Spider-Man and Guilt by Rev. Jonathan Rogers
*Put on Spider-Man mask*
Guilt is one of my least favorite emotions. It lives in my upper back, under my shoulder blades, and in my face and neck, just behind my jaw. It draws me in on myself, making me not only metaphorically defensive but literally putting me in a hunkered-down, defensive physical stance. I’m not open, curious, courageous, *do Wonder Woman stance*, the way I want to be. Guilt is one of my least favorite emotions. In fact…
*Take off Spider-Man mask*
I’m starting to feel guilty for preaching with a mask on, because I know I am less accessible, and harder to understand that way; as someone with partial deafness, I have a harder time understanding people when I can’t see their facial expressions. As Audre Lorde reminded us this morning: Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” May my guilt lead me to change! So, here’s that first part again, without the mask.
Guilt is one of my least favorite emotions. It lives in my upper back, under my shoulder blades, and in my face and neck, just behind my jaw. It draws me in on myself, making me not only metaphorically defensive but literally putting me in a hunkered-down, defensive physical stance. I’m not open, curious, courageous, *do Wonder Woman stance*, the way I want to be. Guilt is one of my least favorite emotions.
In the Spider-Man origin story, our hero must constantly deal with the guilt of knowing that he could have prevented the death of his Uncle Ben, a man who raised him and taught him how to be a caring and compassionate person. Spider-Man had the chance to stop the thief who murdered Uncle Ben, but he decided to get even with a crooked wrestling promoter by letting the thief go. His pettiness led to the death of an innocent person who was like a father to Spider-Man. One can hardly imagine the level of guilt that that must instill in a person, much less a teenager with little experience of processing deep emotional hurt and turmoil. When he chases down the thief who killed Uncle Ben, the criminal begs Spider-Man, saying: “Just give me a chance!” Spider-Man replies: “What about my Uncle Ben?! Did you give him a chance?!” Then he commits savage and unnecessary acts of physical violence against the criminal, because, and I say this with all the ambiguity and guilt of someone whose favorite movie so far this year was John Wick 2, there’s nothing movie audiences love more than righteous violence. Fueled by the guilt of his complicity in Uncle Ben’s death, Spider-Man becomes one of the most prolific crime-fighters New York City has ever seen. He has taken Audre Lorde’s words to heart: “(guilt) is a response to one’s own…lack of action. If it leads to change, it can be useful.” The guilt leads him to change, and he is thereby making it useful.
The hard thing about guilt is that, especially these days, it can feel like it’s always there, one way or another. We are so cognizant of the need for self-care, that when we overwork or overextend ourselves, we feel bad for not paying attention to our own needs. But on the other hand, there is so much more to do than any one person can possibly do, that when we take time to care for ourselves, it’s easy to feel guilty about the work that we are not doing. That work might be a job, or a volunteer commitment, a family social or caretaking commitment, an educational goal, or almost any obligation, whether self-imposed or externally imposed, that we carry in our day-to-day, week-to-week lives. I can’t even keep track of all the things in my life that I feel guilty about not paying enough attention to, but I knew the list had gotten too long when I started catching myself feeling guilty for not paying enough attention to my fantasy football team! What I ended up doing in fantasy football, is that I became co-owners of a team with my friend Andy, who I grew up going to church with and playing with while our moms went to Women’s Group together. Shout-out to small group ministry, anyone who is in a small group ministry group, and anyone who gets to hang out with your friends while your parents are at small group ministry. So Andy and I co-own a fantasy football and a fantasy basketball team now, and if one of us forgets to set a line-up or put in a waiver claim, the other person usually has their back. More importantly it’s been a helpful way to stay in touch with a valued and long-time friend. I am grateful once again for Audre Lorde’s instruction that “(guilt) can be useful if it leads to change.”
We saw a little bit of this in the Spider-Man 2 clip from this morning, where Peter’s guilt has led him to change how he is present and caring for the love of his life, Mary Jane. He tells her “I shined my shoes, combed my hair, did my homework. I do my homework now.” After failing to be there for her earlier in the movie, failing to be there both for her and for what he sees as his duties fighting crime, Peter wants her to know that he’s there for her now. He felt guilty (and probably sad, lonely, and some other emotions) about sacrificing the intimate love he and Mary Jane have for each other, and so he’s doing his best to change. But his changing is not enough, since she tells him “Peter, I’m getting married.” I was surprised by how not-devastated he seemed, and indeed, by the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) Mary Jane is rushing back to be with Peter. I guess that’s superhero privilege!
