By Daniel E. Will
My mother viewed comic books – similar to television – to be the source of mind rot. As a result, I had neither, until age 11 or maybe 12, when my older sister’s high school boyfriend began to feed me – on the down low – Marvel comic books. I immediately took to Spiderman for obvious reasons: the conversion of an awkward kid into a brainy and brawny superhero, all through the serendipity of a radioactive spider’s bite, gave me hope. To this day, I’m on the lookout for radioactive spiders.
That my mother could not see the literary genius emanating from the dialog bubbles within those garish pages stumped me almost as much as her inability to see the universal human truths those same dialog bubbles imparted. Like any shy kid suddenly imbued with superhuman powers, Peter Parker initially wasted his spider strengths on self-indulgence, using them, primarily, to put an end to being pushed around. The wise Uncle Ben, his adoptive father, admonished Parker that with great power comes great responsibility. But Parker ignored the responsibility part, allowing a criminal to run free . . . who later murdered Uncle Ben, filling Parker with regret and focusing him like a laser on forever after using his powers for the greater good.
Some refer to it as the “Peter Parker Principle,” but variants of the phrase long predate Stan Lee: “[f]rom everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48); “the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility” (British Parliament Member William Lamb, 1817); “[w]here there is great power, there is great responsibility” (Winston Churchill, 1906); to name a few. Uncle Ben wasn’t even the first superhero father figure to convey the concept to his superhuman child: in the first episode of the 1948 Superman cinema serial, Clark Kent’s foster father tells the young Superman, “[b]ecause of these great powers – your speed and strength, your x-ray vision and super sensitive hearing – you have great responsibility.” But it will always be the Peter Parker Principle to me.
Though Spiderman presented an example of responsibility and consequences, I secretly imagined myself employing my superpowers in much more pedestrian ways, such as overpowering the middle school bullies and becoming captain of the football team. Let’s face it, responsibility is a tough concept. In practice it means restraint and the denial of self-indulgence. In one fell swoop, Uncle Ben was dead, and the weight of responsibility rocketed Spiderman into an exhausting adulthood, devoid of days off, spent nabbing criminals or saving victims from burning buildings (likely arson committed by those same criminals). Even my 11-year old self felt unequal to the weight of Spiderman’s responsibility.
At some point in our childhoods, nearly all of us, responding to someone telling us to do something, said, “You can’t make me – it’s a free country.” We very early internalize freedom and liberty as unfettered personal discretion. But it is the difficult back side of liberty – the responsibility that makes freedom possible – we are less eager to embrace. Freedom, i.e., self-determination, is not just a great, but perhaps the ultimate power. Exercised without responsibility, it produces our worst selves and forecloses the pursuit of any larger ideals. The great power of freedom brings a great responsibility on each of us who wish to maintain it. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps paraphrasing Lord Acton, summed it up: “Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought.” So much for using superpowers to become prom king.
In the movie Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino plays Lefty, a low-ranking gangster who develops a relationship with, and ultimately vouches for, an undercover FBI agent (based on the true story of Agent Joe Pistone – a book worth reading). In one scene, in his disappointment over being passed over for a promotion, Lefty says to Agent Pistone, “Who am I? I’m a spoke on a wheel . . . and so are you.” Unity is a popular theme at the moment, but in a nation of more than 325 million people governed by just one president, 50 senators and 435 representatives, most of us feel like Lefty. Since we believe we can’t do, we talk. A lot. Internet and social media platforms provide infinite outlets, but also broadcast infinite voices all screaming to be heard, the more outrageous the more likely to attract attention. So, with words, we demonize our leaders, our institutions, our communities and, worse, one another. The division lives on, but what are we really doing about it?
The spring and summer of 2020 found my 24-year-old daughter working from home, literally, back in New Hampshire from her home in D.C., bringing with her an adult perspective and ideas that often diverge from my own. Like most of you, the pandemic had our family on top of each other and feeling suffocated, sometimes irritable. I privately worried about division and alienation creeping into my own family, and wondered what I could do to stay close to one of the most important people in my life. It seemed like my talking made things worse. So I tried to shut my mouth, which left me no choice but to begin to listen – to try to actively understand where she was coming from and why.
I can’t say I handled myself as Spiderman would have, and I have no Pollyannaish notions that I bridged a gap or fully resolved anything, but the exercise has brought me two things: a better understanding of why she feels as she does, and a reminder that we have much more in common as father and daughter than in opposition as ideological opposites. Family unity does not depend on one of us yielding ideologically, but on all of us actively working to understand the other and trying to focus on what actually unites us – our family history, our long and deep relationship and commitment to one another as father and daughter. It’s a work in progress, but it is better than it was.
National unity similarly cannot depend on any of us yielding ideologically to anyone else, but instead on our active efforts to understand our neighbors and to focus on what actually unites us – our long, national history and commitment to our republic, our communities, our neighborhoods and each other. We should not even strive to agree on everything, but we should all strive to develop an understanding of where others are coming from, why they think what they do, and a regard for others as fellow humans rather than political adversaries or conquests.
Lincoln employed an active verb as he described liberty’s responsibility: to do, as in, do as we ought. We lowly spokes in the wheel still have a responsibility to do as we ought, and our doing matters most because it occurs on a person-by-person basis, from one mundane interaction to the next. It may seem passive and unimportant, but active listening, distinct from being quiet while waiting for our turn to talk, is actually quite active. Perhaps our responsibility in the exercise of liberty involves listening, not just to ideas contrary to our own, but to actively ferret out what we have in common with those whom we encounter, the universal aspects of existence we all share and that bond us more strongly than a particular ideology or political leaning.