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How to transform your life by being like Captain America

(Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios)

“Because the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.”

—Dr. Abraham Erskine, Captain America: The First Avenger

When I first got into comics as a kid I thought Captain America was one of the most boring and cheesiest characters.  I didn’t find him as exciting or compelling as I did characters like Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Batman.  He just wasn’t… cool.

Let’s face it:  In some ways, Cap really is a ridiculously dated character.  That uniform, that shield, with the stars and stripes—the red, white and blue.  It would be laughably jingoistic if one didn’t keep in mind the World War II-era in which the character was created where such patriotic imagery was not only the norm it was arguably pivotal in mobilizing the public’s morale.

When I became a man—rather, when I finally became a real  man—I put away childish things, and among these things was the desire to be cool. Supplanting this frivolous desire was the desire to be noble and true and good. And because of this, once I had rediscovered Captain America he became one of my absolute favorite superheroes.  The reason is that he is one of the greatest exemplifications of the superhero archetype in its highest form and represents its ideals better than just about any other character save for a small handful.

As such, Steve Rogers/Captain America is among the dozen or so character archetypes from myth, both ancient and modern, that I invoke and “pray to” most often. The others include such luminaries as King Arthur, the Roman god Mercury, a few darker archetypes and even guys like Jesus, the Buddha and Lucifer (uh, yeah, let’s not get into that right now). So Cap is in very high company indeed.

Always a Hero

Steve Rogers had everything stacked against him. He was born in the Lower East Side (back when it was ghetto and not the hipster enclave it is now) into a poor family and lost both his parents at a young age. Physically, he was scrawny and feeble to the extreme, so much so that when he tried to enlist in the army during WWII he was turned away. All that changed, as we know, with Dr. Erskine’s Super Soldier serum.

And yet more than any other character that I know of in the Marvel (and even DC) universe, Steve Rogers didn’t become  a hero.  He always was one.  The newfound “powers” given to him by the serum and Vita-Rays—optimal speed, strength, agility and endurance—didn’t make him who he was. Everything he eventually became he was already to begin with, at least in his heart. He was honest. He was brave. He was committed to helping others. He was almost Christ-like in his selflessness. The enhanced physical abilities he received later simply gave him the outward power and the tools to apply his values and principles in a far more dramatic, efficacious way.

"A weak man knows the value of strength."
“A weak man knows the value of strength.” (Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios)

Even after his physical transformation, he was still nothing spectacular when compared to most other popular superheroes. He wasn’t hyper-intelligent like Hank Pym and Tony Stark. Nor was he mega-wealthy like Black Panther and Tony Stark. Nor was he very powerful like Thor and Tony Stark. He wasn’t even funny like Spider-Man and Tony Stark. The guy is, admittedly, boring in certain ways.

And yet when it comes to honor, integrity and principle, no one can even come close to Cap. No one else can see the strengths and the good in others as he can, or to get them to work as a team together as well as he can. And no one is as willing to get his ass kicked or even die as a matter of sheer principle (remember in the Avengers movie when he takes on Loki single-handedly or challenges Tony Stark to go “put on the suit”? Does he have even a minute chance of beating either of those guys? Hell, no, but that’s quintessential Cap for you).  And that is why he leads the Avengers and commands respect from almost every other hero in the Marvel universe no matter how powerful. He is certainly the physically weakest character, as far as I know, who has ever been deemed worthy enough to lift Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, something even titanically powerful characters have been unable to do.

None of this is to say Cap is perfect. Like DC’s great idealist, Superman, he can be inflexible, myopic and see the world in black-and-white when often what the world needs are heroes like Batman and Wolverine who can operate within the many shades of grey. But the main point that I want to make about Steve Rogers is that long before he became, or even imagined he could become, Captain America, he was already a superhero on the inside.

Excalibur and the Holy Grail

Now this brings us back to the aforementioned Mjolnir, Marvel’s version of the Norse god of thunder’s hammer.

Mjolnir is an archetypal cousin to another symbol of great power being granted to one worthy of wielding it: Excalibur. And going further, Steve Rogers himself is actually a modern embodiment of a much older heroic archetype, King Arthur.  Arthur, before he became king, was a nobody, virtuous and noble in spirit but low in social stature with little power or influence.  Excalibur gave him the ability, power and resources to be on the outside what he already was on the inside. Sound familiar?

Despite his fragile body, Rogers (Arthur) displayed such authentic bravery, heroism and purity of heart—even in the face of ridicule and disbelief—that Fortune gave him a chance, and that chance was the Super Soldier serum (Excalibur) which transformed his body into a perfect specimen.  Armed with a distinct, indestructible shield (again, a form of Excalibur) he became a superhero in his own right and then went on further to lead a team of “knights,” the Avengers (the Round Table).

image left: Marvel Comics / image right: Annie Leibovitz, "Disney Dream Portraits"
(left: Marvel Comics / right: Annie Leibovitz, ‘Disney Dream Portraits’)

There is another Arthurian archetype whose mold Captain American fits into and that is Sir Galahad, the most virtuous of the Knights of the Round Table, more virtuous even than Sir Percival or Arthur himself. It is Galahad to whom the Holy Grail was eventually granted. One of the gifts the Grail endows is the gift of healing and rejuvenation. The Super Soldier serum is therefore very much a modern manifestation of the Grail as well.

