Supernatural University: Life Is What You Make Of It; Lessons from Castiel
Way back in the summer of 2007, I did a series of five articles styled as “Lessons from …” various Supernatural characters. Those five, in chronological order, were Dean, John, Sam, Bobby, and Ellen. (If you want to read them, each character name is a link to the original article, so have at them!) Each of the articles looked at life lessons I thought we could learn from these characters in terms of both positive things to do and negative things to avoid. During this holiday season of reflection on times gone by, I realized that with the show’s introduction of several other significant characters over the years, I have a few more “life lessons” to explore, and this first one comes from Castiel.
While I still have major cosmological issues with the whole concept of an angel deprived of grace just being transformed into a human complete with a soul, I found a lot to ponder in Castiel’s journey during the first half of this season, especially in contrast with his similar experience during the alternate future of The End. In both instances, Castiel lost his angelic power and immortality and had to live as an ordinary human, while still remembering all he had been and done before. How he dealt with the experience, however, was completely different – and therein lies the lesson.
My very simple thesis for this class is that our own attitude is the biggest single factor in determining our happiness and sense of self-worth. We can’t control much of what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it and think about it – and if we look for positive ways to approach even negative things, we’re going to be happier than if our mindset is a negative one.
I don’t dispute that the circumstances surrounding Castiel’s respective losses had a lot of impact on his attitudes and choices. In particular, the creeping dread in the seemingly inexorable advance of the Croatoan virus’s slow apocalypse imbued everything in the world of The End with a sense of futility, a foregone conclusion that the fight against Lucifer was already lost and doom was inevitable. That advancing darkness mirrored Castiel’s own decline, flip sides of the same coin. Future Cas told Dean his loss of power as a rebel angel cut off from Heaven had been a gradual thing, complete only when all the other angels abandoned Earth. Castiel waned as Lucifer waxed. All Cas could see was how diminished he was in a darkening world, and that made him bitter and brittle. He lost all hope and any belief in a future, yielding instead to cynical hedonism and disparaging himself as useless compared to what he had been.
The current situation lacked that hopeless doom-sense, but Castiel’s absolute loss of power was the same. How he dealt with it, however, was very different. While still being fully aware of all the capability he had lost, he didn’t dwell on it; instead, he sought ways to make do, and perhaps even make amends for his error in having trusted Metatron. As we saw in I’m No Angel, left to his own devices, he learned to adapt, to deal with bodily functions and his new need to sleep and eat. He learned to travel without wings and used his undiminished knowledge to craft a protection tattoo to bolster his defense. He learned about faith from a human woman whose belief gave her hope that she in turn held out to him, and he learned about generosity from homeless people who had the least but didn’t stint in sharing it. And when Dean turfed him out of the bunker, he did more than just survive; he lived.
Anyone who laughed at Castiel’s simple pride and pleasure in his work as a sales associate at a Gas-n-Sip in Heaven Can’t Wait missed the point. There’s dignity in work no matter how menial the job; Castiel accepted that without question. He saw and understood everything he was doing as providing service to others, and he threw himself into it with the determination to do his absolute best at all of it. And you know something? He was right. He was absolutely right. His pride in providing perfect service to the best of his human ability gave him a satisfaction that made it easier for him to accept his situation and stay positive. And I would submit that his affirmative integration into and acceptance of the world around him was exactly what enabled him to be aware when something out of phase signaled a supernatural problem. Had he retreated into the depression, drugs, and bitter resentment of the Cas of The End, I think he wouldn’t have been attuned to the pattern of signs of Ephraim’s actions. Even the Winchesters didn’t think there was a case until Dean saw the Pepto-Bismol-ed house.
Dealing with Ephraim disrupted Castiel’s hard-won, fragile human equilibrium, recharging his need to help the angels he’d unwittingly exiled from Heaven. Ironically, that resurgence of pain drew Ephraim to him like a magnet. In the aftermath, committed to his angel quest, Castiel couldn’t accept returning to his human peace. That led to his attempt in Holy Terror to contact uncorrupted angels, and untimately to his last-ditch gamble of stealing Theo’s grace to become angel-powered again. His sojourn as a human is over. Even if Theo’s stolen grace gradually drains away, I think Castiel is so committed now to an angel’s role in the war that he’d steal from others to continue his path. But even that wouldn’t negate the lesson I think we can draw from his experience as a human.
To me, that lesson is simply this: to be content, to be happy, find the joy in whatever you’re doing and multiply that joy by taking honest pride in your work and doing it well.
Are you serving others, even if just as a clerk, janitor, or waitress? Then make it your joy to help them with a smile and go the extra step to anticipate their needs. Even if they don’t recognize you, take satisfaction from your own competence. Are you struggling with something new, whether in art, writing, or just figuring out how to do something boring in a better way? Celebrate your creativity and originality, and remember that failures along the way are only data points to learn from, not ends in themselves. Are you being challenged by a subject at school? Think of it as something you need to learn for an adventure, and dive in like Sam, Kevin, or Charlie doing research. Are you feeling depressed or bored? Find a way to help someone else, whether through volunteering with a group or just reaching out to a friend or neighbor; dealing with other peoples’ problems is a great way to put your own into perspective. Are you feeling disappointed or angry? Don’t dwell on your unhappiness and constantly grumble about it, because complaining does nothing but create an echo chamber of ugliness in your mind, and whether you realize it or not, it just exhausts you and everyone around you. Look for solutions and positive elements instead. Find your happy place and go there; then think about how you could bring that happy place back into your day-to-day life.
Happiness isn’t something external to us. Money, power, and things don’t make us happy. Just look at all the spoiled rich brats who have it all, but never have enough to be satisfied. Even other people don’t make us happy, although they can help or hinder.
The truth is, we make ourselves happy – or unhappy – by the way we approach, think about, and react to people, events, and things, including ourselves. If we’re open to seeing and accepting all the good, not just those few things that perfectly match our expectations or preconceptions, we’re going to be less judgmental of both ourselves and others, and we’re going to be a lot happier. If we always look for and maximize the good in any situation, we’ll not only create the conditions for more happiness; we’ll also open ourselves to possibilities we might have dismissed or not even seen because we were too busy wallowing in our anger and discontent to look beyond our own dissatisfaction. Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle. The light might show you another door, not to mention keeping you from falling down the otherwise unseen stairs. I’m not saying you have to be content with your lot and not criticize anything. Far from it; it’s good to dream of a better future and figure out how to achieve it! But if you criticize yourself or others, do it constructively. Don’t make the mistake of belittling any person or any task. And don’t get so caught up either in what you want or in what you’ve lost that you lose sight of all the good in what you have and who you are.
Life is what you make of it.
Take a lesson from Castiel. Make the best of it.
Make it happy.
Happy New Year!