It’s a poorly guarded secret that our household is one of geeks. Actually, given that my two oldest children have been known to harmonize the Imperial March from Star Wars, it’s not much of a secret at all. We are geeks. We embrace geekdom. The family joke is that our oldest is “one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain.” For anyone who has ever watched Caitlin’s hazel eyes go black as her brother pushes her too far, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. But, she has a saving grace – humor. For Caitlin, a joke from the right person or a funny chapter in a book is the “undo” button for anger. “Undo” is a critical function, and one that we often seem to overlook.
Think of your prototypical villain – Lex Luthor, Two-Face, Green Goblin, Darth Vader. What distinguishes the supervillain from an ordinary, flawed person? Evil? Well, in many cases, the villain starts out as an okay guy. Sometimes he’s a slimy political type or a petty criminal, but where does he start to devolve into supervillainy? I’m not trying to be sexist here; the example holds for female villains as well – Catwoman, the evil queen from Snow White – not so much Cruella De Ville (what was up with that whole Dalmatian fetish anyway?). The trigger is usually quite simple – a painful incident from which the villain is unable to let go. The bad guy clutches the pain -- and its associated anger -- to the chest like a teddy bear, repeating the grievance as he falls asleep at night: nursery rhymes for evil doers.
What our friend the villain fails to realize, is that the pain is a parasite. When held close, the parasite burrows tentacles of anger into the victim, each tentacle releasing toxins. The toxins begin to alter the victim’s mind, rewarding each negative thought with a surge of energy. And the villain’s brain rots from within.
Comic book hyperbole? Sure. But, the metaphor is pretty transparent. And pretty pertinent. Anger is tied to the release of chemicals within the body, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Think about it. How do you feel when you are angry? Strong, right? Powerful. Nobody’s gonna hurt you and get away with it. Well, of course. Epinephrine in particular is the same chemical that gets released when you need to fight for your life. That surge of power is a survival tactic. Great response if you are being chased by a lion. Crappy response for dealing with other humans.
Is anger natural? Yep. Can it be a productive catalyst? Sure – moral outrage has led to some of the greatest changes in society. And to some of the worst. So when does anger lead to the Civil Rights Movement, and when does it lead to the Holocaust? (Okay, before the outraged comments begin, yes, I deliberately picked extreme examples.)
Here’s the thing about anger: it is often fear in disguise. Remember our friend epinephrine? It gets released when someone insults you and when someone threatens you. Our brains aren’t always able to tell the difference between fear and anger. In my opinion, this is where we need to find that “undo” button. Call it what you will: humor, forgiveness, acceptance, grace. The ability to let go of the pain, to unwrap the tentacles of anger from around our hearts, and to look openly into the face and the cause of the pain is what separates us from the supervillains. It doesn’t take a lab accident or a volcano planet to corrode our hearts and minds – it only takes unresolved anger. That surge of power is a trap. It is the zombie virus that destroys our brains and bends us to its will.
Don’t let anyone fool you – not even me. In the short term, letting go of pain doesn’t feel good. It feels lonely and scary. You feel weak, vulnerable without the iron mask of anger. You miss the kickass power surge. You miss the feeling of moral certainty. When you put the pain down and look at it with honesty, you are forced to see how much of it was your own creation. That sucks.
So why bother? Why let go of the pain and anger? After all, someone else caused this, right? Why should you feel bad?
Well, for one thing, the cycle needs to break somewhere. As it stands now, we are heading toward a society of villains. And, besides, what happens to the villain in the end?