The world in which we live is filled with ennui and the stresses of everyday life interspersed with the occasional small victory. We look to the characters and tales of comic books as a means of escape. Everything is larger than life. Heroes are endowed with superpowers or enhanced abilities. Dangers come from extraterrestrial threats or devious villains. And the plots are improbable, if not impossible, challenging logic and reason. And still, we watch to forget briefly about our mundane world or the worries that weigh us down.
More and more, though, the issues we see on the screen, echo the concerns that we face in our own day-to-day lives. In Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, we see that in the midst of battling for galactic salvation, characters confront their own foibles and choices. Steve Rogers, Captain America, has consistently placed the needs of the many over his own personal desires. He is a man out of time. Frozen for sixty years, his contemporaries are gone, the love of his life has died, and still he remains motivated to serving his country and its values. In apposition to his character, we find Tony Stark, Iron Man, brilliant, self-absorbed, yet still driven to do good, so long as it is on his own terms.
Over the course of the cycle of Avengers’ movies and this film in particular, both characters evolve and change. Captain America is given the chance to travel back in time and live out his life with his beloved Peggy Carter, choosing self-interest after a life of self-abnegation. Iron Man, in the ultimate battle with Thanos, chooses to take the infinity stones and defeat Thanos, knowing that it would likely cost his life. He chooses self-sacrifice and the good of the world, over his own personal joys and successes.
The choices are presented as binary. Either one values one’s own needs and interests or suppresses them to serve the greater good. But are they in fact, binary?
Two thousand years ago, the sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel makes the point that there is a need for self-interest. No one is going to intercede on our behalf to make certain that we are happy or that our needs are being met. Ultimately, no one else is going to advocate for our beliefs and positions, if we don’t start with ourselves. Lest this lead to self-absorption, Hillel cautions that one needs to consider the needs of others, as well. If we don’t, we become selfish and something less than fully human.
The pivotal point made is the final one, “if not now, when?” In the eternal now, we must hold both at the same time, balancing self-interest and communal needs. At every moment those factors ought to be held in equilibrium.
Rarely are we faced with the need to hold a potential world-ending villain at bay. But most of us go through the daily dance of trying to balance our own needs with the demands of work, significant others, friends, and community groups. At work we’re frequently trying to juggle completing our own assignments with helping support the needs of the rest of our team. At home, we try to carve out some time for ourselves and our interests amidst the requests of family or significant others.
Finding the balance between selfishness and selflessness is the key to avoiding becoming completely burned out from constantly meeting everyone else’s needs or becoming so self-satisfied by putting yourself first that no one can bear to be around you. Discovering the answers to when to say yes and when to say no, when to step forward and when to step back, might not make us superheroes, but can make our lives more fulfilling and complete.