When you think “blockbuster movie” and “superheroes”, I bet “fear” isn’t the next word in your mind. But if the major motion picture in question is the recent “Avengers: Age of Ultron” then you might have to think again. I do enjoy a good Marvel movie, and I was intrigued at the direct way in which this one portrayed the characters’ struggle with fear as the lynchpin of the proceedings.
After all, fear is a primal emotion. Ability to feel fear is essential to survival, and fear prepares us for action faster than we can consciously think. At the same time, fear can keep us trapped, immobilized both physiologically and psychologically. All of us have fear, and we are never safe out of its reach. (You may have heard that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Know any perfect lovers?) What can we take from this ultra-popular film that will inform our own, personal struggle with fear?
**BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD**
Movies are fundamentally stories, images that illustrate ideas. In Age of Ultron, the Avengers each are given a vision/dream that evokes their deep fears. Using those dreams and the Avengers actions as examples, we can talk about some of the ways that fear impacts our future.
When fear runs the show, it can lead you to:
Create the situation you fear the most – Iron Man
- Tony Stark’s vision of the death of his friends leads him to work feverishly to try to prevent it. However, those efforts create the biggest threat to the safety of the Avengers and the Earth.
- Fear can twist us in such cruel ways. Isn’t this the message of every fable with a prophecy? Fighting the prophecy only serves to make it happen. Emotionally and mentally, it seems that the rule is this: everything we try to avoid, we get in heaping doses. Try not to think about something, and it will be on your mind more than ever. Try to avoid a fear, and you find the fear growing ever stronger, and in addition you create a new fear: fear of being afraid.
Check out – Thor
- Thor’s foreboding leads him to leave the Avengers in the midst of their struggle in order to monitor other threats.
- When we direct our energy to fighting fear, treasured relationships often take a back seat. We become less emotionally (and often physically) available to those in our lives as we are preoccupied by threat. When fighting fear is first priority, activities that provoke discomfort are often discarded as well.
Doubt yourself – Black Widow
- Black Widow’s vision of her own past in training as a killer leads her to label herself a monster, doubt her place among the Avengers, and suggest running away entirely.
- Every time fear shows up, doubt is with it. Many times, the first thing we doubt is ourselves. We doubt our ability, our goodness. We doubt the security of our relationships, the ability of others to accept us. We start reacting to doubt, instead of trusting in love and friendship.
Dwell in the past – Captain America
- Little jokes let the Captain know that he is not living in his own time. He feels different and ultimately alone. He is tempted to dwell in and long for the past.
- Fear often traps us in the past, especially when we have lost something. Though we cannot change what has happened, we spend time re-living it, wishing it were otherwise, attempting to protect ourselves from the pain and loneliness of the present. Fear distracts us from the choices we do have now, filling our minds with what-if’s and should-have-been’s.
Protect yourself with anger – Hulk
- Who knows what vision Banner saw, but the results are clear – he is enraged, striking out at anything around him.
- Fear usually leaves us feeling out of control, while anger feels powerful. Often when we feel afraid, vulnerable, and out of control, we react in anger to protect ourselves. To prevent fear walking on our home soil, we go on the offensive. However, like the rage that turns Hulk against the innocent, the power of our anger usually comes at significant cost to ourselves and those around us.
Isolate – Hulk
- Having seen what he is capable of, Banner fears that he will only hurt others, and tries to avoid engaging in the fight. Though less explicitly stated, he also fears he will be rejected because of his destructive side.
- How many of us look inside and see a monster? Believe that if we reveal who we really are, we will be rejected? Maybe that hidden self will only hurt those close to us? This is one of the most powerful effects of fear – it causes us to hide and cuts us off from others. It leads us to avoid risking anything, leads us to sit on the sidelines as life happens.
In my own life, fear tells me I will never have time for the things I want if I address my responsibilities first. I procrastinate by reading sports stories, investigating products I might never buy, or (right now) browsing Zillow for a house. Ironically, these procrastinations consume all the time that could be spent on things I really want, like exercise, prayer, calling friends and quiet solitude. This checking out also results in less time being present to my family. It is my action in response to fear, not “life”, that leaves me with no time.
The story of fear in our lives does not always end in pain or dysfunction. We do not have to follow the suggestions of fear. When fear is accepted, looked in the eye, and owned, the effect on our lives can be quite positive. Returning to the Avengers’ stories, we see that facing our fears can lead us to:
Discover valuable information – Thor
- Approaching and listening to our fear helps us understand ourselves. We know better how fear will try to push us around and can recognize when it is happening. If you want to live more out of love than fear, knowing is half the battle.
- When Thor faced his fear by literally immersing himself in it, he discovered something vital to the Avengers fight.
Recommit to what we care about – Captain America
- When we allow fear to be in our lives, and cease fighting it, we regain time and energy for other pursuits. The information we gain from knowing our fear often helps us identify the things we care about most, and we direct our lives toward those ends that matter most to us.
- When Rogers tolerates his fear of being out of his time and alone, he is able to see how he does fit where he is, and recommits to his mission as an Avenger.
Accept our flaws and try again – Iron Man
- Fear tells us that flaws and failures will destroy us. When we can allow fear without being driven by it, flaws and failures can be tolerated. They become less dangerous, and we are open to continuing to strive and work, even when we are not assured of success.
- Though he failed miserably the first time, Stark is not owned by fear of repeated failure, but is willing to risk and try again to create something good.
Be vulnerable and willing to chance intimacy – Black Widow
- Allowing fear of being hurt gives us the freedom we need to chose to reveal ourselves anyway, weakness and all. This ability to be vulnerable is a prerequisite for real intimacy, and often leads to our most rewarding and personal encounters.
- Natasha chooses to share her secrets and fears with Banner, showing her weakness for the first time. Even though he may not respond, she is willing to tolerate that fear in a bid for connection.
Respect for others, and the fears they face – Hulk/Black Widow
- When we really take a look at our own fears and the myriad ways they influence us, we often get a bit of humility as we own what we have done. