not reveal, though readers can certainly discuss, what action Captain America takes in regards to Marie. Would he arrest her for the murder of Dr. Mendelhaus or let her go free with a caustic warning?
The Freedom of Speech
The final virtue of America to be covered is the freedom of speech. Needleman stresses that freedom of speech is necessary to allow people to discuss, evaluate, and build a community’s conscience. Freedom of speech is also dependent on freedom of thought. Thoughts churned and reflected upon in solitude can be brought to the community, allowing our inner and outer worlds to coalesce with those of others. This process is not without tension, but can increase the sense of partnership as truths are sought amongst societal and familial norms.
Needleman’s assessment of the current state of freedom of speech is a scathing indictment. Freedom of speech has descended to a level that caused him to write;
How much of what we prize as the right to free speech is based on
a loneliness that makes us yearn for others to pay more attention to
us? How to understand the decay of this ideal into the sanctification
of superficial opinion, on the one hand, or commercial communication
on the other? How to understand that we are losing the knowledge
function of the community, that the hard work of thinking together is
being eclipsed by the addiction to information…and by our society’s
attachment to applications of knowledge that bring only egoistic and
often illusionary gain? (6)
The phrase “sanctification of superficial opinion” speaks directly to the level of discourse that can be found in the society. It also recognizes the existence of expertise, something that speaks to the reality that some “opinions” are more valuable than others. The sanctification of any opinion, however, enables expertise to be sneered at and experts to be dismissed as elitists. It also enables individuals to hold their own opinion as sacrosanct and not engage in open or honest dialogue. Why would someone need the input of others when possession of the truth is already in their hands?
Captain America rarely addressed this issue in life, though we do see him support freedom of speech as a matter of course. From beyond the grave, however, he echoed Needleman’s sentiment. As the evaluation of Captain America as a standard to evaluate America virtues started at his grave, so there shall it end. Thor, much as he was when Steve Rogers resigned, is outraged. Thor proclaims murder to be unforgivable. He states with unshakeable conviction, “…if you would have me take action against those responsible for your death—-you will be avenged in full.” What it means to a Viking god to avenge a fallen friend in full is left to the reader’s imagination.
The Gift of Silence
Captain America, as he had done before, turns down Thor’s offer. He expresses one regret, that his life is now being used to advocate whatever is most convenient or to serve a political agenda. He bemoans the fact that he can hear the media talking nonstop about something they don’t understand. Captain America was always about the best virtues of America, not a particular political stance of the advancement of one’s career and notoriety. The media “can’t hear that truth above their own voices.”
Thor honors his friend’s wish to not seek revenge and says goodbye, allowing Captain America to return to the afterlife. He does offer a gift, however. Flying into the upper atmosphere he summons an intense electrical storm that interrupts all newscasts, radio stations, satellite and cable broadcasts. He does this at the precise moment that Captain America had died the year before. His anniversary gift to his comrade is a true moment of silence, freeing him from the numbing effects of freedom of speech manifested as the sanctification of superficial opinion. The moment of silence lasts a minute before Thor allows communication to continue. This action may speak to an important aspect of freedom of speech, which is the necessity of silence to ponder the value of what we say. Perhaps even to learn to enjoy saying nothing as we allow our thoughts to age slowly and become something worth sharing.
(1) Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, (New York, Penguin Group Inc., 2002), p. 19-25.
(2) Ibid, 20.
(3) Ibid., 21. An egoistic idiosyncrasy is any trait that is any trait a person has that they deem essential to their character, even if its removal does not truly change the person’s inner world. The argument that dress codes violate a person’s ability to express themselves falls into this category. A creative person cannot just find, but is comfortable with, expressing their creativity in a variety of manners regardless of the clothes they wear. The attachment to a particular clothing style as an essential form of expression is, therefore, an example of egocentric idiosyncrasy.
(4) Ibid., 21.
(5) Larzer Ziff (Editor) Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, ( New York, Penguin Books, 1982), p. 192.
(6) Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, (New York, Penguin Group Inc., 2002), p. 25.
The addiction model of United States history is an approach to the story of America I have utilized in my classroom for a long time. I believe it creates a framework of pain and hope for discussing the ever developing nation. It also allows for an intricate web of interrelated issues that allows my students an opportunity to delve into the nuance of history and humanity that blunt yes/no questions and singular proclamations (America is X) simply don’t allow. I’ve decided to post this metaphor here for my current students so they (particularly distance learners) can access it, but also for former students looking for a walk down memory lane and anyone else looking for a metaphor for considering what exactly America “is.”
Start at the Beginning
Over a decade ago (likely 15 years now) I introduced students to my United States History class with the metaphoric statement “America is a Crack Baby” written on the board. The students were (as perhaps you are) surprised and curious. Some nervous laughter found a home in the space but everyone was on alert. The unspoken question flowing from attentive eyes was, “Where is this going?”
