“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 edgier characters like Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Batman, and Punisher. He just wasn’t… cool.
And even now, let’s face it: In some ways, Cap really is a ridiculously dated character. That uniform, that shield, the stars and stripes, the red, white and blue. It would almost be laughably jingoistic if one doesn’t keep in mind the World War II-era in which the character was created, when such patriotic imagery was not only the norm it was arguably pivotal in mobilizing the public’s morale.
So, yes. In some ways Captain America is cheesy and dated. But when I became a man—rather, when I finally became a real man—I put away childish things, and among these was the desire to be “cool.” Supplanting this frivolous desire was the more mature desire to be good, to be genuine, to be noble and true. Because of this, once I rediscovered Captain America (largely thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Chris Evans’ soulful portrayal) he became one of my absolute favorite superheroes. This character is truly one of the greatest exemplifications of the superhero archetype and represents the ideals of that archetype better than just about any other character, excepting just a few.
As such, Steve Rogers/Captain America is now among the handful of character archetypes from myth, both ancient and modern, that I mentally and spiritually channel most often. This is because I believe he is an exemplary model for how to live and act in such a way that not only do we improve and transform ourselves and our own lives, but in the process we end up transforming society. This post will discuss some of the reasons why.
Do Not Wait to Become a Hero
Steve Rogers had everything stacked against him. In the comics, 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. In the MCU he’s from Brooklyn but also from humble beginnings. Physically, he was scrawny and feeble to the extreme, so much 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.
More than any other character that I know of in the Marvel (or even DC) universe, Steve Rogers didn’t become a hero, certainly not because of the Super Soldier serum. He was always a hero, psychologically speaking (mutants, for instance, are born with powers but may not yet be heroes in spirit). This is all the more true because Steve didn’t have any of the strengths and resources that most superhero characters attain or discover before they start acting more heroic. The newfound “powers” given to him by the serum and Vita-Rays—optimal speed, strength, agility and endurance—didn’t make Steve 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 stood up for the powerless despite the fact that he didn’t have much power himself. 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.
Even after his physical transformation, he was still nothing spectacular compared to most other popular superheroes. He wasn’t hyper-intelligent like Hank Pym and Tony Stark, or mega-wealthy like Danny Rand and Tony Stark, or powerful like Thor and Tony Stark. He wasn’t even funny like Spider-Man and Tony Stark (do you detect a Tony Stark pattern?). 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 these guys? 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 least powerful character, as far as I know, who has ever been deemed worthy to lift Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, something even supremely powerful characters have been unable to do.
None of this is to say Cap is perfect. He can be inflexible, myopic and see the world in black-and-white when sometimes what the world needs are heroes like Batman, Wolverine, and Deadpool who can operate within 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 hero on the inside. What’s cool and profound about this for real-life people like ourselves is that all of Cap’s most important attributes are within our reach. People often talk about how someone could become a real-life Batman. To me that’s high fantasy. You would need vast wealth, resources, and time to even come close to anything like a real-life Batman, even just mentally speaking. But a real-life Captain America, in terms of his psychological and emotional qualities, is much more within our reach.
The Parallels in Ancient Myth and Legend
Now this brings us back to the aforementioned Mjolnir, Marvel’s version of the Norse god of thunder’s hammer.
As a symbol, Mjolnir is an archetypal cousin to another symbol of great power being granted to one worthy of 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, Steve Rogers (King 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 (also 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).
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. In its symbolism of rebirth, 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 (or Brooklyn, if you prefer), illustrating one of the central tenets of the mystical philosophy of Hermeticism, which is that inside becomes outside. As above, so below. As within, so without. It also exemplifies the Hermetic principle of spiritual alchemy, that of taking our pain and transmuting it into gold.
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 America (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 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 a hero and act accordingly, not with arrogance but with humility, patience and dignity, just like Cap. 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).
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 herculean effort. Your own Excalibur and Holy Grail will also most likely not come to you as sudden revelations or turning points. They will come as achingly slow changes that will be hard to notice at first. They will also 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.
Do not doubt this. Or, rather, I should say that you will probably doubt it from time to time since you are human. But don’t let the doubt make you behave in ways less than how you’re capable of behaving. If you persist in thinking, speaking, and acting 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. It may take a while but patience is also a heroic virtue.
These life improvements don’t happen magically. They usually happen through the help and interaction of people. Remember that nothing on this earth, absolutely nothing, happens without other people helping you to make it happen, and this goes especially for any kind of desired improvement in either your personal life or in society in general.
In my first post on Iron Man I talked about the world as a kind of vast, interconnected web (Indra’s net) in which every action has a consequence. The Hindu/Buddhist 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 informational resources or tangible resources like money, favors or services, but when it comes from enough people over enough time, this can translate into greatly improved life circumstances. And human nature is such that people will more likely want to help if they see you setting a positive example, not a negative one.
Mind you, not everyone you are good to will be good to you or others in return. Some will forget, use you, or take your goodness for granted, and that’s just life. Either continue loving them unconditionally if you can manage to do that, or just stop giving them your energy and save it for those who do deserve it. But if you use these kinds of human flaws as a pretext for holding back from helping 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 out of frustration. 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 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 sometimes feels like being good doesn’t get you anywhere. The key is to be good for its own sake, otherwise you won’t be able to maintain the behavior in the face of discouragement (and you will get discouraged).
Asking For Help From Allies
Cap is not only honorable, compassionate, and just, he is also a consummate strategist and a man of action. This means that he plans out concrete steps to take and then he acts on those plans.
But he also knows his limits which, in a universe like Marvel’s which is inhabited by so many powerful beings, is quite considerable (comparatively speaking). Cap knows there are many things he can’t do by himself, so he frequently asks for help from others and has the guts to do so boldly, without shame, without worrying what people will think.
And here’s the thing: they usually say “yes.” They say “yes” for all the reasons I’ve laid out above. It’s really hard to say “no” to a guy like Cap when he lives and acts the way he does, when he so often puts others above himself. So this is one way you can transform your life (or society) for the better, through the help of others and by being a person of honor and integrity so that people will be 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.
All this isn’t just some cheap, dime-store philosophy. It is deceptively simply wisdom that is difficult to put into practice but can yield profound results. The only way to prove to yourself that it works is to try it. But “try” doesn’t mean to do it half-heartedly for a few weeks, conclude that it doesn’t work, and then revert back to old ways and habits. It means total commitment for, at the very least, years. But I promise you that if you do all this, it works. It really works. I could give you many examples from my own life, but I’d rather not bore you that way. And whether you desire to change your own life, change society, or probably both, this is how you do it. You lead by example. Or, as Gandhi said, ““If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. […] We need not wait to see what others do.” (This is sometimes incorrectly quoted as, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” but the meaning is close enough.)
In other words, personal and societal transformation go hand in hand.
So no excuses. Don’t wait. Start now. It doesn’t matter how small your actions are, they all count. They all matter. Don’t try to pull off epic feats. Start tiny. It doesn’t matter if you’re poor, weak, or marginalized. Actually, it’s kind of better to start from such a place of disadvantage.
Because a weak man knows the value of strength.