How Do You Reclaim Your Sense of Worth After Losing It?
Thor learns that the struggle to be worthy is what makes him truly worthy.
Posted August 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Once one loses their sense of self-worth, reclaiming it can be difficult, especially if this loss is coupled with depression.
- For Thor, the struggle to regain his worthiness is what makes him worthy—simply the fact that he's trying may be enough.
- With many large and vague goals, it can help to focus on the process of getting there rather than the final target.
Feelings of worthiness come and go for everybody; it’s a normal part of life. When we suffer a personal setback, we may feel worthless for a time, but, eventually, most of us bounce back (often with the help of family, friends, or a therapist). Some of us find this recovery harder than others, and if you’re one of those people, you have some fine company in the Marvel Universe.
As we saw in the first two posts (here and here) based on my latest book, the superhero Thor relies on external affirmation of his own worth, specifically in the form of being able to wield his mighty hammer, Mjolnir.1 Recently, this affirmation—the only source of self-worth he has ever known—was taken from him when he is told that no gods are worthy (referring to “gods” in the Marvel Universe sense, like the Asgardians, not truly divine beings). Taking this very personally, Thor descends into a period of deep self-loathing and depression (as shown in the 2017 miniseries The Unworthy Thor), and he comes to doubt he has any worth in any area of his life. Before he can recover, he needs to gain a more subtle appreciation of what being worthy means.
Helping the Unworthy Thor
The first thing Thor needs to do was discussed in the last post: He must define for himself, in the spirit of autonomy or authenticity, what worthiness means for him. Only by doing this can he reclaim his integrity based on his self-determined standards—or in terms of existentialism, recreate himself as an authentic person. His mother, Freyja, has been trying to tell him this for years. When Thor was a young boy trying to lift Mjolnir, she would tell him, “no hammer in all the heavens can make you a better god. Only the heart that beats in your chest can do that” (The Unworthy Thor #4, April 2017).
But Thor also needs a more nuanced understanding of what worthiness means, above and beyond the requirements of selflessness, sacrifice, and thoughtless actions we discussed in the first post. This more subtle idea starts to emerge as Thor fumes about the unworthiness of gods, to which his longtime friend and ally Beta Ray Bill responds, “every day you give your blood, your tears, your immortal soul… to prove [this] wrong” (The Unworthy Thor #5, May 2017).
In describing his friend’s never-ending efforts to be better, Beta Ray Bill gets to the true heart of worthiness as far as Mjolnir is concerned: It’s the struggle to be worthy that makes one so. As it turns out, Thor used to know this. In a flashback to his early days, when he was romantically involved with Jane Foster, they are lying in bed in Asgard, and Jane finds him staring at Mjolnir, as he does every morning, “like you’re afraid to touch it.” He admits that he may be afraid, and when Jane asks why, Thor explains that worthiness is not an absolute condition. It is something for which even a god must never stop striving. "I fear this hammer, because every morning when I wake... I never know if I will be able to lift it again… until I do." (The Unworthy Thor #4)
The Mighty Philosophy Behind This
The idea that an ongoing struggle to be worthy is essential to being worthy echoes several philosophical concepts we discussed in the first two posts.
First, recall Immanuel Kant’s concept of autonomy, the ability to resist external pressures and internal desires and instead do the right thing according to the moral law. Although everybody has the ability to make decisions autonomously, some of us are better at it than others. This capacity for autonomy, which Kant called “virtue” but we would call a person’s strength of character or will, must be developed and cultivated: “the way to acquire [strength] is to enhance the moral incentive (the thought of the law), both by contemplating the dignity of the pure rational law in us and by practicing virtue.”2 What’s more, we must constantly strive to maintain it: “if it is not rising, [it] is unavoidably sinking.”3 Not only is the ongoing struggle to remain one strength of character necessary to be virtuous, but the struggle is virtuous in itself—and in Thor’s case, it is an essential part of being worthy.
Second, the importance of acknowledging one’s unworthiness while struggling to be worthy is reminiscent of several concepts from Eastern philosophy. Many are familiar with the kōan of Zen Buddhism, philosophical puzzles that inspire us to think about concepts in different ways, such as “imagine the sound of one hand clapping.” It’s not difficult to find the same apparent paradoxes in common language, such as the logical contradiction in the simple phrase, “I am lying.” If I’m lying when I say this, that means I’m actually telling the truth, which means I’m actually lying… and so on.
There is a similar contradiction in claiming certain virtues that are based on not claiming them, such as modesty or humility. Can someone honestly claim to be humble? It seems not, because humility involves not trumpeting your virtues, including humility. Worthiness is a lot like humility, in that being too confident of it, or being too comfortable in always possessing it, may actually make you less worthy. Ideally, a person would reach a “golden mean,” like Jane Foster does: her sense of worthiness was reflected in confidence without arrogance, and tempered by her awareness of her mortal fallibility. For the Odinson, however, it is more difficult to maintain the golden mean, having been born the God of Thunder and presumptive heir to the throne of Asgard, so it may be easier for him to maintain worthiness by thinking himself unworthy and constantly trying to improve.
Finally, the struggle to be worthy in Mjolnir’s judgment should be routine or unthinking, recalling the Taoist concept of wei wu wei that we discussed earlier: “action through inaction,” or achieving something by not striving for it.4 In the first post, we saw that with things like happiness and love, we must put whatever goal we’re working toward out of our mind and instead focus on doing things that will lead to it, thereby achieving them indirectly and without counterproductive effort. This is the lesson Thor has to learn—or, to be more accurate, relearn, because the unthinking or automatic part of sacrifice and heroism was always part of the criteria for being worthy of Mjolnir.
Learning from Thor
When Thor wondered why Mjolnir now found Jane worthy but not him, his friend Heimdall recommended he focus less on the new Thor’s worthiness and more on his own. But he was only half right, because Thor needed to forget about his own worthiness altogether. Instead, he should focus on struggling to be worthy by doing the things that make him worthy, while not thinking about the goal of worthiness itself. In other words, he should pursue worthiness by not pursuing it—by remembering wei wu wei—and never assuming he has achieved it (or ever will).
We can follow this advice too, whether our goal is to improve our self-esteem or any other achievement that seems vague and out-of-reach.5 Want to master the guitar? Make the Olympic diving team? Get a number one Billboard single? It doesn't do any good to focus on that end result, because chances are you won't get there. But you know that deep down in your heart, the reason you're really pursuing these goals is your love of the activity it takes to get there. So you should devote yourself to that activity, and if you do it well enough, you might end up being the best. But even if you're not, you still will have achieved your own standard of excellence. And isn't that what really matters, in the end? As Thor would say... verily!
1. Mark D. White, A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics' Thor: If They Be Worthy (Ockham Publishing 2022).
2. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (trans. and ed. Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797/1996), p. 397.
3. Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 409.
4. Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, in Thomas Cleary (ed. and trans.), The Taoist Classics Volume One (Boston: Shambala, 1990.
5. Many of the themes in this conclusion were discussed on this Seize the Moment podcast about Thor and his struggles with worthiness.