An Unexpected Attraction to Dr. Strange

You know what the Monty Python boys say . . . And now for something completely different . . .

Comic books were never a fascination for me as a child mainly because my parents refused to purchase them. “Waste of money” they would say, so for pulp entertainment, I was left to rummage through copies of Mad belonging to my much older brother. Out of pity for my growing sense of unsupervised irony, a cousin slipped me a stack of Avengers comics so I at least had enough childhood knowledge about Iron Man not to look culturally deficient when Robert Downy, Jr. brought his story to film.

Beyond the Avengers and a few Haunted Tank issues, I had no further interest in comics until I stumbled upon the magnetic duality of Calvin and Hobbes during my late teenage years. I never took the time to discover the one comic superhero who was endowed not with superhuman abilities but with a gifted mind. That comic hero was Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon turned mystic defender of the universe. I probably would have ignored Dr. Stephen Strange anyway because who cares about a neurosurgeon, comic book version or otherwise, when you are a teenager? Little did I know what lay in the future.

After my involuntary induction into the Parkinsonian Society a decade ago (my description of being diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s at age 39), I did what every American does upon receiving life changing medical news: I searched the Internet and scared myself silly. Then I began a decade long sporadic study of Parkinson’s and the fascinating field of neuroscience. A little knowledge of Dr. Stephen Strange might have been beneficial then.

Having ignored previous biology classes, I learned what most people already knew – that our brain and nerves are our electrical system. Instead of wires, we have cells that carry electrically charged command signals from brain to body part. When certain cells mutate and disrupt the electrical flow, we have movement disorders develop such as Parkinson’s along with a host of much more debilitating diseases that I remain grateful for not having.

To further mentally align my newfound knowledge with something that I did understand, I began comparing living with Parkinson’s to driving an old English sports car, more specifically one that relies upon a Lucas electrical system, which for some reason (I blame the inefficiencies of socialism) was used by all English manufacturers. These systems were so famously unreliable, a fame rising like smoke from a burned out engine compartment, that Lucas was called the Prince of Darkness. Years ago, I owned an old Triumph whose headlights flickered when I pressed the accelerator and whose horn sounded when I turned left. Maybe Lucas was giving me an early political warning.

All joking aside, current Parkinson’s DNA research into the cause of specific gene mutations gives us hope. These mutations cause proteins to be tagged incorrectly in the brain thereby disrupting the proper flow of neurons. Based on this research, treatments may soon be approved to finally halt the progression of the disease and maybe cure it outright. Most Parkinson’s patients still rely on a drug developed in the 1960’s for optimum treatment though this drug does not stop the disease’s progression.

Beyond gaining a basic understanding of how the brain and nervous system function on the biological level, my limited looksee into neuroscience exposed me to the philosophical conflict between the notions of the “brain” versus the “mind.” An excellent introduction to this debate is Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Thomas Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law Emeritus at New York University, uses the term “psychophysical reductionism” to describe the claim that the physical/biological sciences can provide a theory of everything. He uses “antireductionism” to describe those features that cannot be explained by a biological process such as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value.

Unlike other atheistic doubters of the non-material such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and former University of Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Nagel opens his mind to the questions posed by biologists and philosophers who promote intelligent design theory. Though he does not believe in a theistic deity, Nagel asserts that there are unknown and unseen nonphysical forces at work that interact with our physical brain to create the mind. He believes a great age of discovery lies ahead as humans figure out how these nonphysical interactions work.

I have a choice at this juncture. I could continue muddling the complex arguments presented in Nagel’s book and risk losing even the most dedicated reader. Or I can greatly simplify the main conflict to a point that even I can understand it by briefly reviewing the latest Marvel film Dr. Strange. Don’t faint. I fully admit that I am drawing inspiration from Marvel Comics instead of Oxford University Press.

Before you think me unhinged and click on over to the Wall Street Journal Online, take a moment to consider the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted neurosurgeon who after an automobile accident, loses the use of his hands and sets out to heal himself. Played by the talented English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Dr. Strange rises above the typical comic hero who relies upon some superhuman strength or gizmo to be heroic. Dr. Strange just uses his mind.

Cumberbatch brings a humor and intelligence to the main character that has been lacking in other Marvel films. Captain America was so stilted that by the end of the film, I wished I had been frozen in a block of ice. Cumberbatch’s performance should come as no surprise as he has been busy this year playing the Monster along side fellow Englishman Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein in an excellent stage version of Mary Shelly’s book. Cumberbatch also recently portrayed the hunchback king Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a BBC adaptation of several Shakespearean historical plays. Talent does tell and Dr. Strange is the better for it.

