What does it take for a genius, billionaire, and playboy philanthropist to break out of his narcissism and put his life on the line for others? Tony Stark had all our culture covets and he was content to live for his own pleasure with little thought for the consequence it may have on others. A seismic shift in his perspective occurred when Stark suffered under his captors who commandeered the very weapons he created. He could no longer live with zero accountability. His suffering would forever awaken his sympathy for others he witnessed suffer. Responsibility in the midst of tragic circumstance proved the metal of Iron Man.
(For more on Tony Stark from the recent Iron Man film, see my related post: “Play Boy to Iron Man“)
Our Shared Degrees of Narcissism
Before we judge Stark to be too full of himself at the beginning, could we be just as self-absorbed? Don’t we dream and consume most of our energy striving to be the person that Stark is? We seek to be a:
Genius: Intelligence. Education. Potential for wealth, security, and power.
Billionaire: Money. Self sufficiency. Self determination. Toys. Technology.
Playboy: Pleasure. Indulgence. Entertainment. Stress relief.
Philanthropist: Social Status. Recognition. A good name.
Like Stark, our obsession with personal advancement, money, self satisfaction, and reputation gets in the way of living for others and often even adds to their suffering. We have a magnetic attraction to experiences that satisfies our self absorption.
We are often unaware of the consequences our narcissism has on others because we distance ourselves from people who suffer for our choices. Furthermore, we who evade suffering have little sympathy for those who do suffer. Tony didn’t face the terror of his own weapons until he was held captive by those who commandeered them. So what can pry open our clutching hands to self obsession and start to live more fully for others?
A Seismic Shift.
Stark both suffered and saw many people he cared about suffer because of his own actions. He now had that powerful combo of both empathy and sympathy to drive him to do what was right. This tragic suffering freed him from his myopic focus on self. He would have probably never chosen this path, but he still had to make a costly choice. In addition to the suffering he and others endured, he needed to take responsibility. Such circumstances surfaced a deeper conviction within Stark to do what is right, even though taking action to save others risked financial loss and shame.
Tony Stark addresses the press conference following his escape from his captors, saying, “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”
“I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be. What direction it should take, one that I’m comfortable with and is consistent with the highest good for this country, as well.”
What ingredients are the recipe for a hero?
(endures personal suffering)+(the ability to identify with others who suffer: empathy)+(ability to respond with self abandon to save others: responsibility)=Hero.
The loss of comrades was more important to Stark than financial loss. The American Soldiers in the attack on the convoy. Yinsen dying sacrificially as he gave Stark extra time to escape his captors.
Personal enemies caused him to suffer in all 3 movies. The Chitauri invasion of New York in “The Avengers” gave him his greatest dilemma and showed his most heroic selflessness. He was willing to die to spare the city. Suffering offers us a way out of ourselves. We are humbled in the suffering we go through. We feel compelled to think about others we see suffer. It convicts our conscience to do the right thing, reminding us that life is not only about our comfort and pleasure while turning a blind eye to those who suffer.
Living for Others
Like Stark, there is hope for us narcissists that we can still live a life for others. Many of us have suffered in circumstances that humble us and make us see that our life is not only about us. We sympathize with others who suffer. Our love for them puts our life on hold, sometimes at great cost so that others can have a better life. When you are close to someone who is suffering, you want to do all you can.
We are more aware of the suffering that we can cause thanks to the media revealing stories from places far away from our place of purchase. Whether it is cheap clothes made in sweat shops that collapse in Bangladesh, or workers pushed to suicide, we can now make more informed ethical choices.
More heroes are coming together to fight disease, eliminate extreme poverty, bring ethics into our trade, and stand against human trafficking. There are every day heroes who suffer, empathize and take responsibility and do what is right. What we need is more Iron Men.
Perhaps you are content living a life of pursuing your own ambitions with little thought about others who suffer. Well, be warned. Your turn is coming. Either personal suffering or someone close to you will change your perspective and cause an internal conflict. Will I continue to live for myself or live for others? That is where your ability to respond and take action will make the difference, or not.
(See my last post of this series on becoming selfless: My Narcissism Meets an Unwelcome Hero)