‘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 historically and politically (almost revolutionary at times). And it is rich mythically and spiritually. The latter is my own viewpoint and I’ll leave the important historical and political analyses to those better qualified (personally, I quite liked Lawrence Ware’s piece for The Root).

But even from within a single analytical viewpoint—in this case, the mythical—there are numerous themes coursing through a work as complex as Luke Cage. Many of these themes have already been explored to various degrees in other MCU adaptations. You have the “I’m not a hero” theme 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 amusing complaints from a segment of viewers that the show is “too black,” survival is a theme that is universal regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

I found it deliciously appropriate 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, despite not being perfect (as if any theoretical model ever could be), is still in my humble opinion a very useful model for discussing human motivation and development. It’s also useful for… Hero Wisdom.

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 physical 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. While the bottom two rungs are about survival, the higher three rungs relate to overall well-being and fulfillment. They are equally important in different ways, but not quite 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. Prominent myth theorists from Otto Rank to Lord Raglan to Joseph Campbell have all 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 forcefully subdue him when all he’s done is defend himself against 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 ever truly struggled for physical survival can understand the ways in which trying to survive in this brutal 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. And for a man of conscience who dislikes violence and refrains from it as much as possible, the fact that he has super strength doesn’t make his safety any less precarious. This is why as much as Pop urges him to use his remarkable abilities for the greater good, Luke initially shies away from this calling. The altruistic 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 although Luke is not completely safe yet, he is not nearly in as much real danger as he was at Seagate or before he attained his powers. His fears for his survival, while valid, are no longer as real as they once were. He is, however, stuck in survival mode which is common for survivors of trauma.

Eventually, Luke does step up, not because his basic needs have all been fully resolved, 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 himself (again, understandably so—I don’t fault Luke or people who are prioritizing their own survival needs). The death of a man who not only opened his home and heart to him but also protected him makes a freshly vulnerable Luke realize that the survival of those around him and those in his community 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 real-life 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 if he helps others his own needs will not be met. (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 fully lay out in just one article (though believe me, I’d be more than happy to do so). This is true of our survival needs but it is true of our loftier needs for love and fulfillment as well. But survival does come first since we cannot pursue our higher needs if we’re not surviving. Nor can we can help others to survive (so that they too can pursue their higher needs) if we’re not surviving.

Therefore, if you are struggling to survive, then by all means prioritize that. For now. As my Taoist master would say, “How can you lift up others if you yourself are not standing on firm ground?” Build your firm ground. It is your right. But I would offer just two ideas for consideration as you go about doing so.

1. Ask the Luke Cage Question

Every now and then stop to ask yourself: Is the physical survival of me and my loved ones really what’s at stake right now, in this situation? 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 assure you: the problem of so many people not getting their most basic needs met—even if they’re trying very hard to do so—is something with widespread social repercussions that will eventually affect you too somehow. And if the fear of this happening is what it takes for people to become concerned for the welfare of those less fortunate, then I say so be it. Consider it a form of enlightened self interest. Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand believed that being selfish—truly selfish—was good for both self and society. She was a passionate, intelligent woman with good intentions but she was spectacularly wrong. Millennia before Ayn Rand ever wrote a single word, great sages and philosophers understood that being selfish was disastrous for both self and society, while service to others was beneficial for both self and society.

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 the plight of 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 keeping fighting and believing, and your time to help others will come. Or as Luke says in the final episode of Season One, “Sometimes backwards… to move forward.”

2. Make the Luke Cage Decision

As I mentioned earlier, Luke’s own needs were not yet completely realized 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 even if you yourself are struggling. You do not have to wait until you’re in a better place in life to do something. You can something now, however small. If you keep waiting for some idealized future, that future may never come, and you will have missed your chance to taste one of the sweetest flavors of the human experience: the taste of ripened compassion.

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 this is another false notion that makes people reluctant to try and 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.” But powers are merely symbolic of inherent abilities you all have.

All it takes is a bit of thought to come up with small, easy ways to help others who are struggling. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that yet, then at least open your mind to the possibility that desperate people struggling for a better life are not here to take what you have away from you. They just want to have their basic needs met too. There can be enough for all of us if we can learn to be happy with just having enough.

A beautiful thing that occurs in Luke Cage is that the more Luke steps up, the more the community in turn steps up to cover his back. When he becomes a wanted man again, for instance, people start wearing hoodies riddled with bullet holes, like the kind Luke wore, to distract the police. 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 in your own life 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, more intimate 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,” which is to be impervious to the fear that opening your heart to the needs of others would be jeopardizing your own. Because it wouldn’t. Not if you go about it with wisdom. And wisdom, my friends, is what Pop Mythology is here for. 🙂

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

*Shoves bill into Swear Jar.*

luke cage swear jar

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.