Where indeed? The first step, of course, was to clarify the mystery of what a metaphor was. I made it clear to the class that I was saying an item on one side of the sentence (Crack Baby) has so much in common with the seemingly unrelated item on the other side (America) that they were, in fact, deeply related. If the metaphor could not be unpackaged in a sensible manner, however, then it was merely a shocking statement to write on the board but lacking any true value.
That process begins by defining what a crack baby is. To allow for the fact that other substances could have been utilized in the metaphor (heroin, alcohol) we settled on, “A baby born addicted to a harmful substance that hinders growth and development.” It was also noted that the parents’ behavior was the reason for the impacted child. The United States can also be seen as being “born” in the late 18th century addicted to certain “harmful substances” because of their parents (a combination of Britain’s approach to Empire and the historic era that the United States was born into). While the crack baby is born addicted to (and hindered by) crack the question for the class was, “What was the harmful substance…the ‘crack’…the United States was born addicted to?” After some discussion and prodding the three “substances” were revealed: imperialism, racism, and sexism. The next step was to see how these forces play out in the addiction model of U.S. History.
In the course of guessing the addictions students almost always, without fail, throw out words like power, money, and freedom. Freedom, I tell them, is not a harmful substance – which our definition calls for – but it is part of the story. So we tuck it away for future use. Power and money are subcategories of a larger topic so those are placed on the board until the word Imperialism is found. With a little prodding the word is always found due to previous classes and memorable lessons. While for some it is a word that “rings a bell” they don’t have a clear definition, so one is provided. Simply put, imperialism is the contest for world power. A contest Britain competed in with exceptional skill. Looking at imperialism through the 18th century lens the students noted land was necessary to gain power (there’s that word). The land which nations sought had to have resources, otherwise they wouldn’t be desirable. These resources became the basis for money and wealth (that’s now covered too) and could be gained through different means. Inevitably some of the nation’s wealth would be invested in the military for the purpose of gaining new land and protecting resources.
Students don’t always see the imperialistic impulse of the United States (though they do see the desire for money/wealth and power). To help make this point I simply ask, how many states were in the United States originally? Obviously, 13. How many now? 50. How did the number go from 13 to 50? Did the United States receive new states as birthday gifts on the Fourth of July? That’s just foolish. Two events in U.S. History helps bring the participation in the contest to light: The Louisiana Purchase and The Mexican-American War.
The Louisiana Purchase effectively doubled the size of the United States while granting us an opportunity to witness economic imperialism. The Mexican-American War led to the immediate acquisition of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, the western half of New Mexico, the western quarter of Colorado, and the southwest corner of Wyoming. It also set in motion the events that would lead to Texas becoming a state. Students often don’t realize the United States fought a war with Mexico or that Mexico held so much extra territory in the mid-19th century. The time to delve into these (and other) events unfold as the school year progresses, but for this presentation it suffices to note they did happen and led to the acquisition of large swaths of land we now know to be part of the United States.
A Pause for Power
Power is a concept that I like to pause on, and briefly delve into, when discussing this metaphor. Power is pervasive, but people often fail to take into consideration their contribution to its presence. Far too many people take pride in pointing out the power hungry among us and fail to see the log in their own eye. It is this predilection to moral superiority which will ultimately ruin relationships, families, communities, and nations.
Think about the romantic relationships of four or five of your friends. Do they seem more like partnerships or power struggles to you? Think about a group of four friends. There is sometimes a leader (the one with the most power) in the group. All goes smoothly provided this individual goes unchallenged. He or she suggests option A for tonight’s entertainment and, when all acquiesce, all is fine. But what if someone proposes option B and the others agree? An argument breaks out, not because option A is so much better, but because power has shifted.
Now, you might say, “These sound like immature people.” Why yes, but how many immature folks – teenagers and adults – do you know? Do you have co-workers or employers that use psychological or emotional arguments to sway you (in school that often equates to “think of the kids” proclamations)? Are the “kids” (or whatever totem is utilized) what the person actually seems to care about or just a manipulative lever to push while their eyes are on power?
In the end I believe societies and nations covet power because people do. In ways large and small people scramble for power. I sometimes fear people can’t find common ground because they don’t want it…they want victory and superiority. They contend society taught them this but “Society” is often little more than an illusionary foe as it is the competing hearts, minds, and drives of the citizens that matter. If we could learn to master humanity, society would follow suit.
