[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, sociopolitical power, physical strength, beauty and intelligence, one does not need any of those things to be an authentic hero. I also wrote that if anything, those things often get in the way.
By extension, one could reason then that not only is it okay to be “small” in various ways, it is quite 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 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 be able 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. 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 often horribly unfair and the sooner a latent hero accepts that the sooner he can learn to become a hero in spite of circumstances (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 you have to manage your life and not try to take shortcuts or fall back on old habits.
As someone who, like many young people, spent much of his youth wondering if he was a failure, I can relate to anyone who might happen to feel like a failure right now. But do you know what? I used to have so much more on the surface than I do now and I still worried I was a failure, whereas I have less on the surface now but I know that I am powerful and have much to offer this world. I know that I am big in all the ways that count 😉 . And the key to that personal transformation lies in the things I’m about to share with you next.
Smaller can burrow deeper where big cannot
Now let’s look at two primary ways in which with great smallness comes great power.
The first way has to do with reaching less 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 primal worldview in which the bigger something is the 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 validity of what I’m saying. But let it be a thought seed that provides you with some food for thought.
For this example, I want you to first think about people with various degrees of fame who have influenced you in areas that are important to you (business, athletics, art, 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 work. I’ll even do this exercise with you. In my case, many of these figures happen to be writers, artists or thinkers of some sort: Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Henry Thoreau, Gore Vidal, Neil Gaiman and many others in a diverse lot. They influenced me greatly in different ways as I’m sure the names you are thinking of influenced you. I would even say that the writing of Joseph Campbell genuinely changed my life in a way. But even that impact nevertheless pales to that of certain other individuals who interacted with me over the long term on a more personal level.
Next, I want you to think of people whom you know personally who influenced you in a profound way. For most people there is always someone and if you can’t think of anyone then maybe you’re just not seeing her due to her smallness. The relationship with this person must have had personal interactions and it must have lasted at least a couple of years. If you rigorously map out all the various ways this person has influenced you over the long term, then you may come to see that in the grand scheme of things their influence at least equals or even surpasses the influence of those famous people. And although 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 long-term words and actions of people we have known, most of them probably not big and famous.
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. Writers like Joseph Campbell may have planted the desire in me to write, but I would not even be here today writing what I am, the way I am, if my high school English teacher Ray Brown, for instance, did not spend two years patiently peeling away the layers of my crippling lack of confidence. “I want to write but I can’t,” I would say. “You can and you will,” he would say. No famous writer I idolized ever said such words to me. He 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 political leader. The leader may be able to enact sweeping policies and the individual cannot, but no amount of policies in themselves will ever fundamentally change the nature of the world. Look back over history and tell me if I’m wrong. No, the world will change when people change, and people change when they are taught and nurtured over time with wisdom and compassion by other individuals.
So tell me, who is more powerful: the famous Joseph Campbell who made me want to write, or the unknown Ray Brown who actually made it possible for me to write? Is it the famous motivational speaker whose seminar made you feel motivated for all of a week or the invisible supporters in your life you have perhaps taken for granted in your preoccupation with grandiosity and size? I won’t dictate your answer, but you might want to think about it. (And for the record I am not trying to diminish the importance of how larger-than-life figures can and do inspire us. I’m simply trying to raise our appreciation for the seemingly “smaller” people in our lives.)
Think also about how the power of small individuals can be exponentially magnified when it’s not just one but millions of Ray Browns out there knowing they have the power to enact change and acting on it. We would finally, truly, have a better world based on substance, not just rhetoric. The phrase “power in numbers” is usually used in the sense of people united in a sociopolitical cause. But there can be many causes and we don’t all have to be united in them. Simply engage your own community and world with heroic kindness and compassion, even to your adversaries, and if there are millions of us everywhere doing this then even political causes would become secondary to one overarching human cause.
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 ego. Don’t misunderstand, I do not see 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 force of destruction and chaos.
When the villain Yellowjacket shrinks, what is actually shrinking is his moral conscience and compassion while his ego is growing into a rampaging giant. To fight him Scott must also shrink, only his own shrinking is 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, the only way he can stop Yellowjacket’s raging ego. By shrinking into the subatomic he has chosen to sacrifice his life for others, and if that isn’t the ultimate form of relinquishing the selfish ego then I don’t know what is. And while taming the ego might feel like a certain kind of death of the self, just as with Scott it truly is not. He is resurrected from the dead and, in Campbellian terminology, Returns With the Elixir. 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 does not necessarily lie in rising up from your humble station and becoming a giant recognized by society. There is nothing wrong with that and if you want it, go for it. But if you believe that is the only way to command great power, you will torture yourself waiting for something that might not happen despite your greatest efforts. Rather, be willing to take the approach that society might see as counterintuitive but that I solemnly pledge to you now is also a path of power – an even greater path of power when approached with wisdom and courage. And it is all the more wonderful because you can be that kind of superhero to people right here and right now.
Be willing to be small. Be willing to be Ant-Man.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
—Some guy, c. AD 30