[Editor’s note: no spoilers for Doctor Strange, the 2016 film]
“Ah, but that’s a desire for unreality… something I must guard against!” –Doctor Strange, Doctor Strange #2 (1974)
With the release of Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts has made his entry into the MCU’s ever-growing roster of heroes. It is a serviceable film, though I agree with my colleague Jess Kroll’s review that it is not up there with Marvel’s best. (For more emotionally resonant treatments of Strange’s origins I recommend the 2004 comic miniseries Strange or the animated Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme).
Nevertheless, I like to write about characters when the live action films come out because the interest level for that character inevitably goes up. And the new movie does a fair enough job with the Strange origin to use as a launch pad for two different areas that I wish to discuss: (1) loss and devastation, and (2) the importance of not taking the lessons of myth too literally, particularly when it comes to the kind of fantastical world that Doctor Strange inhabits.
When life comes crashing to a halt
If you’ve read any of the Doctor Strange comics, or even just seen the trailer for the movie, then you don’t need to have seen the film to be familiar with the character’s basic origin. He is a brilliant, wealthy and famous surgeon driven more by his ego, less by compassion. He gets into a devastating accident, loses the ability to use his hands, goes on a search for a cure and meets a teacher who shows him how to wield magic.
Sometimes through talent, hard work and perhaps not a little bit of luck, we are able to build lives for ourselves that, while we are in the midst of living them, seem so solid and real, so permanent. Yet sometimes life shows us how it can take just one of the columns holding up a structure to collapse for the whole thing to come crashing down.
In Stephen Strange’s case the one column bearing the brunt of his life’s weight was his hands. His wealth, fame and social status relied on his being the best neurosurgeon around. And his being such a gifted neurosurgeon relied, in turn, on the functional use of his hands. All he had to lose was that one thing, the precise use of his hands, for all of it—the career, the wealth, the fame—to collapse. And since he had invested so much of his identity and sense of meaning in his career, when that was destroyed so was the sense of meaning that drove him.
Any sense of identity or meaning that is so vulnerable to circumstance could almost be seen as not even being real in the first place—rather, it’s a kind of magical illusion, a story (see my piece on Supergirl and how the stories we tell ourselves often do not work out). How fragile, how precarious, to build our lives upon something so illusory. And yet we do this all the time. We build our entire lives, and all the hopes we carry for those lives, on frail foundations that can be undermined at any time. And yet, just like Strange, we live our days frenetically trying to hold these flimsy constructs together, either oblivious to hard reality or just choosing to ignore it. Or perhaps just too busy to think about it.
In the face of such precariousness, we are faced with a choice. We can ignore the daunting realities of life and cling to identities which depend on fickle circumstances and simply hope for the best. Or we can build our identities and sense of meaning on something that cannot be shaken so easily, that cannot be broken even if our bodies were to be broken, our loved ones taken away from us, our hard-earned savings depleted, our accomplishments forgotten, or our illusions forever shattered.
“This is not the end. There are other things that can give your life meaning.”
There are three basic types of people who may be reading this. Those who know exactly what I am describing because it has either happened to them or is in the process of happening to them. Then there are those who can at least intellectually follow what I’m talking about and perhaps partially agree with it. And finally there will be those so comfortably ensconced in the lives and identities they’ve constructed that none of what I am saying will resonate with them. But wherever along this spectrum you may lie, whether you believe me or not, I guarantee that everything here applies to you. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to not have to find out though experience. Or perhaps you will be fortunate enough to do so.
Yes, I say that it can be fortunate to lose the life you worked so hard to build—not in the losses you may suffer or the pain those losses bring, but in the way these losses can sometimes force you to look for other modes of living and thinking, other possibilities. Just like Doctor Strange goes looking for a cure for his hands but ends up finding something else: a sense of purpose that does not depend on something so delicate as his hands.
