Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) won’t ever be mistaken for high art. But the film at least has some character development wedged between the fighting and explosions. My favourite moment in the film comes towards the end, as our heroes battle an army of flying fiends in New York City (where else?). Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka the Hulk, faces down a flying robotic lizard creature the size of a A380, which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior), aka Iron Man, has kindly steered in his direction. As Banner, still in human form, trudges down the street to confront it, Captain America (Chris Evans) suggests: ‘Doctor Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry’. ‘That’s my secret, Cap – I’m always angry’, Banner replies. He shapeshifts into the Hulk and suckerpunches the flying lizard on the snout.
This scene marks the completion of Bruce Banner’s character arc in The Avengers. Previously in the film, Banner had divorced himself from both his Hulk alter-ego and the anger that causes him to change into the Hulk. He’d refer to Hulk as ‘the other guy’, meaning ‘not me’, and remained a picture of calm when he wasn’t turning green and decimating everything in his path. In this context, Banner admitting to an abiding sense of anger represents a reconciliation, of sorts. The anger that creates the Hulk comes from Banner himself. Banner is the monster. L’Hulk, c’est moi.
Banner’s reconciliation with the Hulk lingered with me after I’d left the movie theatre. The truth is, I see more than a touch of the Banner/Hulk relationship in myself. Like Banner, I am dealing with a lot of anger these days. Frankly, there seems to be a lot to feel angry about. I am angry about how we are trashing the planet. We are wiping out ecosystems decades in advance and destroying our own life-support systems in the process. I am angry that most of us are continuing about our lives as if nothing untoward were happening. Back in 2008, when I was drafting Life Changing and writing ‘Coalition of the Willing’ with Simon Robson, I genuinely believed that by 2012 we’d be in crisis mode, pouring resources into green energy innovation and ramping up social programs in sustainable living. The way things look today, it is hard to imagine that there will ever be a concerted movement to decarbonize our societies until extreme weather disasters are hitting us so hard that there is no longer any money in anything besides disaster adaptation systems. By then it will already be too late. This is our common reality in 2012 and it pisses me off.
The impending climate catastrophe is the just the start of it. I am angry about what passes for democratic politics too. Every three or four years, the same old multi-million dollar media carnival rolls through town and we all get reminded that, when it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is big money: it keeps the economy ticking and interest rates low, so that we can all continue cramming our homes with consumables and pumping gas into our cars (and more carbon into the atmosphere), despite knowing that all of it must change. I am angry that the majority of people still blithely accept that there is no other option here. I am angry and scared, frankly. What happens when the millions of people who currently believe that there is only one possible path into the future finally get it that we are on a road to nowhere? They’re not going to become liberal greenies, that’s for certain. It wasn’t the super-wealthy who voted Hitler into power in 1930s Germany. It was the petit bourgeoisie, the struggling lower middle class. When the poor run out of bread, they riot. The middle class vote for authoritarian leaders to sort the mess out. It’s time that progressives took off their rose tinted glasses and realized just how ugly the situation stands to become. Dreaming of a better future? Brother, we need to radically change the world or else there is no future. But radical change is dead at the ballot box. Ergo…
You get the picture. Angry Bruce Banner has nothing on me.
I won’t harp on about the problems of the world. My point is that, like Bruce Banner, I sometimes struggle to contain my negative emotions. So far, I haven’t turned into a hostile green guy and started smashing things. But occasionally these emotions express themselves in ways that don’t make me feel proud. I become sarcastic, condescending, and contemptuous. I have to remind myself: this is not who you are. But is this true? Reflecting on Banner’s reconciliation with the Hulk has led me to realize that perhaps it is not. For sure, I don’t want to be an out-of-control angry guy any more than Banner does. But perhaps the anger itself is something I should embrace.
As of today, I am trialling a new strategy. Instead of dissociating myself from my inner monster, I’m going to give him a good hug. Negative energy doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Sometimes, if you have valid reasons for feeling angry and scared, the best thing you can do is harness those feelings and use them in a positive and creative way. This is what it means to hug the monster.
‘Hug the monster’ is a technique used by U.S. Air Force trainers to teach cadets how to handle themselves in life-and-death situations. Journalist Bill Blakemore explains:
The monster is your fear in a sudden crisis — as when you find yourself trapped in a downed plane or a burning house.
If you freeze or panic — if you go into merely reactive “brainlock” — you’re lost.
But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action — sometimes even by changing it into anger — and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up.
Fear and anxiety can be paralysing. The child inside us wants to duck under the covers and wish the monster away. But if we stand our ground and use the fear as a spur to action, we can achieve things that we might not otherwise have been capable of. The same thing is true of anger. As Blakemore suggests, anger can be a creative force if we are able to channel it appropriately. The first and most important step is to embrace the emotion and own it. Just because anger is deemed a socially inappropriate emotion doesn’t mean that we should deny it when we feel it. We need to set limits on the way we express our anger, for sure. But we should also acknowledge that, in many cases, anger is a reflection of our moral disposition, and there is nothing at all wrong with feeling righteously infuriated in the face of injustice, cruelty, or calamitous stupidity.
Keep a grip on anger, but don’t be afraid to own the emotion. Bruce Banner refused to own his anger, insisting on calling Hulk ‘the other guy’. As a result, he didn’t give himself a chance to engage with and learn from his anger, even though it was part of his person. It is only by embracing one’s anger, accepting that it has legitimate or understandable causes, that one has a chance of controlling it and turning it to productive ends.
Anger can be a gift. If, like me, you are dealing with a head of steam, don’t bury it deep – use it. Channel it into a creative activity. You might put it into words. Instead of internalizing your anger, write a book or story that externalizes it, or a blog post at least (no prizes for guessing where this one came from). Join a band and thrash it out. Take it to the streets by joining a protest movement, but make sure that the lion’s share of the emotional capital goes into building a community and solidarity network. Creative action is the best way to expend any kind of emotional energy.
Grow. Expand your horizons and sense of possibility. Be a jolly green giant, not an angry Hulk.