[This article contains spoilers for the movie Ant-Man]
In “You Don’t Need Money, Smarts or Beauty to be an Avenger” I wrote about how despite the fact that our culture often, and understandably, associates notions of heroism with larger than life qualities like wealth, power, physical strength, beauty and intelligence, one does not need any of those things to be an authentic hero in the Pop Mythology sense. I also wrote that if anything, those things more often get in the way of authentic heroism than make it possible.
By extension, one could reason that not only is it okay to be “small” in various ways, it is actually quite liberating and empowering in its own right. But in this article, I will go further than that. I will say that depending on the situation, various kinds of figurative or even literal smallness can even be genuinely superior. It’s all about how you use it (*wink*), and we’re going to talk about how, using Ant-Man as our reference point.
Trust That There is Power in Smallness
The first step is to learn to trust in the inherent power of smallness and then trusting in your own power no matter what your current opinion of yourself may be. Right away Ant-Man shows us that our hero Scott Lang is what you might consider a “loser.” Freshly released from prison, he can’t get the kind of job he needs to pay child support and become a real presence in his daughter’s life. The only thing he’s able to land is a position at Baskin Robbins but gets fired from even that. It doesn’t matter that he’s qualified for better jobs in terms of his skill set. It doesn’t matter that it’s not fair society won’t give him a shot due to his criminal past. Life isn’t fair. In fact, it is more often than not horribly unfair and the sooner latent heroes accepts this unfortunate reality the sooner they can learn to become heroes in spite of their circumstances, not because of them (or as Bruce Lee said, “To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities”).
Scott, however, blows it. Despite the fresh start of getting out of prison, out of fear and desperation he does something that gets him in trouble yet again. This underlines the magnitude of his loser-ness. The story is giving us a hero who has sunk to the lowest of low and yet we know from the start that this is the very guy who will become Ant-Man. Intrinsic to this setup, then, is the subliminal reassurance that no matter how bad of a failure you think you are in this moment, you can still become a hero. But you must take full responsibility for the power that you actually do have despite however your life might look on the surface.
The key to understanding the power you do have despite less-than-ideal life situations or circumstances lies in the things I’m about to share with you next.
“Small” Can Often Dig Deeper Where “Big” Cannot
Now let’s look at two primary ways in which with great smallness comes great power(i.e. the “great power” of the Spider-Man doctrine doesn’t have to take dramatic or impressive forms).
The first way has to do with reaching smaller numbers of people in a deeper, more lasting way versus reaching more people on a bigger scale and having only a superficial, ephemeral impact. As I said earlier, our culture has a difficult time letting go of the idea that bigger is better. This can apply to everything from our possessions (bigger homes/ cars = better), to our businesses (bigger company = better), to our status (more power / fame = better). I’m going to suggest why this isn’t always true using a very small and simple example. This example isn’t necessarily going to convince you here and now in the truth of what I’m saying. But hopefully it will at least be an interesting thought experiment.
For this example, I want you to first think about various famous people or public figures who have influenced you in areas that are important to you, whatever they may be (e.g. the arts, career & business, athletics, etc.). The only condition is that you must choose famous people whom you’ve never had a personal relationship with – in other words, they only influenced you indirectly through their wide-reaching work—their books, their products, their TED talks, whatever. These people may have certainly influenced you in some very significant, lasting ways. But that is not the only way to affect and influence people, and there is another way that can sometimes be even more significant and lasting, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Next, I want you to think of non-famous people whom you’ve known personally during your life who may have personally influenced you through direct interaction. Not through books or TED talks but through face-to-face interaction. For most people there is always someone and if you can’t think of anyone then it might be you’re not seeing their due to their smallness. Think harder.
Once you have thought of such a person, if you carefully think about all the various ways this person has influenced you and the positive consequences of their influence over the years (it can help to draw a mind map to keep track of all your thoughts), then you may come to see that in the grand scheme of things their influence at least equals or even surpasses the influence of the famous people who indirectly influenced you through their books, speeches, products, etc. And though I don’t have enough space here to explain every single reason why, I believe that in most cases our deepest and most lasting influences are the result of the long-term influence of people we have personally known, most of them probably not very famous, not very “big.”
