WHY DOES THE WORLD CRAVE IRON MAN BUT NEEDS CAPTAIN AMERICA?
“The easiest person to deceive is one’s own self,” Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said. This analogy holds even more truth in our present 2020 crisis than it did when he penned it 150 years ago.
For most of us, character development is one of life’s most profound journeys, and, too, often, we practice outer “bystander” cognizance vs. inner self-awareness. Ultimately, it translates to how we perceive those around us and the scale by which we will construct and measure our own life. It allows us to truly see if others are using their influence to help other people or are they doing it to foster their own agenda.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve watched this play out in real-time as many of our prominent leaders, authors, philanthropists, social-media pundits, and medical experts preach messages that on the surface seem to provide outward advice. But in reality, are self-serving veiled pronunciations to the millions of victims they are holding captive. It made me think about the Marvel Avengers movies and the different character traits they possess.
One of the reasons the Marvel movies have become so successful is they provide us with heroes whose ideals we can relate to. Through them, they make us live up to the character’s standards. A perfect example of this is the tension Marvel sets up between Iron Man, who is shallow on the inside but possesses selfish motivation on the outside, and Captain America, who resembles virtuosity in everything he does on the inside while demonstrating modesty on the outside. It really is a true resemblance to our modern culture and the power of perspective that each provides.
Fundamentally, it made me question through and after the COVID-19 crisis, is society adhering to the ideals of Iron Man and less those of Captain America in both our combined response and self-awareness?
Why We are Naturally Drawn to Iron Man and Not Captain America
When I first started watching the Marvel movies, I immediately became drawn to Iron Man. For a good reason, he is brave, highly intelligent, possesses superhuman strength, is the ultimate entrepreneur and visionary, plus on top of that, he can also fly. The problem with Iron Man is that he wants the world to know it, too. It’s his ego that rules his day. He reminds me of so many of the leaders, so-called role-models, and friends we think we want to emulate. On the surface, they appear everything we might want to be. As you start analyzing the man under the suit though, Tony Stark’s character is very flawed on many levels. Stark continually underestimates others, is severely lacking in emotional intelligence, and has a grandiose and exaggerated view of his self-worth. He is always outwardly trying to impress people and mocks his perceived adversaries under the cover of self-interest. These characteristics lead to an overall lack of generativity. Mr. Stark would not be of much help in the current crisis because of these traits, much like many of the leaders we see today in our daily lives.
Unlike Iron Man, Captain America isn’t noted for his wit and banter. Nor was he born with a silver spoon and was bullied before he gained his superpowers. The Captain casts the image of the perfect boy scout who appreciates the obstacles to his virtues, learns from his mistakes, and does something to address them. He actually takes ownership and responsibility for his actions. For many of us, these characteristics often turn us away from characters like Captain America because his morality seems out of reach for most of us. However, over time, we are drawn to him and grow to trust his virtuosity and leadership like so many great leaders before him: Lincoln, Admiral Nimitz, and Gandhi. A person of strong character like Captain America possesses honesty, courage, empathy, generosity, loyalty, honor, fairness, determination, and forethought. His outer persona and inner character awareness are one and the same. He is intentional, not afraid of the truth, and is the hero who thwarts the crisis of the day with humility.
Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida professor, sums up the current world situation in his analysis of the movie Captain America: Civil War. “One of the themes is security versus liberty and finding the right balance between them. In Captain America: Civil War, the superheroes split up into two camps and fight over an issue that we have been trying to find the right compromise for since the founding of the country: Who watches the watchers? How can we make sure people in power are doing the right thing? If they do something wrong, how do we handle that?”
How is Captain America: Civil War like the World today?
During the movie, it’s clear that Tony Stark is consumed by guilt over every death that occurs, which he feels is his fault. We also learned in Iron Man 3 that he is also suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), so the anxiety of continuing with unsanctioned and possibly tragic battle campaigns makes a clear case for his support of U.N. oversight. Similar to the world today, Iron Man would be in favor of the views of the World Health Organization and Coronavirus U.S. Government Task Force. In fact, he likely would place himself in the limelight showcasing his inventions, wealth, philanthropy, and how his vaccine and micro-chip technology would save humanity. He wouldn’t dare mention the billions he would stand to make as a result.
On the other side of the ring is Captain America, who is the epitome of the underdog. The Captain is trained in and embodies a sense of duty. In his mind, he and his team must go where the defenseless need them most, not necessarily where the government judges it needs to deploy them. To him, the U.N. is not the weak cipher he wants to fight for. So it is clear why he opposes oversight and fights Stark in this battle. In our world today, he wouldn’t stay home or isolate behind the protection of T.V. cameras, he would be on the frontlines side by side with our healthcare workers and first responders. He would be helping others. And, he would do it with anonymity and without expectation of something in return.
