Mental Illness Doesn’t Discriminate, but People Do

I’ve had similar thoughts myself; it gets frustrating at times when people I can otherwise spends a great deal of time with come out and start talking about mental illness in a way that makes me feel like I have to hide mine.

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I just left a group I had recently joined, under the impression that people who were intent on erasing the stigma of mental illness would be, well, more open-minded. I am a somewhat naive person in some respects; I will admit that. Possibly because I’m hopeful. Possibly because I’m gullible, to an extent, and I want to believe the best of people. Especially ones trying to erase the shame associated with mental illness because, after all, it’s not something a person can help.

I was surprised, then, to find a posting after the shooting at the recruitment centers, describing the shooter as having an “extremist personality” and one of the women who’s daughter had bi-polar saying, “her daughter didn’t act that way.” I was furious. And very disappointed.

I responded that if the young man hadn’t been Muslim, this wouldn’t even be a topic of conversation, and apparently the idea…

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Moral Calculus

I’ve had philosophy on my mind a fair amount lately. This may be because I’ve read, or listened to, a couple philosophy books fairly recently. But it brings to mind some moral dilemmas I’ve been trying to work my head around – not ones in my own life, mind you. No, moral dilemmas in comics. Big shocker there, huh? It’s just something that’s been bouncing around in my head, and I thought maybe if I was able to try and put it all down in my blog, maybe some of it would stop bouncing around quite so much and free up some much-needed headspace, so here goes.

Backstory: Some very intelligent people – perhaps the most intelligent people in the Marvel world – formed a group called the Illuminati a while back. They wanted to be more proactive about problems in the world, and the universe at large. Their track record… didn’t go so well. They sent the Hulk off Earth, because they knew he would just keep causing destruction – but they didn’t foresee that when he came back – and of course the Hulk would come back – he would be PISSED. They tried to scare off the Skrulls (shapeshifting aliens who have tried to mess with and/or conquer Earth several times), and in so doing set the stage for a terrible invasion. So, eventually figuring out they were causing more harm than good, and that they became something of an echo chamber – assuming that being smarter than everyone else meant they had to be right – amongst each other, they disbanded. Until recently, when they reformed.

See, parallel universe-Earths had started to intrude on standard Marvel Earth. The smart guys figured out that this was not just a one-time thing, but the start of a pattern. Eventually, each parallel Earth that standard Marvel Earth interacted with would have to be dealt with, because across the multiverse, parallel Earth were being forced against each other, two by two – and if one Earth did not destroy the other, then both Earths would end up annihilated. Knowing that the Illuminati had failed before, in part because they failed to include morality in their calculations, they enlisted Captain America in their struggle. They asked him what they weren’t seeing, because they knew he would want to find a solution where both parallel Earths survived. So they gave him control of the Infinity Stones – all six of them – when a parallel Earth intruded on standard Earth (designated as Earth 616 in the comics, so I’ll use that here). He used the Infinity Stones – which, when together, form a power greater than virtually any other in the universe – to push the two Earths apart, but in doing so, he destroyed, at least temporarily, all six stones.

Left without the Stones as a solution, the other Illuminati started immediate discussions of a weapon that could destroy the next parallel Earth that had an incursion with 616, because more would come. This terrified and disgusted Captain America, who found the idea of destroying an entire alternate Earth – whose inhabitants were, as far as any of them knew, entirely innocent – a monstrously evil act. Moreso, Cap knew that if they constructed such a weapon, it would soon not be a question of ‘if the weapon is to be used…’, but when – because as the Illuminati had done before, they would talk themselves into the necessity of using their weapon. He preferred to wait, watch, and hope that when the next incursion occurred, they would find another way to avoid destroying either Earth. The others could not help but see his hope as just a notional idea, with no real substance to it. And so, knowing that unless Captain America was taken off the playing field somehow, that he would interfere with the Illuminati’s actions, they took a drastic step – they had Doctor Strange erase his memories of ever being there, or ever taking part in the action against the incursion, so that they could continue planning to save the world.

