Monday, February 17, 2020

The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Part One: "I'm Sorry, That Was Mean"

For the rationale for this running series of posts on the enneagram, click here.

We first meet Bruce Banner, in the first act of The Avengers, in a remote village in Kolkata. He has taken himself off the grid and entered a monkish life: celibacy, solitude, service. Serenity. His life there is interrupted when an emissary (Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow) is sent to “persuade” him to help confront an imminent threat. She marvels at the fact that he hasn’t had “an incident” (by which she means becoming the Hulk) in over a year. She’s all the more impressed given that he’s set up shop in a deeply impoverished, justice-deprived corner of the world - not exactly the best place to avoid stress.

”Avoiding stress isn’t the secret,” he replies, and we are introduced to a running theme for Bruce throughout the film. We won’t learn the secret until the world is about to end.

Turns out it’s not the Hulk that Natasha is looking for. The government needs Bruce’s expertise in gamma radiation to track down a weapon. But come for Bruce and you get the Hulk as a bonus, whether you want him or not.

Bruce is savvy. As we’ll see in future scenes, he’s always assessing the situation, considering what might cause the “other guy” (his language for the Hulk) to emerge. ”You brought me to the edge of the city—” he notes to Natasha. ”That’s smart.” He even tests the situation, startling Natasha to react instinctively with her military training. He apologizes as she pulls a gun on him. “I’m sorry. That was mean. ... Why don’t we do this the easy way where you don’t use that and the other guy doesn’t make a mess?” An entire military contingent stands down, and Bruce/Hulk joins the Avengers. He has made peace, in a manner of speaking.

We next see Bruce at a flying military base. (Remember - it’s a comic book movie. Don’t overthink it.) All the members of the fledgling Avengers are being introduced to each other, taking stock of each other. Bruce, unlike the others, moves to the margins, avoiding direct encounters. We’ll learn from Natasha in a future film what drives this behavior.

Two people—Loki, god of mischief, and Tony Stark, the insatiably curious Iron Man—are interested in seeing Bruce release the beast. Loki has scornful, malevolent reasons: He mocks Bruce as “a mindless beast who makes play he’s still a man” and wants to manipulate him for his own purposes. But Tony, a self-made superhero who clearly enjoys the savior business, is convinced that the Hulk is inherently heroic.

Bruce is unconvinced. Unlike Tony, whose heroic persona is securely encased in armor, “I’m exposed, like a nerve—it’s a nightmare.” As tensions mount, he gives voice to his motivation to keep the Hulk contained. “I moved on. I focused on helping other people. I was good" — note that he equates goodness with the active suppression of a central aspect of himself — "until you dragged me back into this freak show and put everyone here at risk.” The enneagram 9, it is widely understood, is happily left alone. No people, no problems. A lonely existence is a small price to pay for peace.

We return to the film’s steady tease: “You want to know my secret? ... You want to know how I stay calm?” He’s interrupted before he can tell us. Soon enough, his anger takes over and the Hulk finally emerges. Chaos ensues. Loki wins this battle, and we watch Hulk fall to the earth.

But we learn quickly that the Hulk is not the mindless beast Loki takes him for. We learn that he took care that no one would be hurt by his fall. “Son,” says an observer,” you’ve got a condition.” But whatever condition he has, the Hulk is human, created good, capable of good.


Check back here in a couple weeks for part two.

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure (Prologue)

Every now and then I come out of my shell and risk ridicule by suggesting, ever so softly, that in the pantheon of the Marvel Entertainment Universe, the best representation of an enneagram 9 is not the stoic Vision or the empathic Mantis but the Incredible Hulk. People think I’m kidding. I’m not.

The enneagram is a system devised to explore human personality. Organized by nine spaces in three triads, it considers how individuals learn to go through life, how their inner logic is derived from their essential identity but damaged through trauma and misunderstanding, and ultimately how they might confront the inner barriers to their becoming their true selves.

The enneagram 9 is commonly thought of as the peacemaker, the person most invested in establishing or restoring equilibrium to an environment. “Can’t we all just get along?” is something of a mantra to the 9 (at least in caricature). People come to rely on the 9’s quietude, unflappability. You might say they enable it.

The first goal of the enneagram is not to classify a person for the sake of social organization; it is rather to help a person come to an awareness of their shadow self, the thing that is keeping them from a full and fulfilling experience of life in community. (It is, in fact, pretty easy to damage people through a preoccupation with enneagram numbers.) If there is any fictional character in the modern imagination that would benefit from such help, it is the Hulk—a man-monster alternately reclusive and disengaged from society, on the one hand, and violently destructive, on the other.

What is keeping the Hulk from a full and flourishing life? And what is the internal logic that drives the Hulk’s dysfunctions? We can ask the same questions of ourselves. The challenge we are led through with the enneagram is to stare the monster in the face and not flinch, and to come out the other side closer to shalom for ourselves and for those around us.

So then, over the course of a series of posts, I'll be taking a close look at the Hulk, or Bruce Banner as he’s known to his friends. I’ll skip over the two major films in which the Hulk is the central character, not because they’re unhelpful to my argument but because they aren’t as deeply rooted in our cultural imagination, so only the true nerds would know or appreciate the references. No, for now we’ll stick with Marvel’s movies in phases 1-3, starting with The Avengers, in which the Hulk plays a significant, though not central, role.

Final prefatory note: I am by no means an expert on the enneagram. I am, I believe, an enneagram 9, and so I think I bring some helpful perspective to bear on the question. (I did run this article by a friend or two who are enneagram experts, and they seemed to think it would be harmless.) If you find yourself wishing for better footnotes and more overt references to Richard Rohr, may I advise you to relax? It’s an article about a comic book character.

Check back here for new installments over the next several weeks. If you want to pick a fight with me along the way, feel free. But fair warning: You may like me in my resting enneagram 9 state, but you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

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