The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Epilogue: “More to You Than You Like to Show”

What follows is an epilogue to a running series on the Enneagram. For previous posts, click here.

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The Hulk, it can at last be acknowledged, does not exist. He was the figment of Stan Lee’s imagination when he was introduced to the world more than fifty years ago. He’s been a comic book character, a television character, a cartoon character, and a movie character. He has never been flesh and blood.

So a series of posts like this is something other than a diagnosis of an actual, lived personality. This series has been, essentially, an extended confession. In labeling the Hulk an enneagram 9, I have been projecting onto this fictional being what I think is true of myself. I suspect any person of any enneagram type could have done something similar, finding quirks of the character that echo back some basic truth about themselves. A friend recommended I assign an Avenger to every type, but I think for me this deep dive with the Hulk has been more intellectually honest. In any event I’ve found it a helpful excuse to try to better understand myself.

At the outset of this series I said I would disregard the two official Hulk movies. They were both released before the Mark Ruffalo version of the character was introduced as part of the fully conceived Marvel universe. I’m still inclined to disregard the Ed Norton film — as good an actor as he is, that film seemed most interested in blowing stuff up. (It was, incidentally, retrofitted as part of the Avengers continuity when a scene featuring Tony Stark was tacked onto the credits. I mention this only to shore up my nerd cred.)

But I recently revisited the Ang Lee-directed film simply titled Hulk. I loved that movie when it was released back in 2003, and while its virtual lack of CGI effects leaves it looking pretty dated today, it still stands as the most thorough exploration of the character.

We first meet not Bruce Banner but his father, David, a scientific genius who becomes obsessed with discovering a cure for a genetic deformity he has accidentally passed to his son. His compulsiveness gets worse as Bruce grows from an infant to a toddler, ultimately getting him fired from his job, bringing calamity to his community, and subjecting his home to tragic violence.

Enneagram scholar Chris Heuertz identifies our parents’ inevitable inability to shield us from the tragedy of the world, and our subsequent efforts as small children to recover some safety and security, as a seminal moment in our formation in enneagram types. We create “programs for happiness” (borrowing from Fr. Thomas Keating) that demonstrate insight into what’s going on around us, but we are simply not mature or sophisticated enough to count the cost of these programs, even as we increasingly rely on them to order our worlds for us.

Young Bruce gets hurt while playing with a friend. He doesn’t cry, even though he’s obviously in pain. A neighbor parent is surprised, but Bruce’s mom is not. “Bruce is like that,” she says, with a sigh of resignation. “He’s just really bottled up.”

Bruce learned this response to trauma. His dad is combustible; it does no good to add to the stress of a moment. Even as his mother screams in terror and his father runs toward him with mania in his eyes and a knife in his hands, Bruce sits still, watching passively. He loses both parents that day, but he fully realizes the persona that will accompany him into adulthood.

Inevitably our programs for happiness betray us. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that to mature is to leave childish things behind us, and we might be forgiven for grunting “Duh!” in response. But it turns out that leaving behind these childish things is incredibly difficult. What shapes us in childhood is deeply rooted in us, and we spend decades reinforcing the flawed logic of the meaning we assigned to things when we were little.

By the time we meet the adult Bruce, we realize quickly that he is pretty good at sabotaging himself. The obvious love interest, Betty Ross, is his former girlfriend and current coworker. When Bruce asks her if they can still work well together after having been “close,” she jumps on the point: “We were close?”

Bruce is flummoxed by the question, but his response is reflective of how his programs for happiness have betrayed him: after decades of passive impassiveness—sloth, the besetting sin of the enneagram 9—he is unable to express himself to someone he clearly loves and who clearly loves him: “If I could be more, whatever, you know ...”

Betty demonstrates great compassion and insight in letting him off the hook while also letting him know he hasn’t fooled her: “I figure there’s more to you than you like to show.”

Eventually Bruce is exposed to radiation that will unleash the Hulk inside him. Along the way we learn that his father is alive and keeping tabs on him. His father has not changed; he views the world (and Bruce) in the same way—as inherently adversarial, someone/thing to be exploited and dominated. When he first reveals himself to Bruce, he elicits feelings that Bruce doesn’t know how to manage, and the monster almost emerges. His father’s response is belittling, cynical, lacking in love: “You’re going to have to watch that temper of yours.” Good luck with all that.

Bruce eventually does discover that the Hulk is living inside him. Betty is with him as he processes the experience: “What scares me the most is that when it happens, when it comes over me and I totally lose control, I like it.”

I identify with this fear. I regularly indulge in fantasies of giving vent to my anger. These fantasies are not physically violent, but they are what you might call rhetorically violent. I imagine myself saying things that are biting and penetrating, digging into vulnerabilities and leaving my opponents fully defeated and broken. There is no effective counterargument in these fantasies: I am always right and always fully vindicated. There is always someone permanently impacted by the encounter.

It’s worth quickly noting that I rarely — hardly ever — actually engage in such arguments. When I do, I don’t know how to feel afterward. I recently called our insurance company in a fit of rage over a rise in our rates and an accompanying letter that I very much did not like. When the representative explained the issue and reduced our rates by 60 percent — 60 percent! — I said “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” repeatedly. I didn’t know what to do with so much anger that had yielded such great results, and I felt incredible guilt. But I also felt enormous — like one of my fantasies had become reality, like I had been right about everything for my entire life.

I still don’t totally know how to think about that experience — and I still feel really bad about how I talked to the customer service rep.

Why do people like me treat anger as a disease? Why do we respond to it in extremes — either dissociation or violent expression? Betty offers her diagnosis as a condemnation of Bruce’s father: “All you’ve given Bruce is fear — fear of life.” I think she’s right: if sloth is the perpetual challenge of the nine, I think fear might be the underlying motivation.

But, as St John reminds us, perfect love casts out fear. Hulk movies don’t have happy endings per se — the hero is still a monster at the end of it — but they do have moments of reconciliation. We see Bruce find a place where he can make a meaningful contribution to the world. We see him start to manage and channel his rage in at least slightly more productive ways. But the moment that was most striking to me came before all that. It came when the Hulk comes face to face with Betty and she helps him find his way back to himself.

Bruce: You found me.
Betty: You weren’t that hard to find.
Bruce: Yes I was.

At the end of the film Bruce has become a monster but he has discovered his humanity. The path to that discovery was love. It’s love — the perfect love of God that St John evokes but also the stumbling but significant love of the people around us — that reconciles us to ourselves. It’s love that empowers us to become the best, fullest version of ourselves. It’s love that defeats our demons and helps us live in the truth.

It’s love that every nine needs — and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and every one. “So let us love one another,” writes St John, “for love comes from God.”

That’s it.

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