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‘Luke Cage’ and how to survive while helping others survive

luke cage

[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of Luke Cage]

This burden is bigger than you. Or me. People are scared but they can’t be paralyzed by that fear. You have to fight for what’s right every single day, bulletproof skin or not.  —Luke Cage

One of the wonderful things about stories, and why we’ll never get sick of talking about them, is that there is a vast array of interpretive viewpoints through which to approach them. You could take a work like the Bible—a  book referenced numerous times in the Netflix series Luke Cage—and analyze it from the perspective of history. You could analyze it politically. You could analyze its influence on Western philosophy. Or you could approach it religiously, as many Christians do, as a living body of holy scripture. As with the Bible, the greatest stories allow for all of these analytical viewpoints and more. Luke Cage, too, is such a story. It is rich aesthetically. It is rich politically and historically (almost revolutionary at times). And it is also rich mythically and spiritually. The latter is my own viewpoint and I’ll leave the important social and political analyses to those better qualified (I quite liked Lawrence Ware’s piece for The Root and hope to see more like it).

But even from within a single analytical viewpoint—in this case mythical—there are numerous themes coursing through a work as complex as Luke Cage. Many of these themes have also been explored to various degrees in other superhero media. You have the “I’m not a hero” theme that was also present in Jessica Jones; the imperfections of our political and criminal justice systems in Daredevil; the idea that an individual of humble social stature can make a difference in Ant-Man. Since I’ve already discussed these themes to various degrees in other pieces, for Luke Cage I’ll focus on something different: the theme of survival. And obviously, despite some pretty funny complaints that the show is “too black,” survival is a theme that is universal even as life circumstances may differ.

It’s apt that in Episode 4 of Luke Cage, “Step in the Arena,” Luke mentions the hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy of needs is a theoretical framework by psychologist Abraham Maslow that is still, in my very humble opinion, one of the most useful models for human motivation and development (which isn’t to say that it’s perfect, just that it’s useful).

abraham maslow hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow’s original 5-tiered hierarchy of needs.

Let’s look at the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy: biological/physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.) and safety needs (protection, security, etc.). Together these two constitute our survival needs. While at the immediate level, things like food and shelter are the most urgent, we can’t survive without a basic measure of safety, security and stability either. So survival is all about the bottom two rungs. The higher three rungs are important in terms of overall life fulfillment but not as urgent when it comes to raw survival.

Survival is, without question, one of the most dominant, recurring themes of myth from ancient times all the way to the present. And prominent thinkers from Otto Rank to Lord Raglan to Joseph Campbell have examined various ways that myth was a way for our ancestors to vicariously grapple with their mortality and intrinsic desire to survive, on one hand, and the precarious nature of life on the other. And to date the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not given us a better modern myth about survival than Luke Cage (except maybe the first act of Iron Man).

luke cage
The show is faithful to the desperate struggle for survival that characterized Luke Cage’s comic origins. (From ‘Luke Cage: Hero For Hire’ #1, 1972 / Marvel Comics).

For much of the early episodes of Luke Cage, our titular hero is, quite understandably, more concerned with his survival than anything else. “I’m just trying to survive,” he cries in protest as guards of the Seagate prison complex subdue him after he has just defended himself against a pair of attackers. And indeed, his natural prowess for brute survival leads the corrupt security guard Albert Rackham to force him to fight, literally, for his survival. So Luke fights despite his peaceable nature, and only those who have truly struggled for physical survival can understand the ways in which trying to survive in this world pressures you to sometimes do things you’d rather not do.

Even after his escape from Seagate, a sequence powerfully imbued with emancipatory symbolism, Luke still fears for his survival. Innocent though he is, he is an escaped convict with a false identity. He can never let up his watchful vigilance because a single sloppy moment could have him end up in prison again (for a man of conscience who avoids violence, the fact that he has super strength doesn’t make his safety and security any less precarious). This is why as much as Pop urges him to use his remarkable abilities for the greater good, Luke shies away from this calling. The act of helping others belongs higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Luke, like many people in real life, feels he has enough trouble with just the lower needs of survival. Pop, however, is right to challenge Luke because though Luke is not yet completely safe, he is not nearly in as much danger as he was at Seagate. He is, however, stuck in survival mode which is common for trauma survivors.

Eventually, Luke does step up, not because his survival needs are suddenly all taken care of but because his failure to step up sooner indirectly leads to the death of Pop, the one person who went out of his way to help Luke even as Luke was mainly concerned with protecting himself (again, understandably so—I don’t fault Luke or people who are prioritizing their own survival needs). The death of a man who was helping him to survive makes a freshly vulnerable Luke realize that the survival of others is in fact important to his own survival and well-being as well. And thus does Harlem gain a new hero worthy of its rich, long legacy of heroes.

luke cage fist
‘Luke Cage’ is rich with emancipatory imagery like this. But it is emancipation from more than just incarceration and enslavement. Luke ultimately emancipates himself from the fear that he cannot survive if he helps others. (Marvel/Netflix)

So much more than people realize, each of our needs on the rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is interdependent with others’ needs in ways far too numerous to lay out in one article. This is true of our survival needs but it is true of our loftier needs for love and fulfillment as well. But survival comes first since we can hardly pursue our higher needs if we’re not surviving. Nor can we can help others to survive (so that they too can go on to pursue higher needs) if we’re not surviving.