The Illuminati went on to have their own moral troubles with destroying alternate Earths, splintering even further into those who wanted to build a weapon but then find ways around using it versus those who wanted to use the weapon for expediency. Eventually, all remaining parallel worlds would collapse into a single universe, which is the status of the current Marvel comic event, Secret War.

The conflict seems to be one that plays itself out frequently in Avengers comics – Iron Man (one of the Illuminati) prefers to pursue the path that leads to the most good for the most people, something of a utilitarian philosophy. He’s alright with getting his hands dirty, with doing things he sees as ‘necessary evils’ in order to obtain a greater good. At one point, when fighting against a villain, the Crimson Dynamo, he did something that stopped the Dynamo’s heart. He then restarted it, of course, but for a short period of time, he’d technically killed him, and Tony was alright with that. Captain America is staunchly opposed to this, having principles he sees as inviolate – less worried about the ‘necessary’ part than the ‘evil’. He’d be more deontological – that is, he feels he has a duty to uphold certain principles, and that he can’t be morally in the right unless he makes every effort to uphold those principles. Steve was terribly angry with Tony when he pulled the Dynamo stunt, noting that he could have, and did, see a number of other ways to stop the Dynamo without killing him – even if only temporarily.

Both of these guys are trying to save the world on a regular basis. Often, they work together, and most of the time they consider each other friends. So why do they see morality so differently? Is one of them right and the other wrong? Are they both right and both wrong at different times, morally speaking? It can be hard to say. In the case of Earths colliding, as a resident of Earth, I’d like to keep living. But would I be alright creating a weapon to destroy the other Earth, killing everyone and everything on it, just to keep on doing so?

Let’s simplify it further. Say I’m standing in the middle of a road. I know that there will be people coming down the road, not in control of their vehicles, that will, if they hit me, kill me. For whatever reason, I can’t get far enough off the road to avoid them – I’m, in danger wherever I go. Say I also have a weapon that will let me stop the vehicles, and keep them from harming me – but stopping them vehicle kills the occupants – who have no control over their vehicle. There may, in theory, be ways I’m not seeing to both avoid being hit and avoid killing the occupants of the vehicles, but I can’t know what they are until fractions of a second before they vehicle hits me – which may be too late. Is it wrong to kill the occupants, innocent as they are, to ensure my own survival? If it isn’t wrong the first time, is it wrong the second? The third? When does my killing of innocent people make me into someone who isn’t wroth saving, if at all? Should I let the vehicle hit and kill me – essentially sacrificing myself – in order to allow the vehicle’s occupants to live? What if my death means the death of everyone I know and care for – and the death of the occupants of the vehicles does the same for them? How does that change things?

If these questions don’t make your head hurt a little, then you’ve clearly got things more sorted out than me, because as much as I want to side with Captain America, I don’t know that relying on the hope of finding a better solution – and doing it over and over – is a fair thing to do when you are gambling with the fate of an entire world, perhaps even an entire universe. But I also don’t know that immediately blasting billions of innocents to death to save billions of lives on your side is going to be the right move, either, especially if it has to be done many, many times.

Man, sometimes I find comics are far deeper than I generally give them credit for.

The Chosen

Courage. Honor. Loyalty. Sacrifice.

That is the mantra repeated over and over in one of my favorite graphic novels (the title being the title of this blog entry). It is, predictably, a Captain America book, and in it, Captain America has lost his physical abilities; his strength, speed, and endurance have faded. Worse, his body is almost totally collapsing, and doctors give him weeks, if not days, until his body fails entirely. But his mind works just fine – better, in fact. And so he undertakes one last mission. The story is told from the viewpoint of a Corporal , Jimmy Newman, in Afghanistan, fighting a war that scares and exhausts him, with no end in sight – until suddenly it appears Captain America is by his side, pushing him to go further, fight harder, be a hero. But on Corporal Newman can see Cap, and he disappears after aiding the Corporal. When Captain America appears next, he explains his situation to the Corporal.