I recently finished reading Sailing True North by retired Admiral James Stavridis, the chief international security analyst for NBC News, Naval Academy graduate, and chair of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute. Throughout the novel, Admiral Stavridis discusses the importance of one’s character journey through the eyes of different historical Naval leaders and how they handled the various crises life threw in their path. Using their experiences as a lens helped me to put in perspective the full impact that COVID-19 and its toll on our lives. It’s as if we are actually living an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or a tragic crisis in a Marvel movie. Literally, so much has changed in such a short period. And, to make matters worse, it was entirely out of our control. We are coping with stress, uncertainty, job loss, financial issues, fear, and doubts.
Few of us have ever endured a crisis that challenges our character in such a profound way. Ultimately, it challenges our self-awareness both today and in the future. We are left to ask, will the crisis make us a better or worse version of ourselves?
As Admiral Stavridis points out, “a virtuous person begins every encounter with the world not from their own perspective alone, but rather by trying to understand the situation, mindset, and challenges that others are facing.”
I’ve learned through my other experiences that every situation always seems to have a way of working out. Whether that is for the better or worse is primarily up to each of us and how we respond both to our own personal state of affairs and to those around us. It is easy to cast criticism, as many are doing. I could argue that President Trump, China, State Officials, the World Health Organization, the NIH or CDC, or others are to blame and spend my days throwing out banter on social media. But, all that condemnation is doing is adding more negativity in a world already consumed by fearmongering. I believe a better path to resolve the problem is through a new sense of awareness and with the goal of strengthening our careers and lives with moral courage.
In the book The Character Gap, Christian B. Miller reveals a troubling statistic that roughly 4/5th of people taking a self-test rank themselves as a person of high character. It is clear that we face a growing dilemma of self-awareness in our society triggering an inflated sense of self-worth. The underlying cause is likely the examples of the politicians, athletes, actors, and leaders we see on the world stage, the nightly news, and Hollywood. And in this new age of social media, we have the antagonists who tout their great deeds from the safety and confines of their homes. Unfortunately, we are becoming a world that is giving praise to a group of Iron Men who portray themselves utterly different than who they really are and who couldn’t care less what happens to those around them.
My friend Andrew Smith sums it up well when he says, “As I have grown older, I have noticed that some people who rise to prominence seem to also be the first to abuse their powers. On the outside, they look nice and shiny like a new Iron Man suit off the manufacturing line, a wonderful leader, but in reality, they are the first to commit moral atrocities to level up and say look at me, or to make themselves feel even more powerful. The truly great leaders I’ve seen have always approached their responsibilities with humility and a servant mindset.”
The simple fact is that having “good character” matters. It makes a huge difference in having a great society vs. a corrupt one. Just look at ancient civilizations where good is replaced by greed and evil. It’s relatively easy to think through the conscious aspects of being virtuous and make outward changes. Still, it is the focus on the sub-conscious that really matters. It is where our self-awareness really takes hold. Instead of giving into groupthink or peer pressure, it is a genuine focus of understanding one’s self. I think it really comes down to determination in the face of adversity and not giving in to the bystander effect.
However, what I have witnessed during the COVID-19 crisis is exactly that. We are becoming a group of bystanders who sit back and fail to act unless someone we know is personally impacted by the emergency at hand. It’s easier to want to be with friends at the beach, go out boating, or have pool parties than it is to do the opposite and confront the ugliness that surrounds us. Too many of us are applauding the self-inflated hero’s, like Iron Man, who are becoming society’s flawed version of the traditional knight-in-shining-armor.
I think we strive to imagine ourselves, our families, and our close friends as virtuous people. Our character growth starts there. However, just as one act of compassion does not make a compassionate person, one act of self-awareness does not make us virtuous. By sitting back and watching the COVID-19 crisis from the comfort of our couches, we allow ourselves to become more and more like a group of bystanders who complain but fail to act. This is the definition of not giving a f*ck and staying content with their lives, which is the mantra of the day popular authors like Mark Manson are peddling into our minds. Instead, we need to become more like Captain America and actually caring about creating our future and using the crisis to refine our character growth.
Any fan of Marvel knows the Captain’s motto, “I can do this all day.” It is a slogan he expresses when he is faced with a crisis. And right now, this type of attitude is what we all need during a time when for millions it is really, really hard to keep going. Just like the countless heroes around the world on the front lines, the Captain possesses a positive attitude, compassionate spirit, and drops everything for anyone who needs his assistance, even if that means perhaps his life in return. That is the true meaning of actually giving a f*ck.
The world needs an army of Captain Americas right now who are exemplars of honor and courage. Virtuous leaders who answer the call, set the example of character, and provide daily reminders of our return to objective truth. When all else fails around us, Captain America can be counted on to stand up for what’s right, even if that means he is standing alone.
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