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Who Should Decide What Worth Means—and If You're Worthy?

You need to decide for yourself what worthiness means—and hold yourself to it.

Key points

  • It's dangerous to one's sense of self to let others determine what worthiness means for you and to decide if you are worthy.
  • Autonomy and authenticity are two philosophical concepts that describe the ability—and responsibility—to set one's own path in life.
  • Personal integrity demands that we determine our own standards for worthiness and hold ourselves to them.

An important theme throughout the history of Thor in Marvel Comics is worthiness, especially because the inscription on his hammer Mjolnor demands that he "be worthy" to even lift it. As we saw in my last post, Thor faces very high standards of worthiness to do so: He must be selfless, willing to sacrifice for others, and act without thinking. But who decided this is what worthiness means? Whether you hold his father Odin responsible, because he chose the inscription on the hammer, or the hammer itself, which seems to have developed a mind of its own, one thing’s for sure: It wasn’t Thor.

In this second post drawn from my latest book, we will explore the importance of who decides what it means to be worthy. To do so, we need to introduce a recent development in the comics (and movies): a new Thor! After the original Thor, or the Odinson, finds himself unworthy—more on this in the next post—a woman soon appears who can wield Mjolnir in ways her predecessor never imagined. What’s more, the new Thor is none other than Jane Foster, the Odinson’s true love among the people of Midgard (that's Earth to you and me).1

Meet Jane Foster

After the Odinson becomes unworthy, Mjolnir “calls” to Jane Foster, signaling that it has found her worthy—even if its creator Odin strongly disagrees. (Odin couldn’t lift it himself, so I doubt the hammer cares what he thinks.) Jane takes to the hammer very quickly, telling it, “let us hope you knew what you were doing, mallet, when you deemed me worthy of hefting you. For I am not putting you back down just yet” (Thor, vol. 4, #2, January 2015). Many Asgardians challenge the new God of Thunder, including the Warriors Three—Hogun the Grim, Fandral the Dashing, and Volstagg the Voluminous—and she tells them, “I have no need to prove myself to you. Mjolnir knows I am worthy, and I know I am worthy” (Thor Annual, vol. 4, #1, April 2015).

Marvel Comics
Thor Annual #1 (2015)
Source: Marvel Comics

It’s that last part that is key. Even though Mjolnir declared Jane worthy in a specific sense, Jane didn’t need the hammer to confirm her worth in general. While the Odinson was raised with the goal of lifting the hammer being central to his concept of self-worth, Jane had a normal human upbringing and life: After her mother died from breast cancer, Jane decided to become a nurse (working with the Odinson’s original human alter ego, Donald Blake). Although her character was introduced in the early 1960s as a stereotypical love interest and damsel-in-distress, she evolved over the years to become a doctor herself and a valuable ally to both Thor and the broader superhero community. And Jane is no stranger to tragedy, having lost both her husband and her son to a car accident, then being diagnosed with breast cancer—not long before she picked up the hammer that transformed her into the Mighty Thor, which also had the effect of counteracting her chemotherapy, leaving her sicker than ever when she changed back.

Given all that Jane has experienced and overcome, it should come as no surprise that, over the years, she developed a firm sense of her own worth that she brought with her into her time as Thor. Contrast that with the Odinson, who performed countless “deeds of valor,” and witnessed his share of death and destruction (of mortals, at least), but this was all just a means to the end of earning the ability to lift Mjolnir. The Odinson was raised to seek the approval of the hammer (and by extension his father), while Jane was free to determine her own path and what she felt it meant to be worthy.

The Autonomous, Authentic Thor

Jane provides a fine example of a philosophical concept that goes by several names, all of which describe self-possession, setting your own path, and living up to your own standards. The 17th century philosopher Immanuel Kant called it autonomy, “the property that the will has of being a law to itself.”2 In other words, autonomy is the ability to choose to do the right thing, which you determine for yourself using your rational faculties, despite external pressures and internal desires pushing you to do otherwise. Every hero, “super” or otherwise, who chooses the call of duty over their own happiness is exercising their autonomy: They are following the dictates of morality over whatever they would rather do instead, even at great sacrifice. More important for us, only you can know the motivation behind your choices—and even then not perfectly—so it is up to you to judge whether you have lived up to the standard you set for yourself.

In the school of philosophy known as existentialism, the concept of authenticity serves much the same purpose as Kant’s autonomy. A central theme in existentialist writing, especially that of Jean-Paul Sartre, is self-determination, which is both a right and responsibility of every person: It is up to you, in the spirit of radical freedom, to decide who you are going to be, given your material conditions (or facticity), and then hold yourself to that ideal.3 Whereas Kant was more concerned about people resisting their selfish and base impulses to follow the moral law, the existentialists focused on resisting influences from outside, especially informal pressure from other people, to craft one’s own self. They held that every person has an obligation to be authentic to their own vision of who they want to be—and, as with Kantian autonomy, to judge to what extent they live up to that.

More generally, we can talk about this type of self-actualization and judgment in terms of integrity, one meaning of which refers to managing and balancing the different aspects of your moral character to create an internally consistent self.4 Someone who maintains their integrity always seems like the same person to outsiders, even when confronting a variety of situations and decisions, despite the moral complexities churning within them. Captain America is the epitome of integrity in the Marvel Universe, always making hard choices based on a bedrock moral code and holding himself to the same high standard.5

Learning a Lesson from the New Thor

Although Jane seems to exemplify autonomy, authenticity, and integrity, the Odinson falls short, at least as far as assessing his own worth is concerned. To be sure, given his relatively simplistic moral code based on a handful of warrior virtues, he can certainly be said to possess integrity in his choices and action. When it comes to judging his own worth, however, he trusts too much in Mjolnir, while all too quickly losing faith in his own worthiness and his assessment of it.

Jane is certainly proud to be judged worthy by Mjolnir, but does not rely on it to validate her worth. As she tried to do for years with her son, the Odinson’s mother Freyja warns Jane against relying on the hammer’s judgment:

Do not just be worthy of the hammer. You are not the first to wield it, and no matter your fate, you will not be the last. Be worthy of the name. Long after every hammer in creation has crumbled to dust, the name of Thor will echo still. That is the true honor you bear. That is the burden you must carry. (Thor, vol. 4, #5, April 2015)

In urging Jane to live up to the name “Thor” rather than the whims of a hammer, Freyja is trusting her to determine for herself what that name means and then hold herself to that self-determined standard—which corresponds precisely to what I described above, whether we call it autonomy, authenticity, or integrity. In this way, Jane Foster provides an excellent example for the rest of us on Midgard as we struggle to determine and evaluate our own worth amidst all the people trying to do so for us.

In the final post, we'll return to the Odinson to see how he dealt with being declared unworthy and how he found a somewhat paradoxical new way to understand worthiness to become Thor once again.

References

1. Mark D. White, A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics' Thor: If They Be Worthy (Ockham Publishing 2022).

2. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (trans. James W. Ellington, Hackett Publishing Company, 1785/1993), p. 441.

3. A great introduction to existentialism is Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016).

4. For more on this sense of integrity, see Lynne McFall, “Integrity,” Ethics 98 (1987): 5–20. For a more general view, see Damian Cox, Marguerite La Caze, and Michael Levine’s entry on integrity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. For more on Captain America and integrity, see chapter 4 in my book The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

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