In my own experience, at least, I can truthfully say that the people who have affected my life the most were people who nurtured me on the personal level over the years. Famous writers like Joseph Campbell or Alan Watts may have planted the desire in me to write, but I would not even be here today writing the things that I do, in the way that I do, if my high school English teacher Ray Brown, for instance, had not spent two years patiently peeling away the layers of my crippling lack of confidence back then. “I want to write but I can’t,” I would say. “You can and you will,” he would say. No famous writer I ever admired or idolized ever said such healing words to me. Ray Brown did, and they made all the difference.
Ray Brown was not famous or wealthy; he was just an ordinary man. But he was (and still is) one of my greatest superheroes – one among several “Ant-Men” in my life. For if the ability to enact change is one of the hallmarks of power, then the ordinary individual can be just as powerful as a famous political or business leader. Such famous leaders may be able to enact large scale actions that the small individual cannot, but such “big” actions in themselves rarely ever fundamentally transform people emotionally and spiritually in the way that face-to-face interaction can over the long term.
So who is more powerful: the famous writers who, through their books, made me want to write, or the unknown teacher who actually made it possible for me to overcome my doubts and fears and just write in the first place? Is it the famous motivational speaker whose seminar made you feel motivated for all of a week or the “small” friends and supporters in your life whom you may have sometimes taken for granted? (And for the record I am not trying to diminish the importance of how public figures we look up to can and do inspire us. I’m simply trying to increase our appreciation for “smaller” heroes in our lives.)
Think also about how the power of small individuals can be exponentially magnified when it’s not just one Ray Brown out there but millions of them knowing they have the power to transform individuals and using that power. We would truly have a better world.
You too can be a Ray Brown. You too can be the difference between someone realizing their potential or crumbling under the weight of their circumstances. You too can be an Ant-Man.
The Incredible Shrinking Ego
There’s one more point about the power of outward smallness (but inward bigness) that I want to make. I like to interpret Scott Lang shrinking into Ant-Man as partly symbolizing the willful shrinking of one’s own ego. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t ego in itself as a bad thing. It serves many practical and useful purposes. But when left unchecked, when inflated with a sense of self-importance and arrogance, it can become a destructive force.
When the villain Yellowjacket shrinks, what is actually shrinking is his moral conscience and compassion while his ego is inflating into a rampaging giant. To fight him Scott must also shrink but his shrinking is that of a different kind: that of the ego. Scott has learned to put the needs of others above his own. He loves his daughter Cassie and wants to be with her more than anything yet he is willing to disappear from her life if it means she can be safe. And so he makes the choice to quite literally disappear by shrinking even further into the sub-atomic, quantum realm, which is the only way he can stop Yellowjacket’s raging ego. By shrinking to a subatomic size he has chosen to sacrifice his life for others, which is the ultimate form of selflessness. And while taming the ego might feel like a kind of death of the self, just as with Scott it is actually not a death but a rebirth. Scott is resurrected from the dead and, in Campbellian terminology, Returns With the Elixir—meaning he is able to return to the world he knows with the boon of newfound wisdom. His compassion and sense of purpose awakened, Scott Lang’s transformation into a superhero is now complete.
In Ant-Man Scott Lang’s figurative as well as literal smallness is sharply contrasted against the towering size and stature of the Avengers. While this is not to say that the Avengers are not great heroes themselves, it is precisely Scott’s smallness, when used correctly, that will allow him to become the future Avenger he will become. Therefore, should you happen to feel you are in a low place in life, the key to your future greatness doesn’t necessarily lie in rising up from your humble origins and becoming successful by society’s standards. There’s nothing wrong with that and if you want it, go for it. But if you believe that is the only way to realize your power and potential, you will torture yourself waiting for something that might or might not happen before you let yourself feel powerful.
The alternative path to personal power is one that society, in its obsession with size and scale, might see as counterintuitive but which I solemnly swear to you is a truer of power if it is traversed with wisdom. And it is all the more empowering because it is a path that is available to your right here and right now, no matter what your circumstances.
Learn to see the power and beauty of smallness and let it free you.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
—Some Middle Eastern guy, 28-30 C.E.