Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lenten Lessons: Peter Parker on Temptation

For Lent I’m going to put the Famous Catholic project on hold (give me time to gather more names and do some research) and replace it with ‘Lenten Lessons.’ Each week, I’ll examine a particular fictional character who I think illustrates a useful subject for Lenten reflections.
                  We begin with the subject of Temptation, and our illustrative figure is Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man (as realized in the definitive, yet sadly short-lived show The Spectacular Spider-Man). 

                  When we first meet him, teenager Peter is exalting in his newfound identity as Spider-Man. He’s had a whole summer of just easy-going, carefree crime fighting and, as far as he’s concerned, everything is possible. After a lifetime of being the perpetually bullied class nerd, together with his best friends Harry Osborne and Gwen Stacey, Peter’s ready to take Junior Year by storm.
                  His newfound enthusiasm is brought to a screeching halt the next day. His ill-thought-out attempt to ask out a cheerleader ends disastrously. His nemesis, Flash Thompson, is able to push him around just as easily as ever. He discovers that his new after-school job is an unpaid position, and not only that, but his attempt to pitch himself as a photographer to the Daily Bugle newspaper ends with the Bugle’s editor, J. Jonah Jameson, throwing him out of the office (right before stealing his idea).
                  What Peter comes to realize is that being Spider-Man does not automatically make his life any better. As a matter of fact, as time goes on, it almost seems to make things worse. He loses his after-school job when he thoughtlessly sells pictures of himself fighting his mutated boss, Curt Connors (sometimes The Lizard). His friendship with Harry takes a hit when he becomes so concerned with battling the Shocker that he forgets all about his promise to help Harry study. His frequent late nights out end up getting him grounded.
                  In the face of all this, he begins to face increasing temptations to compromise his moral values. After the Lizard incident, Peter is so frustrated that he considers using a ‘gene cleanser’ he swiped from the lab to erase his spider powers. Not long after he toys with the idea of using his superhuman abilities to join the football team and gain some popularity at school. Far more serious is when the mob boss, Tombstone, offers to pay him handsomely just to look the other way on occasion. With his elderly aunt trying to decide whether the pay the electric, gas, or water bill this month, Peter can’t help but be tempted.
                  But the worst temptation of all comes when Peter ‘accidentally’ acquires a new suit: a power-enhancing, self-regenerating black alien ‘symbiote’ that takes an immediate liking to him. The suit allows him to save numerous people that he would otherwise have failed, but at the same time he didn’t exactly acquire it legally…

                  It is easy to justify sin; temptation wouldn’t be temptation if it didn’t sound reasonable. Every time Peter makes a mistake, he first justifies it to himself. When he considers cheating his way onto the football team, he tells himself that he’s just using his natural talent. When he decides to keep the symbiote, he justifies it by saying that he’s using it to help people.
                  The thing about temptation is that it always involves chasing something good. It may be an obviously inferior good (money, popularity) or it may be a genuinely important good (saving innocent lives). And Peter is not alone in this; almost every bad decision made by any character in the series has a clear path of temptation leading up to it. For instance, Dr. Connors made a bad choice in experimenting on himself, a choice that nearly ends up getting a lot of people killed (including his own family). His goal, however, was a laudable one; helping amputees like himself regain their lost limbs. Or consider Adrian Toombs, the Vulture; his anger with Norman Osborne (Harry’s father) is entirely justified, since Osborne stole his invention. Max Dillan AKA Electro’s anger over his condition and the treatment he receives because of it is likewise not only understandable, but tragic. And it isn’t just villains. Harry Osborne, who like Peter is a perpetually bullied nerd, quite naturally wants to earn some respect both from his peers and from his cold, objectivist father, which leads him into drug abuse. 

Left to Right: Rhino, Electro, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Shocker, Vulture

                  In each of these cases, the character feels himself justified in making the choices he does. And, in a sense, they are; they are either chasing a legitimate good or have an honest complaint that they are trying to rectify. Their choices, therefore, are justified by expedience: by need.
                  Need and personal experience (such as Harry’s need to impress his father, or Electro’s justifiable anger over his condition) are the fuels of temptation. That’s why a ‘personal morality’ is not just philosophically dubious, but actually worthless in practical terms. A personal morality, a morality based on one’s personal experience or feelings, has no substance to it; it’s made of the same thing as the temptations it’s supposed to protect against, so as soon as a particularly strong or subtle temptation appears, it crumbles. A personal morality is a house built on sand (though, ironically, the Sandman himself turns out to have a stronger moral code than you might expect).
                  What separates Peter from the other characters is that his morality is based on external, objective principles bequeathed to him by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Stealing and killing are always wrong. Honor your word. With great power comes great responsibility. Peter’s efforts to keep to these codes are imperfect and uneven, but at every point they are what keeps him from falling from the path of righteousness. Peter’s house is built on a rock (I’m not sure whether it was intentional, but surely the name ‘Peter’ is significant in this context). 

                  It also helps that whenever Peter strays from this path, he pays a heavy price. When he first acquired his powers and tried to use them irresponsibly, it cost the life of his uncle. When he kept the black suit despite the fact that it wasn’t his, it not only cost him his oldest friend, Eddie Brock, but also led to the creation of Venom, one of his most dangerous foes (and who comes very close to killing Aunt May, Gwen, and Peter himself).

On the other hand, whenever a character adheres to the morally correct choice despite the apparent consequences, he meets with unexpected success. Take, for instance, Flash Thompson. Peter’s main tormenter, Flash comes off as nothing more than your typical jock: loud, ignorant, and boastful. When he discovers that Harry had been juicing during their last football championship – which Flash had ruined his leg to win – he at first swears Harry to silence…then comes clean himself. “Championship’s worthless if it’s not won fair and square,” he grouses to his furious teammates. As they walk away in disgust, however, an attractive girl that Flash has been trying to win over for the past few episodes without success comes up to him to say that she was impressed by his honesty, and now that she sees what kind of person he really is, she’s up for going out with him.
                  Peter weaves and dodges around temptations as quickly, agilely, and imperfectly as he dodges his opponent’s attacks in battle. Sometimes he passes through them seemingly effortlessly, other times he takes a brutal hit and goes down painfully. But each time he gets back up; he asks forgiveness from the people he’s hurt and he hits back twice as hard. He teaches us three main things about temptation:

1.     Build Your House on a Rock

You can only survive temptation if you have moral principles that are external, objective, and non-negotiable.

2.     Allow no Compromise

Pope Benedict XVI describes it this way:

“Moral posturing is part and partial of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil. No that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place.”

Compromise; telling us that by abandoning one of our more ‘abstract’ values we can do more concrete good, is one of the most effective means of temptation, and, consequently, tends to have the most severe consequences (as shown here in the creation of Venom). It’s important to remember that we aren’t only tempted to doing superficial, lesser goods such as money or pleasure; the worst temptations of all are those that invite to do something great and useful, but in the wrong way.

3.     Ask Forgiveness

Whenever we fall (and we will), we need to present ourselves contritely before those we’ve wronged, admit our failure, and ask their forgiveness. We can’t change what we’ve done, but we can make it known that we intend to change what we will do in the future.

When you fall, get back up, ask forgiveness, and resolve to do better in the future.

Vive Christus Rex!

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