Monday, March 30, 2020

The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Part Four, "Hulk Like Raging Fire"

For previous posts in this running series of posts on the enneagram (including the rationale for the series), click here.


The Marvel universe is intricately interwoven. It’s a delight to sit down to watch a film focused on any one character and to be treated to an appearance from another. Thor: Ragnarok is an especially gleeful example, with a brief cameo from Dr. Strange and the prominent inclusion of the Incredible Hulk.

Several films after Age of Ultron we finally learn where Hulk has been hiding — in space, where he is celebrated as a gladiatorial champion. He revels in the cheers of the crowds and gripes to Thor about how he was treated on earth. He has slipped into the six space again - that enneagram space where nines go when they've succumbed to stress, a space with a complicated sense of loyalty and betrayal. Unlike Age of Ultron, however, in this film we see not Bruce but Hulk move from nine to six. "Earth hate Hulk," he complains. "Thor go; Hulk stay." He has given his loyalty to this battle-crazed planet that has made him both its champion and its prisoner.

A planet enamored with violence is only too happy to let Hulk be Hulk, but a planet enamored with violence is no place to make a life. Hulk has enjoyed his exile, but he needs to make his way home. For whatever reason, I'm reminded of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) ...

(Whitman’s omission of punctuation is perhaps prophetic; he contradicts himself “very well,” thank you very much. All large and multitudinous persons do. But I digress.)

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. ...

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Hulk wants a world that loves him, or at least doesn't hate him, or at least lets him be. Bruce Banner wants to be his own person, to be sought out for himself, to be accepted contradictions and all.

He has reason not to trust that what he wants will come to pass. Thor continues to see both Bruce and the Hulk as discreet challenges to be managed rather than a whole person to be cared for. He tells Hulk that he prefers Hulk over Bruce; he tells Bruce he prefers Bruce over Hulk.

Technically it’s Thor’s movie, so we allow it, and technically the movie is a comedy, so we laugh. But the capacity to be manipulated, to be absorbed into another person’s drama, is a particular vulnerability of the nine. For the Hulk, it’s just another way for his personality to be suppressed and subsumed.

Nines are always at risk of losing their selfhood. It’s no small wonder that Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America all have three films named after them; while Hulk has two feature films, his last solo outing was more than a decade ago. (Black Widow and Hawkeye, the other two original Avengers, have no feature films to date, for what it’s worth, but that’s another story and in any case it's in the process of being remedied.) Hulk is widely acknowledged as the “strongest Avenger,” but his willingness to be contingent, to be absorbed into another person’s story, makes him particularly vulnerable to losing touch with himself.


In previous posts I've commended a couple of books on the enneagram to you: Alice Fryling's Mirror for the Soul and Chris Heuertz's The Sacred Enneagram. In this post I'll point you to the immensely popular The Road Back to You by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. This winsome and gracious introduction the enneagram takes a different starting point than the other two books; you jump quickly into the characterizations of the nine enneagram spaces, which is immensely satisfying for the enneagram-curious, and Ian's tone (he is the primary writer and the dominant voice in the book) is friendly and pastoral. Considering how tender a thorough discussion of the enneagram can be, establishing such a tone is a real kindness.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Part Three: "You're Confusing Peace with Quiet"

Part three of a series. Read the prologue here.
Read part one here.
Read part two here.

The next film to feature the Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron, demonstrates early on that the team has figured out a way to manage the monster. Tony (with Bruce’s help) has developed special Hulkbuster armor for Iron Man in case Hulk goes on a rampage. But that's the remedy of last resort. Natasha has developed an incantation, a liturgy, that calms Hulk down and restores him to himself after most battles.

Just because the Avengers have developed these workarounds, however, doesn’t mean that the Hulk has been fixed. At a party, Natasha asks Bruce, “How long before you trust me?”

Bruce confesses, “It’s not you I don’t trust.”

Under stress the nine goes to six, a complicated Enneagram space that struggles with loyalty. Some sixes are hyper-loyal to a fault, assuming that they’ll be made safe by an unflinching association. Other sixes are more oppositional, assuming that their supposedly safest places are not safe at all. Bruce wrestles with this stress-induced loyalty by keeping his team at arms length. But as I said, it’s complicated, and when Tony invites him to help put “a suit of armor around the world,” Bruce goes along with the plan against his better judgment. “Peace in our time,” Tony says. “Imagine that.” That’s the way to a nine’s heart.