For his unfailing courage, integrity and purity of heart, life gave both Excalibur (power) and the Grail (rejuvenation) to the frail but courageous boy from the Lower East Side (Brooklyn in the movie version), illustrating one of Hermeticism’s central tenets, which is that inside becomes outside. As above, so below. As within, so without.

Applying the Lesson in Real Life

How, then, does this apply to us, people living in a reality far more complex than that of comic books or movies? The primary lesson of Captain American (and there are many) that I want to bring attention to here is this:

Do not wait for easier or better life circumstances so that you can unfold your potential and become the person you want to be.  Cultivate, right now, the inner strength and courage to meet those difficult circumstances head on.  In fact, it is striving amidst those very difficult or challenging circumstances, not enjoying the absence of them, that will make you the hero you are capable of being.

When you are feeling disempowered, weak, trapped, stuck, defeated—whatever it may be and for whatever reasons or circumstances—this is precisely when you must rise to the occasion.  Even if the last thing you feel like is a hero, as you address the problems of daily life, including the petty and stupid ones, simply know and believe that you are and act accordingly (not with arrogance but with humility, patience and dignity, like ol’ Cap) and sooner or later, no matter how long it takes, your life circumstances will begin to shift and change for the better (as within, so without).

We can face all problems, big and small, with the spirit of a hero.
Even if we feel weak and small, we can face all our problems with the spirit of a hero. (Paramount Pictures)

Steve Rogers’ transformation was instant and spectacular but this is how myths often symbolize what, in real life, are long, arduous processes that take a very long time and genuinely superhuman effort. Your own Excalibur and Holy Grail will also most likely not come to you as sudden revelations or turning points. They will not necessarily grant you power, prestige, and the authority to rule over kingdoms. But there is more than one kind of strength and power, and there is more than one kind of rebirth.

Don’t ever doubt it. Should you persist to think, speak and act like a hero—in other words, working hard and intelligently while also exhibiting kindness, compassion and love to the world around you—then sooner or later, even in adverse circumstances, your life will start to improve in certain ways. Remember that nothing, and absolutely nothing, happens without other people helping you to make it happen, and this goes especially for any kind of improvement of your life.

In my first post on Iron Man I talked about the world as a kind of vast, interconnected web in which every action has a consequence. The idea of karma is quite real but there is nothing mystical or metaphysical about it. It is simple cause and effect. It is like Newton’s third law of motion applied to the realm of human psychology. If you are good enough to enough people over a long enough period of time, eventually all this energy put out will start to come back to you. Sooner or later, a Dr. Erskine will see you for who you are and give you the break you need. Just remember that “Dr. Erskine” is usually not just one person but many, and that his “Super Soldier serum” can take many forms. It can be money, favors or services rendered but when it comes from enough people over enough time, this can translate into improved life circumstances.

Transforming your own life will not be as instant or dramatic as this, but that doesn’t mean a transformation isn’t possible (Paramount Pictures)

Mind you, not everyone you are good to will be good in return. Some will forget, use you or take you for granted and that’s just life. Either continue loving them unconditionally if you can manage that or just stop giving them your energy and save it for those who deserve it (it’s your choice and there’s no wrong choice there). But if you use this as a pretext for holding back from helping and loving others you’ll essentially be setting fire to your karmic crop before you’ve had a chance to harvest it. And this is usually the problem with people who try to be good but eventually give up. They do it for a while but it doesn’t seem to cause dramatic changes in a short period of time, so they get frustrated and then stop trying.

And so the key isn’t just being good. It is being good despite life’s vicissitudes and despite the sense that it often feels like it doesn’t get you anywhere. The key is to be good for its own sake, otherwise you won’t be able to maintain it in the face of discouragement (and you will  be discouraged).

I also have to throw in the added warning that no matter how good and kind you are to people, if you just do nothing and sit around all day your life will not change. There’s no more room here to discuss the other lessons that Cap offers us, but it’s worth nothing that he is both a consummate strategist and a man of action. This means that he plans and he acts on those plans dynamically.

Asking For Help

Cap also enlists help. He knows that he can’t accomplish certain things by himself so he frequently asks for help from others. And here’s the thing: they usually say yes. They say yes for all the reasons I’ve laid out above. So this  is how you will transform your life, through the help of others and by being a person of honor and integrity so that they will feel compelled to say yes when you ask them for help—just as in Avengers vs. X-Men #11, when even the Hulk (famous for saying things like “No, go away!” or “Leave Hulk alone!”) says yes when Cap asks for his help.

Avengers vs. X-Men #11 (Marvel Comics)

All this isn’t just some cheap, dime-store philosophy. It is deceptively simply wisdom that is as hard to actually practice as it is simple and obvious (for it is the simple truths that are often most hard to live out). I can’t prove to you that this works in an empirical way. I can only offer my own experience as evidence. Because even as I write this, I myself am witnessing the fruits of my own long-term efforts to be like Captain America—a hero who is always a hero, who does not wait for a better situation to be a better person, and who does not let problems, challenges and suffering become excuses to be a rotten human being.

And as my situation slowly improves, I would like to think that also like Captain America, I will never forget what and where I used to be and the lessons learned there, so that I will not ever abuse my blessings, squander them or take them for granted. And that I will use any and all gifts in the service of good.

Because a weak man knows the value of strength.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.