Even though Captain America is dying, he can project his mind – through the use of some remote viewing technology – into the minds of others, like Corporal Newman. He can encourage others with his presence, even if he’s not physically there. He can help them unlock the courage they didn’t know they had, to fight the fear they feel. But doing so puts a terrible strain on Cap’s body, cutting short what little time he has left. But it’s important to Cap, because he knows that he can help these people. Where Project Rebirth created a super-soldier, what Captain America is doing – Project Multitude – is reaching out to dozens, even hundreds, of others, around the world, to summon the courage, honor, loyalty, and willingness to sacrifice to replace him. He knows that while the super-soldier serum might have made him super, it was those other qualities that made him the hero he is. And he knows the country – the world – needs more people who can follow in his footsteps. In the end, Captain America dies, but not before his words and example inspire Corporal Newman to truly heroic actions – and hopefully the same to the others he was reaching out to. The cover of the final issue of the mini-series, which I have a print of on my apartment wall, shows others taking up the burden Captain America leaves behind:

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Not just because I’m a big Captain America fan, though that helps  But because these are the qualities I want to see in myself. The courage to face my fears and overcome them. Honor shown through honesty, fairness, and integrity in both word and action. Loyalty to friends, family, and others who might depend on me. The willingness to sacrifice for good causes. I think about this more now, as I am about to enter into a program to eventually get my Masters degree in Social Work, and hopefully go on to try and help others.

I know I’ve expressed a number of fears recently, and some people I know were worried, and justifiably so, that these fears might be problematic and difficult to overcome – and that the inability to overcome my fears might be a big obstacle to going into the field of social work. How can I hope to help others with their problems, if I have such fears of my own? That worries me, too, but I also know that having fears is normal. Again, referring to the Captain America mini-series, one of the things he keeps talking about is his own fear. The fears that have dogged him since he agreed to start the program that would turn him into a super-soldier. What if I fail? What if I let the people who are counting on me down? What if I have sacrificed all I have for nothing? Captain America notes that he has never been without fear, because he knows that even when he had his abilities, he was still human – a man at the peak of human ability (and in Marvel terms, that’s apparently pretty far beyond what we think of), yes, but still a man. He wasn’t immortal like the gods (not God; Marvel’s universe does include God, and there are several tiers of lesser, but still godlike to ‘mere mortals’, beings below him; this is covered in philosophical detail in chapter 14 of The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers, true believers) he has fought alongside, or invincible like some of his fellow heroes; he never had the healing factor of Wolverine, or the incalculable strength of the Hulk. He was just a very well-trained man fighting against powers that could threaten cities, nations, worlds – even the universe itself, on occasion. On a strict power basis, Captain America is outclassed by almost every supervillain he has ever faced – and yet he never gives in to his fear.

My fears are real, yes. And they do scare me. That’s just how life works. Everybody is afraid of something; anybody who say differently is lying or having some severe issues. But if (the admittedly fictional) Captain America can face things that could destroy the universe – as well as, at various times, his own death, being stripped of his name, having to watch the people he grew up with die, and a whole host of other things, can I do any less than face my fears? I don’t aspire to be Captain America – for one, he’s fictional, and for another, I don’t think my body could take that kind of physical conditioning – but I do think the ideals that he espouses are worthy ones. And I have a sincere desire to try and help others through the kinds of things I have had to face with mental health, to make a difference in the life of at least one – and hopefully many more than that – life because I learned something that I can use to show someone who is hurting, depressed, lonely, and maybe even suicidal that things don’t have to be like that – that they can get better. I don’t think my fears will go away, but I do believe that I can face them. And I think that if I do, I’ll be a better person for it.

Having a Captain America shield on the wall is a mighty good reminder, though.