The second addiction we shall discuss is racism. A most disturbing symptom of this addiction is slavery. Some people mark 1619 as the start of slavery in the new world. Of course, historic records show that in 1565 the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to what is now St. Augustine, Florida. The point being, both years are well before the date we would use to mark the “birth” of the United States (some would give 1776 as the birth year because of the Declaration of Independence while others might declare the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as the delivery room). Either way, slavery was in the New World well before the United States was a nation. Slavery, of course, anchored itself in the soil tilled by racial prejudice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Frederick Douglass. Bobby Seale. Thaddeus Stevens. Malcolm X. Mark Twain. Stokely Carmichael. I am sure you recognize many of those names and can identify their role in history. Have you ever considered they all fill the role of interventionist? How many million more have played the role of interventionist for the addict that is the United States? In the journey of recovery many addicts have had to be brought to an intervention. Addicts often deny their addiction and rail against those seeking to assist them. Progress is made but often not without backsliding or relapse. The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, post-civil rights struggles, and into the Black Lives Matters movement. So much time and effort put forth on behalf of the addict to show the depths of their fall and, unfortunately, share stories of damage done.
“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” These words were written by Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband John on March 31, 1776. Her words did not become part of the spirit of the age, for when the Constitution came into existence a decade later, “the Ladies” were not remembered. The sins of the “ancestors” were planted in fresh soil and the addiction cycle continued.
We step forward to 1837 and read the righteous anger of Angelina Grimke as she rails against the reality that “…people are so diligently taught to despise us for thus stepping out of the ‘sphere of woman!’” This frustration found a collective voice in the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. We could continue this march for quite some time but allow me to end in a less historically significant event, the packing up and cleaning out of my Grandmother’s apartment.
Quite a few years ago my grandmother died and the ritual of cleaning out her side of the duplex she had owned for so long began. Gram was not one to part with…well…anything so there was MUCH work to be done. In the course of cleaning a box of old report cards was discovered. My Grandmother must have been a pretty good student as her eighth grade report card was all A’s…nice job! There were no other report cards and I wondered if they had been lost. Not exactly. What was lost was opportunity.
Gram went to work in a factory in her mid- teens, a job she held until retirement. Education beyond 8th grade would not be part of her life’s experience, but it would be part of her daughter’s, as my mother graduated college and became a teacher and her daughter is now a college professor. Our stories are often generational with progress and struggle existing in the same moment by different players on our trembling American stage.
Finding Hope in the Metaphor
The educationalist and writer Parker J. Palmer posits that there needs to be more attention paid to the human “heart and soul,” both in education and in life. Here is Palmer’s explanation of what he means by this proclamation:
First, the core human reality that “heart and soul” language points to has been given many names by diverse traditions. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine in every being. Christians may call it spirit, though some (e.g., the Quakers) call it the inner teacher, and Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk) called it true self. Secular humanists call it identity and integrity. Depth psychologists call it the outcome of individuation. And there are common idioms for it in everyday speech, as when we say of someone we know and care about, “He just isn’t himself these days”, or, “She seems to have found herself.”
What one names this core of the human being is of no real consequence to me, since no one can claim to know its true name. But that one names it is, I believe, crucial. For “it” is the ontological reality of being human that keeps us from regarding ourselves, our colleagues or our students as raw material to be molded into whatever form serves the reigning economic or political regime. (http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/heart-and-soul/)
In these words I hear the hope of the addiction model of US History. I have read accounts of addicts feeling a deep pull from within to become more than they were allowing themselves to be. Perhaps it was their “inner teacher” or the desire to embrace a fuller “identity” that dragged them towards sobriety. As Palmer states, I don’t care what we call that drive, I merely recognize the fact addicts have shared the experience of an inner call to improvement.
Independence. Liberty. Freedom. Rule of Law. Perhaps these time-honored ideals comprise the inner voice of the United States that can pull the nation from the throes of addiction. They have been here from the beginning as well. Could understanding and embracing these national virtues – the glory striding alongside the shame – be the keys to a more sober nation? Wouldn’t that be exceptional?
I often hear people speak of what America “is.” Their proclamations often sound stagnant; creating a nation that cannot shift for fear of the very earth beneath our feet opening to an abyss. Others simply sound arrogant, placing themselves on a moral high ground as they trumpet their superiority over their fellow citizens and nation of origin. Yet, if this nation was all vice and no virtue, how could so many (both famous and unknown) exemplars be a part of the fabric. I say America is a crack baby. An addict who will frustrate and enrage…but can also find sobriety. An addict that can be liberated from the depth of addiction if provided the right combination of support, love, community, heart, and soul.
Hello P3ers and honored quests. It has been a strange year, with traditions great and small cast aside while anxiety and fears gripping the hearts of many. Joy and hope, however, endures. It always does. Always. I often end my school year with a graduation address delivered to my P3 class at NFA but, alas, that is impossible. Therefore, I have decided to post it here – so, for my P3 class and any visitors who find their way here: this one is for you. Let this be our last lesson.
A Wonderful Place to Start
The great Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come” (Mandela 460).