Therefore, if you are struggling to survive, by all means prioritize that—exclusively, if you must. Believe me, I know sometimes that is necessary. But I would offer just two ideas for your consideration.

1. Ask the Luke Cage Question

Every now and then stop to ask yourself: Is the survival of me or my loved ones really what’s at stake right now? Or at this point am I, like Luke Cage was, stuck in survival mode when in actuality my basic needs are being met?  

The Luke Cage Question is admittedly a tough one, one that only you and you alone can answer. No one else can judge. Unfortunately, when fear or greed becomes pervasive in a society it’s common for people to feel that their survival is at stake even if, by much of the world’s standards, they are already living at a level that could be considered royalty.

Even if your survival needs are being met, if you decide that what’s most important is to keep focusing on yourself, I won’t say what you’re doing is wrong (we all want to move up that hierarchy of needs, after all). But I do sincerely ask you to imagine, if only briefly, how the problem of so many people not getting their most basic needs met—even if they’re proactively trying very hard to do so—is something that could have widespread social repercussions that will eventually come back to affect you somehow. I think it’s therefore worth entertaining the idea that helping desperate people stand on their own two feet can, in fact, be justified by selfish motives alone—that is, if you’re averse to the idea of altruism for its own sake. Even Ayn Rand might have reluctantly conceded this connection had she been able to see the big picture.

On the other hand, if the answer to the Luke Cage question is that, yes, your struggle to survive is too desperate right now to make room for others, then there’s no need for guilt. Think of the airline safety guideline of making sure your own oxygen mask is on before helping someone else put theirs on. Your situation is bound to get better sooner or later so long as you keep fighting and don’t give up (as hard as that is, I know), and your time to help will come. Or as Luke says, “Sometimes backwards… to move forward.”

2. Do the Luke Cage Thing

As I acknowledged earlier, Luke’s own survival needs were not yet secured when he eventually decides to step up for the sake of Harlem. This was because he saw that the survival of others was invisibly linked to his own. The wisdom symbolized by this is that it’s possible to help others to survive (or thrive) even if you yourself are struggling for your own survival. You don’t have to wait until you’re in a better place in life to do something, however small.

Let’s also liberate ourselves from the idea that helping others must always take the form of big actions that require a lot of resources. Because that too makes people reluctant to help. Luke had very little money and was a virtual nobody when he decided that the survival of others was as important as his own. Now, you might be thinking, “Easy for him! He doesn’t need resources—he’s bulletproof!”

Dudes, please. Luke’s powers are but symbolic of inherent abilities you all have, I don’t care who you are or how little you have. I so much wish you could know how desperately I am struggling right now for the survival of both myself and my mom, who has cancer. And that’s no exaggeration—I really do mean survival. But I still try to do what I can, with what little I have, to help people in small ways—small but not unimportant. I’ll give you just one example. Articles like this take me a lot of time and energy while this website, Pop Mythology, makes almost no money to compensate my efforts. Yes, I write articles like this partly because I love it, but I wouldn’t be doing it right now if some people hadn’t told me the difference these articles have made in their lives. So f**k bulletproof skin. That’s power. And I am not special in this regard.

All it takes is a bit of thought to come up with small, easy ways to help others who are struggling. Or want to know the easiest way? Think of someone you know who’s struggling for survival and just ask, “I want to help but I’m busy with my own stuff too. So what’s an easy way I could help you?” They’re not going to say, “Don’t you care enough to do something more than easy?” They’re going to say, “Oh, gosh, thank you so much. You could help me by doing ___.”

Don’t know someone who’s struggling for survival? Then ask me. Seriously. I’ll tell you something you could do.

The beautiful thing in Luke Cage is that the more Luke stepped up, the more the community in turn stepped up to cover his back. Recall how people started wearing hoodies riddled with bullet holes, like the kind Luke wore, to throw the police off; how Misty Knight, who was helped by Luke, turned around and helped him too. Helping others isn’t always a thankless task. People can and will sometimes return the favor in ways that can make all the difference for you.

So if you’re struggling to survive but still want to help others, think small. Don’t think Luke Cage Episode 2 when he busts into Crispus Attucks and cleans the place out. Think Episode 5 when he walks around Harlem turning wrongs into rights in smaller ways. Think Mark Millar’s superhero Huck whose tiny acts of everyday kindness eclipse even his more epic feats. Think the true meaning of being “bulletproof”: to be impervious to the fear that opening your heart to others’ survival would be jeopardizing your own. Because it wouldn’t. Not if you go about it with pragmatic wisdom.

So enough talk. Get your badass self out there and be mother**kin’ Luke Cage.

*Shoves bill into Swear Jar.*

luke cage swear jar

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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. Connect on Google+