I confess to being an enthusiastic Marvel fan. During the height of the lockdown my daughter Melissa and I watched every Marvel movie in order. While she’s away at college we’ve fallen behind on some of the new Marvel series and movies, but we will catch up this summer.
My favorite Marvel character by far is The Hulk. The way he comes out of nowhere and just starts kicking ass is both compelling and hysterical. On a deeper level, I think The Hulk character is an instructive metaphor for the human condition.
Listen, I get it, superhero action movies aren’t meant to be mined for deeper meaning. They’re fun and entertaining stories with awesome special effects, not high cinema exploring life’s deeper meanings and mysteries. So, I will try not to overdo it here.
For the uninitiated, the idea behind The Hulk is simple: Bruce Banner’s experiments with gamma radiation unwittingly unleash a terrible, green skinned beast inside of him. When he is angered or agitated, he turns into The Hulk and becomes capable of superhuman feats of strength and bravery. Many of you will remember The Hulk television show from the 1970s. There’s a great line in the show opening. Banner is speaking to an investigative reporter who is relentlessly pursuing The Hulk. “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
While The Hulk is a force for good, the volcanic, chaotic rage that fuels the giant beast can be terrifying. The explosion of power and fury that is The Hulk profoundly impacts Banner’s psyche because it is so far beyond his control. It’s obvious every time we see him turn back into himself – he’s almost deranged, lying on the ground half naked, confused, and afraid.
Don’t all of us carry a beast inside of us at some level? When we are angered, agitated, or highly stressed we do things that later, when we calm down, we aren’t sure why we did. But like The Hulk, I think many of us can point to examples when we did great work under emotionally trying circumstances. Like The Hulk, the flood of emotions doesn’t always lead to bad outcomes.
In the world of Marvel, Banner saved countless lives and beat the bad guys when he became The Hulk. Yet for all the good The Hulk does, one of the themes of the television show and the movies is Banner’s quest to “cure” himself. Banner isolates himself, turns his back on the people he loves in a single-minded pursuit of reversing the effects of the gamma ray experiment that altered his body chemistry.
While not to the same extreme, many of us do the same thing. We turn to self-improvement authors, coaches and even therapists in search of “cures” for things about ourselves we don’t like. This is a good thing. Our lives are in part a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. “Grow or die” goes the saying, and I believe it. Yet there is a danger in taking this too far.
What’s so fascinating about how The Hulk is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in the Marvel series is that the character doesn’t find peace until he gives up his quest for a cure. Apologies for the spoiler but in the end, we see The Hulk exists in a permanent in-between state, not fully the giant raging green beast but also not fully the human Bruce Banner. Banner attains fulfillment and peace when he accepts The Hulk is not a disease to be cured but an inescapable, even essential, part of his identity.
This is a great lesson for any professional: unchecked stress and anger can lead us to do things we regret, but the right doses of both can be accelerants to achieving better results. If the competition beats you to the punch, it’s ok to be angry. The stress caused by an important deadline need not be a negative thing. We are emotional, passionate creatures. All emotions, both good and bad, can be useful. Of course, venting at a subordinate or a loved one isn’t the right way to use our anger. But there’s nothing wrong with redirecting that emotional energy to light a fire under ourselves and those we work with to get better.
We talk a lot about creating safe environments for people at work, as we should. But there is no safety in deluding ourselves that anger, stress, and frustration can be eliminated from the workplace. True safety must include room to explore how we can properly harness “negative” emotions.
All of us have traits or qualities that we know we need to work on. No one is perfect. However, exorcising some of the things that others may perceive as a negative may lead to us unwittingly diminish ourselves. A relentless pursuit of an unattainable standard of perfection or denying that nothing good can come from anger or stress leads us on a fool’s errand. As Banner learned there is no denying The Hulk inside him. The only path to achieving our best selves is acceptance of who we really are, green skin and all.