Doctor Strange is like other Marvel movies in its good sense of humor, awe inspiring special effects, and the story of a regular man becoming a hero. Yet, within all those laughs and spectacular fight scenes there is a bit of wisdom that delves into what we’re meant to do here in our life. What we’re meant to contribute. And it all resides in one line: “It’s not about you.” I believe what makes this line so important is how it contrasts against Doctor Strange’s original statement, “You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” It represents the progression that Strange makes throughout the movie, as well as a point of view that anyone can take on in life. It’s the difference between believing that nothing we do matters and that we should really on care about taking care of ourselves, a rather nihilistic point of view as it were, against the idea that what we do matters, and each point of view in itself sends out ripple effects in the way a butterfly’s beating wings can create a hurricane.
Starting at the beginning of the movie, and the idea that we’re just momentary specks and the universe in no way cares what we do, and is essentially in no way affected by our individual actions, we can see how such thoughts would create a rather narcissistic personality that Strange portrays. He only cares about himself and what makes him look good. He wants to be the best doctor there is, not by saving as many lives as he can, but by picking the most interesting medical cases and then only those he knows he will be successful in. He’s not alone in this, as after his accident another doctor points out that he won’t take on Strange’s case because he has his own reputation to think of. But this isn’t just about narcissism, which is something that Strange comes to realize when his very words are said back to him by the villain Kaecilius, who is intent on handing the world over to Dormammu. Kaecilius is narcissistic in a way, in thinking he knows what’s best for the world. Thinking he knows how to save it. Beyond that however, he believes that this world is doomed and that on our own we can’t make a difference, on our own we’re only going to be suffering, namely because here there is death.
One could say Kaecilius is trying to find meaning in what he sees as a meaningless world. After all, what does any of it matter if it’ll all end in death anyway. He doesn’t believe in what anyone would consider a normal code of ethics. He kills freely, and doesn’t even appear bothered when his own followers die. This isn’t exactly strange in a villain, but his pursuit of Dormammu in the idea that there will be no more death, and perhaps his belief that it’ll undo the deaths that have already occurred makes his actions one that have to be taken in a different light. After all, he thinks he’s saving the world from the very meaninglessness that he feels. Kaecilius would definitely have understood Macbeth’s words,
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Just like Macbeth, Kaecilius sees this world as nothing and empty, while Doctor Strange isn’t as aware of his feelings as such. Not until he loses the use of his hands, in at least the capacity to use them for surgery, at which point the entire meaning he has given to his life evaporates. Without that, he is lost. He goes to extremes to get that sense of importance back. He sees the world and his life within it as hopeless and empty. Even as he tells The Ancient One that she’s nothing but a tiny momentary speck, he really sees everyone that way, including himself. The universe has been indifferent to him, he had his great gift taken away because of it, if the universe had cared then surely someone like him would’ve been spared such a tragedy. Yet, ultimately, isn’t he given something even greater than the chance to show off how skilled he is with a scalpel? He is instead placed right where the universe needed him to save the world. After all, “It’s not about you.”
The Ancient One even points out that his becoming a doctor was never about helping others. It wasn’t about doing what was right or good. “You became a doctor to save one life above all others. Your own.” Strange doesn’t have a true foundation of ethics, he doesn’t try to do what is good, because he doesn’t really see things in such a way. Sure he doesn’t agree with Kaecilius’ actions, and he wants to stop him in a vague sort of way, though it’s not for him to do such, and he complains when he gets put in a position where he’s forced to fight them. Yes, he wants bad people to be stopped, but away from him so it won’t bother him, because it’s all meaningless in the end and he just doesn’t want to be bothered by it. So while he might argue his code of ethics as a doctor to do no harm, in reality he just doesn’t see the point of any of it. Just like Kaecilius, his nihilistic point of view leads him to be unwilling to put himself in harm’s way to do good, because that forces him to face his own mortality; the one thing he’s been trying to prevent in his pursuit of bettering how doctors can stave off the clutches of death. He too sees death as the ultimate destroyer for the meaning of life.
Once more The Ancient One understands this fear as she tells him, “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, your time is short.” Because death isn’t what makes life meaningless, it’s focusing only on ourselves, and letting our fear of the unknown control us is what will truly destroy the meaning of life. “It’s not about you.” It’s about all the things you can do in this world, and for this world. It’s about all the interactions, and the consequences of those actions. Like any superhero movie, it’s a subsequent set of events that ultimately leads Doctor Strange to having mystical powers and rising up to fight Dormammu. It took not just his hands being destroyed, but a series of interactions with other people that made him who he now is.
It took a nurse at a physical therapy clinic to not just tell him of a patient who overcame an irreversible injury, but to take the time to find the file and prove to Doctor Strange that it did really happen. That a paraplegic was able to get up and walk again. Now some have asked what are the odds that the one person who was helping Strange during this time would happen to know of this one other case, but that’s life isn’t it? Sometimes coincidences happen, and things just line up perfectly, and if we’re there to act when it’s required of us and do what needs to be done we can make a difference in another person’s life that we may never have imagined possible, or even ever know that it happened. We can’t see the ripple effects our actions send out, we can’t see the tiny changes and larger outcomes to everything we do. It would be wonderful if we could, but all we can do is be willing to take a chance, to be there to do what needs to be done, and to believe in something bigger than ourselves, even if that is simply the betterment of humanity. Now beyond that nurse, there was Jonathan Pangborn, the paraplegic, who was willing to tell Strange of what he did to be cured and able to walk again, and where he needed to go to seek help. Baron Mordo saved him from the thugs, and then brought him to Kamar-Taj, where he also beseeched The Ancient One to teach Strange their ways and give him a chance. Then there was The Ancient One who did choose to teach Strange, and give him a chance, and understand that he would accept the choices The Ancient One had made, even as Mordo could not. These were all the tiny ripples that made Doctor Strange the hero that no longer feared for his own life or well-being, but chose to sacrifice himself again and again to Dormammu in order to hold the destruction of Earth at bay.
Strange finally came to see that life had meaning, that it was worth fighting for, that there is good and evil in the world and that there needs to be someone to hold the line. More so, that he had the capability to fight that evil, and so he had the obligation to do what needed to be done to save the world, even at the possible cost of his own life. Repeatedly. “The bill comes due” (Mordo). In the end everything we do has consequences, and so everything we do has meaning, because with each action we change not just our lives, but the lives of those around us. We have meaning in this universe because of what we can bring to it, and each of us are at times placed in a position that could make huge changes in another’s life whether we realize it or not. Let the ripples we send out be those to make the world a better place; let the universe know that you do indeed have a purpose and that it cannot be indifferent to someone who could so easily change it.