It’s Not About You: Doctor Strange and the Dichotomy of Self
“It’s not about you.”
The movie is 2016’s Doctor Strange, written and directed by Scott Derrickson, and the line is spoken by a character called the Ancient One. Her astral form hovers before a picture window gazing at the falling snow as Doctor Stephen Strange—himself also in astral form—hovers beside her, begging her to return to life. But the Ancient One is dying, and she has one last bit of wisdom to give to Doctor Strange before she goes.
“It’s not about you.”
If you’ve seen the movie—and I hope you have, because I have just spoiled a major plot point, and I’m about to spoil more—you know Stephen Strange has, by this point in the story, been completely broken down and stripped of everything that was part of his former identity as a neurosurgeon: his wealth and position, reliance on pure science, and most important, the use of his hands. The Ancient One has poured all her energy thus far into expanding Stephen Strange’s mind into the spiritual realm, teaching him to harness magical abilities he never knew existed and rebuilding him into a new man. When he first arrives in her sanctuary, seeking nothing more than physical healing for his broken hands, one of the first pieces of wisdom she offers him is, “You think too little of yourself.” Now, at the end of her life, she tells him what seems to be the opposite:
“It’s not about you.”
So Stephen Strange is faced with a seeming contradiction: Which is it? Does he think too little of himself? Or is it all—everything, all the truth and meaning in the universe he’s been looking for—ultimately not about him (and, by extension, us, as the viewers)? The answer is, of course, both. It’s not about us and we think too little of ourselves.It’s not about us. And we think too little of ourselves.
Scott Derrickson is a professing Christian, and his beliefs are stamped all throughout Doctor Strange, especially regarding this dichotomy of self in the human condition. Stephen Strange has to first recognize his infinite worth, rejecting pure scientism and embracing spirituality. Despite having a massive ego, according to the Ancient One he “thinks too little of himself.” He withdraws into a monk-like existence where he disciplines himself to study and learn and become immersed in the mystic arts. And in all this time, the Ancient One refuses to call him “Doctor,” slowly chipping away at his ego, encouraging him to die daily to his self and be remade into something—someone—new. There is a great parallel here to the Christian walk—echoes of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23–25: “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’ ” Daily denial. Stephen Strange practices it while under the tutelage of the Ancient One, but when she is dying, she worries he still doesn’t understand. “It’s not about you,” she tells him.
There is one more thing the Ancient One tells Doctor Strange before she dies: he could heal his hands if he wants to. He could use the mystic arts he’s learned to ease his daily pain. He could channel his power within. He could, essentially, self-actualize and return to his former life, his former prestige, his former power. But if he does that, he will lose the ability to use his powers to help anyone else. So his choice becomes this: serve others, or serve himself. A life of self-sacrifice, or a life of self-actualization. One choice will be full of daily pain. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. The other choice will be pain-free and the end of the journey he set out on to heal his broken hands and regain his former life. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?
It is the most important part of the story, and it is appropriate that it happens at a moment of death. Although the Ancient One is physically dying, Stephen Strange has to decide if he will put his desires to death. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”1 And the apostle John wrote, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”2 The Ancient One’s admonition of, “It’s not about you,” serves as a last-ditch attempt, perhaps, to encourage Stephen Strange to make the right choice. She can see more clearly than he what will become of him if he allows his desires to be put to death. Don’t love your old life. Choose to continue to die daily to yourself. It’s the bookend of all her teachings that began with, “You think too little of yourself.”
A Sunday school teacher I once had liked to say he holds a daily funeral every morning before his feet hit the floor. In his deep Alabama drawl, he would smile and quote Galatians 2:20 from memory: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This was his favorite teaching: Choose whom you will serve. Die daily to yourself. Make way for Christ, and Christ will work through you.
“It’s not about you.”
Death is not only a physical condition we all must suffer someday, it is a symbolic condition we can, and should, cycle through daily. I would argue that submitting to a daily death is the only way to live a fulfilling life, and isn’t that what we all strive for when we make New Year’s resolutions?
New Year’s is a time when we—in the Western tradition, at least—acknowledge we are broken and need to be fixed. This cultural tradition comes out of a renewing desire every year to have our best year now. As if this year we can do something different, we can strive to change, we can lose those 10 pounds, we can stop smoking, we, we, we… But the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they always revolve around us rolling up our sleeves and trying to fix ourselves, in a vague struggle for self-actualization that usually ends in failure because we—like Stephen Strange—are the broken people trying to fix our broken selves. When we try to fix ourselves, whether it’s at New Year’s or any other time, we think too little of ourselves. On the flip side, when we try to make life all about us, we lose sight of the fact that it’s not about us. There can be no self-actualization apart from Christ.
Die daily to self? Choose self-sacrifice over self-fulfillment? Christ not only resolves the dichotomy of self that is found in human existence, he provides the model for how we are to live. Christ did these things, and when he came in flesh, he not only denied his very nature, but he did so unto death. Because we are of infinite importance, he died for us and rose again to save us from death. Because he is God, he did it for his glory.
“It’s not about you” and “you think too little of yourself.” It is not an either/or. There is a beautiful mystery in this resolution of contraries. We are Imago Dei and dust of the earth; vessels for God’s very breath, and fragile, fallible creatures. The God who cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden is the same God who sent his son to die on our behalf. How can you have your best 2017? Let go of your life. Hold a daily funeral.
Oh, and what choice does Stephen Strange make? He becomes a doctor of a different sort. He keeps his scarred and broken hands. He finds new life in death.3
1 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 1952.
2 John 12:24–25 New International Version, 1984
3 Derrickson, Scott, 2016. Doctor Strange. USA: Marvel Studios.
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I love the movie; while it has a similar arc to Tony Stark’s story, Stark gets to keep his ego and wealth, albeit in a new direction. Strange is completely broken, which is much more interesting.
Interesting article – great subject. I had no desire to see Dr. Strange before this, and now I will. Further thoughts: what is the role of desire in death to self? According to C.S. Lewis, anything that has not died has not been resurrected. While true, Chesterton says, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” As in, desire plays a very active role in the Christian life. Often, when Christians speak of ‘death to self,’ (a phrase which does not appear in scripture) they often assume that desire must die, in fact, it may be that they prefer it that way as unmet longing is often the source of greatest pain (loneliness, loss, etc).
I very much enjoyed this post. I’ve seen the movie and I absolutely love it! The dichotomy of letting go of yourself to instead serve the greater good is something I cherish deeply and strive to do daily. Since we’re human I know that we will all fail, but if we keep getting up and keep trying, then we will never be failures.
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