Consider that thought, especially as you prepare to leave the campus of the Norwich Free Academy for the last time as a student. The campus is a beautiful place, so breath deep and enjoy the “glorious vista that surrounds.” Come for a final walk and allow the grandeur of Slater Museum (we have a museum on campus for crying out loud) to impress rather than simply be the place you waited for a ride home. Allow the cherry blossoms to serenely guide you to the center of campus like an old friend simultaneously saying hello and goodbye. Your campus can be looked upon with fresh eyes if you push the mind beyond familiarity.
Please do, however, consider this idea: a place’s beauty is never the physical surroundings alone. A building, no matter how impressive the architecture, is an empty husk without the people who bring soul to cold stone and brick. They are part of your story and you, part of theirs.
This is your last lesson but I would not be me if I did not assign some homework. As you marvel at the victories won, obstacles overcome, and the memories created allow me to posit this idea: an appreciative heart adds joy to your life. I challenge you to test my hypothesis by considering the people who made a difference for you along the way. Maybe your parents, an uncle or aunt, a (heaven forbid) teacher, or coach. The list is almost limitless. If a particular person brings you a sense of gratitude why not send that individual a heartfelt text, email, or letter? (Old people like letters by the way). Do this not only to express your thanks but because joy felt can only be increased by joy shared.
There is more to this moment than looking back, we must also look ahead…
The Road Goes Ever On and On…
Early in The Fellowship of the Ring Sam pauses as he and Frodo begin their quest. He notes, “If I take one more step I will be farther from the Shire than I’ve ever been.” I wonder how many of you feel that way? Many reading this will never be back to NFA (or another high school) as a student again. You are about to go farther than you likely realize. Again we turn to Mandela: “We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…” (Mandela 460). Your road will be difficult, make no mistake. I hope I (and all the teachers you encountered along the way) gave you something useful to help you on your way.
An Important Question
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) posited this important question: “Is man, as in his nature till now, prepared to assume dominion over the whole earth?” Heidegger’s intensity is unmistakable – perhaps even off putting – but what an important idea. Not, to be clear, that any individual will have (or should have) dominion over the earth: but can you be worthy of such a position? Can we (can that ever elusive ‘we’ even be found at this point) be worthy of ascending in such a manner? What would that look like and why does it mater?
Too Big a Question…So It Goes
Wouldn’t it be nice if we can simply lift a magic hammer or pull a sword from a stone to confirm our worthiness? That’s not how it goes, but becoming people of character…becoming and training ourselves to be what Philip Zimbardo calls “heroes in waiting” may be one of the most important ideas to consider.
In the movie Lincoln the 16th President extolls his inner circle to garner the final votes needed to pass the 13th Amendment. He declares, “The fate of human dignity is in our hands!” I’m a history teacher. The fate of human dignity will likely never be in my hands. My part in the river of time is not that grand. Such is the case for most people. That, however, is what we call a macro-story – where thousands to millions of lives are in the hands of one or a few. There are also micro-stories – those small stories where an individual’s personal dignity or emotional stability will be in your hands. Will you be ready for that moment? That’s an important part of education and learning. That’s one of the underlying purposes and glories of human interaction; to be of service when another is in emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical distress and you are equipped to aid him or her. When you do that you become a hero. I hope everyone reading these words shines brightly in those heroic moments.
…Now Far Ahead the Road Has Gone, and I Must Follow it if I can
Follow it if I can. If I can. That’s the whole ballgame. Do you have what it takes to follow the road. Hidden in that phrase, however, is an important nugget of wisdom. You can fall and stumble on the road. You can suffer defeats and have short comings revealed. After all, it doesn’t say “follow the road perfectly”! When the hardships on the road of trials knock yo down, get up and keep following the road…or blaze a new path if necessary. So many stories in P3 focus on the necessity of getting up. Alfred asking Bruce Wayne,“Why do we fall?” The answer, “To learn to get back up.” Rocky Balboa’s famous “It ain’t how hard you hit” speech or Jackie Robinson “living the sermon”in 42. The final word on this topic, perhaps fittingly, goes to the iconic Morgan Freeman speaking in Shawshank Redemption. Simply put, “Get busy living, or get busy dying. Damn Right.”
Back to Today’s Purpose
Thankfully, this is not that moment. You aren’t here because you have fallen on the road and need inspiration to rise. No, this is a moment to say goodbye and to wish you well.
This is a time to say thank you. As my students know – even those who had their time with me interrupted by a pandemic – my classroom is a place for discussion and dialogue; and I will miss out conversations.
This will be our final “conversation.” So goodbye and farewell. Go find your place in the field. In the circle of life. Things won’t always be easy, but just keep swimming with the knowledge a gray haired wizard roots for you from the Shire. Perhaps a token has been granted to you that maybe…just maybe…will help you earn the right to make your mark.