Dr. Strange begins the film as an arrogant and gifted surgeon who loses himself when he loses his physical ability to operate. (Believe me, when your muscles won’t do what they are told, it can be disconcerting.) When given the opportunity to learn about a spiritual path towards healing, he scoffs, “No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.” That quote could have come straight from Dawkins. In his helplessness, Dr. Strange finally opens his mind to the metaphysical.

After a few hard lessons Dr. Strange discovers that there are, indeed, other worlds than these and entities that we can see only through a glass darkly. He discovers that his gifts reside in his mind and not in his hands. At the moment of his greatest challenge as he struggles with his ego, his teacher says to him what we all need to be reminded of, “It’s not about you.” He ends his lessons as a humble and gifted surgeon who faces the choice to heal himself physically and return to his old life or continue his spiritual growth for the protection of all humanity. He chooses to protect the world and finds the forces of evil arrayed against him.

Some may object to my positive review of a story that has more occult about it than Christian doctrine. The talk of magic, spells and ancient mystical artifacts may bother some even though we hear these words in the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I give credit to the creators of Dr. Strange for opening his mind to the spiritual world and siding him with good against evil. The film reminds us that good can come from the most unexpected places – a fact that I hope proved in the political realm over the next four years.

I’ll leave you with the best quote of the film. Exasperated over his early arrogance,  Dr. Strange’s teacher observed, “You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts form reality.”

Or as John the Beloved wrote in the first verse of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Thomas Nagel, C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien could not have said it better.

Thank You

To the Citizens of Blue Ridge and Greer,

Please accept my sincerest thanks for the opportunity to represent all of you in the South Carolina House. Since my election in 2008, I have cast many votes on your behalf often in difficult economic circumstances. Some votes have been controversial and for those of my neighbors who disagreed with me on various issues, I appreciate your patience and civility. Please know that I diligently weigh each vote and attempt to reflect the will of the community in a thoughtful and prudent manner.

This year I am very humbled to run unopposed. I am thankful for the confidence that you have placed in me. As I look back to 2008, I promised myself then that I would not make a career out of politics and that remains my promise. Frankly, I am probably more surprised than anyone that a fifth term in office awaits me, God willing. I suspect that this term will be the most challenging so far. Please know that no matter the challenge, I will continue to represent our community as I have done so in the past – with a conservatism born in Blue Ridge and an optimism made in Greer.

In Your Service,


Tommy Stringer

Tuesday’s Presidential Election: Lonely for the Quintessential American

The first entry featured in A Torch Kept Lit, a new compilation of obituaries penned by William F. Buckley and originally printed in National Review, was that of Dwight Eisenhower. A moderate Republican who believed that Big Government was as desirable as a big military, Eisenhower was not received kindly by conservatives.

Buckley expressed a wistful feeling of “what could have been” as he concluded Eisenhower’s obituary, “If he was, somehow at the margin deficient, it was because the country did not rise to ask of him the performance of a thunderbolt. He gave what he was asked to give. And he leaves us, if not exactly bereft, lonely; lonely for the quintessential American.”

Americans remain so as we prepare to vote for our next President on Tuesday. Most of us admit that neither candidate represents the “quintessential American” unless those words are mere adjectives to describe a narrower person such as “Donald Trump is the quintessential American huckster” or “Hillary Clinton is the quintessential American liar.” (After the election we will either have to add a boiler room or a Watergate Suite to the White House. If you are unsure about the boiler room reference, check out Glengarry Glen Ross. If you are unsure about Watergate, then whisper “Richard Nixon” into a mirror three times and see what happens.) Regardless, we are fated to be without the quintessential American as our leader for another four years.

Given the bleak choices before us, we understand why some Americans may decide not to vote. We must remind them that the lack of a credible candidate makes this election all the more important. Every four years Americans are given the opportunity to affirm our Constitution. By voting, we affirm not just the Bill of Rights but our governmental structure itself – the three branches of government, their separate and distinct powers, and the checks and balances between them. The importance of this structure rises as the character of our electoral choices fall. This is not an election to sit out.

While reading the obituary, I was surprised that Buckley questioned if Eisenhower was “at the margin deficient” because Americans did not ask of him “the performance of a thunderbolt.” Buckley was talking about the Supreme Allied Commander that defeated the Nazis. Such was the stature of our leaders in those days when even Eisenhower could be considered marginally deficient and such was the high expectation of his critics. What would Buckley have said of our choices next Tuesday?

Trump and Clinton are at their core deficient but their nominations were not a mistake or a case of Americans getting what we deserve. Trump and Clinton stand before us precisely because Americans have been promised thunderbolts but keep getting much less from the two major political parties who produce these nominees every four years. This time around we quit believing in thunderbolts and nominated the 40-watts up front. Next time we may quit believing in the party process itself unless they can again produce a candidate who resembles the quintessential American.

Tommy Stringer