I admit that part of the reason this scene resonates with me is that I was 17 when Spider-Man 2 came out, and I definitely would have sacrificed superhuman powers, if I had them, in order to be able to go out with Kirsten Dunst, the actress who plays Mary Jane. And I suspect there are some of us who would have been HIGHLY flattered for Tobey Maguire, the guy who plays Peter Parker, to shine his shoes, comb his hair, and start doing his homework on our behalf! They are a stunningly glamorous couple, even accounting for the degree to which we have been socialized to prefer the traits of thin, white, hetero, cis-gender actors and actresses. BUT, even if neither of these folks make you want to hang upside down from a fire escape and kiss them in the rain, there are relatable aspects of Peter Parker’s life that Spider-Man’s work interferes with. Aunt May has also helped to raise Peter, and is the most important person in the world to him after Uncle Ben dies. But in Spider-Man 2, we find out that Aunt May is facing financial troubles and eviction. Even in the midst of all that she is giving Peter money, seeing that he is spread thin and needs help. He gratefully accepts it, but then he finds out she is facing eviction, and he feels guilty for accepting help from her and for not being able to do more, at least to that point, to help Aunt May avoid her predicament. It seems that as much guilt as Spider-Man feels at not having been able to save Uncle Ben, there is plenty left over for Peter to feel about not being able to help Aunt May in the aftermath.
So, there’s the Spider-Man side of this equation, where he will literally never be able to fight enough crime that he can stop feeling guilty about being complicit in his Uncle Ben’s death. And then there’s the Peter Parker side, where he still has a life to live and feels guilty about not being there for his friends and family when they need him. Right from the beginning, Peter Parker has understood Spider-Man’s need to assuage his guilt by trying to avenge Uncle Ben through fighting all the crime in New York. It takes longer for Spider-Man to start to realize that Peter Parker has needs, also, and to ease off his crime-fighting, pick his battles, so that Peter can have a real life, too. In Spider-Man 2, the stress of Peter’s life falling apart actually makes Spider-Man’s powers go away at various times. This is part of how Spider-Man realizes that his needs and Peter Parker’s are intertwined, and that together they cannot be the superhero, or the regular guy, that they want to be unless they can strike a balance and find a happy medium.
If we are open to it, this balance can inform our own lives. Just as the guilt-driven need to fight crime will forever fuel Spider-Man, I have been motivated for as long as I can remember by an internal voice saying that I can never do enough to make the world a more just and equitable place. And that because I can never do enough, I have to do absolutely, literally everything I can, or else my life will have been wasted. Thanks to a lot of good advice and difficult introspection, I no longer believe that voice, but it’s still there. I’ve started asking myself “Is this guilt productive? Is there something I can actually do based on the guilt that I’m feeling? What is a reasonable thing to do or amount to do based on my guilt and an objective assessment of it?” And then, I try to do what I can do, and not worry about the rest. I like to think that these days, my inner Spider-Man gives sufficient room to my inner Peter Parker to live his life in a healthy and productive manner that allows me to be there for my friends and family in the ways that are important to me. My aunt hasn’t gotten evicted and in fact lives in a really nice house these days, so that feels like a good sign!
For some people, the voice of guilt is less one of general angst than it is tied to a specific event. My wife, Annie, told me this week that her biggest professional goal is tied to an event in her personal life that caused her years’ worth of horrific guilt. Annie is a physician, and her passion is palliative care and having end-of-life conversations with families of people who are dying. She’s very skilled in this field, and takes every opportunity to teach students at Emory Hospital how to develop this difficult skill. Until now, I had not realized how much of her passion in this area is driven by feeling like her own father’s death could have been handled better. He passed away in 2012, and though he was in hospice care, Annie and I saw the ways that their family could have been better cared for and communicated with during that time. Annie felt like she personally could have done more to prepare her parents. Annie felt guilty about this for a long time, but then decided that although she could never go back and change her family’s experience of hospice care, she could improve that experience for others in the future. She accepted that “if (guilt) leads to change, then it can be useful…”
So, whether you take your cues from Spider-Man or Audre Lorde, whether your guilt is general or specific or all of the above and more, the blessing I leave you with today is this: may your guilt lead to change, so that it can be useful! Peace, Salaam, Shalom, and may it be so.