Age of Ultron is in some ways a Frankenstein story, and Bruce here plays Igor to Tony’s Frankenstein, helping him to build his own monster, Ultron, an artificial intelligence that develops self-awareness and an Oedipal rage toward Tony. The world is at risk once again, and Bruce, acting out of his damaged sense of self, is complicit.

Bruce is swayed by the prospect of peace, as most nines are. Natasha calls him on it in a particularly knowing way. “All my friends are fighters, and here comes this guy who spends all his time avoiding the fight because he knows he’ll win.” For Bruce, the avoidance of conflict is the path to peace. Ultron offers a cutting insight for him and all of us: “I think you’re confusing peace with quiet.”

Age of Ultron is preoccupied with the monsters in all of us - which is, in a way, also the agenda of the enneagram, which helps us to identify the false self that is subsuming and suppressing our true self. Natasha shares the story of her tragic background with Bruce and asks, “Still think you’re the only monster in the team?” The Vision reflects out loud on his essential nature: “Maybe I am a monster. I don’t think I’d know if I were one.” And Stark, once again manipulating Bruce’s loyalties, asserts plainly: “We’re monsters, buddy. We gotta own it.”

The marvelous monstrosity of the Hulk is that pain and increased stress only make him stronger, more invincible, more monstrous. He is not safe for the world, and he knows it. “Where can I go? Where in the world am I not a threat?"

He also, however, knows that the world is not safe for him, and after a particularly destructive battle he realizes that, now that “the world has seen the Hulk as he really is,” he has to disappear or he will never find his elusive peace.

Ultimately the Avengers defeat Ultron and save the day. But Bruce can’t be coaxed into acceptance of the monster within him — nor can he accept the acceptance he’s been offered by the team. Natasha tricks him into converting into the Hulk and tells him, “Now go be a hero.” He takes off to fight — nines are famously agreeable — but after the fight is over, he cuts his friends off and runs away. He is seeking peace — a peace that sounds suspiciously like quiet.

“Humans are odd,” Vision says near the end of the film. “They think that order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings.” Bruce has failed at self-acceptance, failed at intimacy with those who love him, failed to trust, failed to live in the truth. His friends have failed him as well, managing and manipulating him, drawing out whatever incomplete aspect of his essential self is most convenient to them at the time. The Hulk will run away, looking for peace. The world will be left without his strength. We won’t see the monster on earth ever again.


In the previous post I commended to you Alice Fryling's book Mirror for the Soul. In this post I'll point you toward Chris Heuertz's sweeping and moving book The Sacred Enneagram. Like Alice, Chris is not overly preoccupied with the enneagram numbers/spaces but rather with the enneagram's agenda - a deeper understanding of the self, a more gracious and graceful way of moving in the world. Worth a read for real.

Monday, March 02, 2020

The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Part Two: "I'm Always Angry"

For previous posts in this running series of posts on the enneagram (including the rationale for the series), click here.

Having left Bruce Banner in the rubble of the building he destroyed, we now travel to New York, where the rest of the team has rallied for the final battle of the first Avengers movie. Things are about to get crazy. Bruce arrives late to the party but just in time for the worst of it. As the team steels for an attack, Captain America says, “Dr Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry.”

That’s when we learn the truth behind the Hulk: “That’s my secret, Captain—I’m always angry.”

Nines live in the gut triad. Whereas other triads act from the head or the heart, nines act on instinct, and just as often on impulse. Anger is the key emotion of the gut triad, and while eights give vent to their anger and ones seek to suppress it, nines prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. They disassociate from their anger, banishing it from their presence.

Of course this is impossible, as we discover that Bruce has learned. But it’s the wish fantasy of the nine that they can protect the world around them from the monster within them. The catastrophe is all the more pronounced when the lie behind this logic is born out. The heroics we observe from the Hulk are especially destructive, with inordinate collateral damage. In a comical moment, the Hulk and Thor team up to put the beat down on an invading alien, destroying a building in the process. They enjoy the victory for a moment—then Hulk punches his ally Thor out of the shot.

In the end the team has won, but it looks as though it cost them Tony Stark—until Hulk shouts him back to life.

Nines make for good friends, and they are often appreciated for their contribution to the greater good. But the unreconciled self is never far removed from their besetting struggle, so that even the most constructive contributions of the Hulk - of any enneagram 9 - may involve an undercurrent of violence.


There are lots of good books on the enneagram. I'll mention some of them in this series. A particular favorite of mine is Mirror for the Soul, by Alice Fryling. Alice's book approaches the enneagram slowly, inductively, in a way that I find especially helpful for identifying your type and finding spiritual practices and postures that interact productively with your type. You can get it here.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...