Ideally, you would not have to lose your life to find it. But it might be the only way you’d make the changes that you’d otherwise be too distracted to. The vacuum of meaning left in the wake of your wrecked life will be so painful that you will look for relief. Much of the time you may not even be sure what you’re looking for—a way to restore your old life, perhaps, or just something to ease the pain. In the process of looking there will be further disappointments and heartbreaks. The pain will continue. It may even get worse. (I know these are not the kind of meme-ready New Age truisms that the Internet likes, but I’m not here to offer feel-good bulls**t that sounds nice but doesn’t actually help you in the long run.)
Perhaps the pain will eventually hurt so badly that you will be willing to question cherished beliefs and old conditioning. I encourage this kind of hard introspection and un-learning of things you have learned. The Doctor Strange mythos encourages this too. But a word on that in the following section…
“Forget everything you think you know.”
Because of the mystical universe (or multiverse) filled with magic and wizardry that the Doctor Strange mythos evocatively weaves, I expect that certain New Age gurus out there will use the new movie to boost their ideas about how your thoughts create reality or how you can manifest everything you’ve ever wanted.
“Could I restore the life I had before my accident/illness/loss?” you might ask such a guru.
“But of course,” the guru might say. “Matter is but energy condensed to a slow vibration. Harness that energy using the power of your mind and you can will the universe to manifest your desires!”
I believe in the power of the mind too. I believe in the power of the mind to muster the clarity and discernment to not take such grandiose claims to heart, at least not without close inspection. The true power of the mind is that it can create a life of meaning and beauty even in the face of devastating pain—not to eliminate pain through the casting of “abundance spells” or by walking over hot coals (and getting burnt in both meanings of the phrase). Understand, as the Pop Mythologist I am all about using the power of fiction. But I believe in using fiction with the awareness that it is fiction. I do not believe in confusing fiction with reality. There is a difference.
You might say, “Well, of course I don’t confuse fiction with reality. I’m an adult!” But we do confuse fiction with reality—all the time in all kinds of ways (I’d talk about those ways but there’s not enough space left).
Now, in all my writings thus far I’ve always tried to take the gentle approach and to not criticize other viewpoints too overtly. But because I predict that Doctor Strange will get all kinds of New Age/self-help blogs proclaiming that you can manifest everything you want as easily as Doctor Strange can conjure an illusion, I feel that a little Ancient One-style tough love is in order.
To become seduced by New Age worldviews or self-help methods that indulge your ego and promise you the world is to set yourself up for further disappointment (I’m not saying that all New Age or self-help is like that – there’s some of it that I like). What’s insidious about these kinds of programs is that they are most seductive when we are in great pain. But to be led by them is like replacing one fragile column that has collapsed with yet another that is bound to collapse. If, instead, you can have the courage to replace the fallen column with one that will not fall even if the ground were to crack open, that would be setting the foundation of your life with a sense of meaning and identity that is truly unbreakable.
When an old way of life collapses, in order to create a new one I do believe that you must, in part, “forget what you think you know,” as Baron Mordo admonishes Doctor Strange to do in the film. In the context of the story he means that the laws of reality are more malleable than Strange realizes. But do not make the mistake of taking myth too literally. See that the myth does not want you to fixate on the language and symbols it is using but to look past the symbols to what they represent. And just as it took Stephen Strange a while to understand what the Ancient One was trying to teach him, it may take the world a while to understand the wisdom that the Doctor Strange mythos (and myths in general) really has to offer.
Be wary of philosophies and promises that appeal to the natural human desire to have pleasure and avoid pain. The truth is that the truth often hurts, just like loss itself hurts. It hurts in the short run but it can heal and strengthen in the long run, while shallow ideas designed to make self-help gurus rich feel good in the short run but cause more pain in the long run. And this is why the Ancient One does not just give Stephen Strange what he wants even though he probably could. Because that would simply be setting Strange up for more pain later. Instead, he subjects Strange to many grueling weeks of painful training so that he may learn that his ability to live a meaningful life does not depend on his career as a surgeon.
So what does it depend on, then? Why, it’d be no fun if I just told you. It’s your homework, it’s all of our homework, to figure that out.
I will, however, say this in closing. In fiction the act of putting the pieces of a life back together may take the entertaining form of a man learning to manipulate reality. For you in your real life it will not take the form of learning to manipulate reality. It will take the form of bravely facing it.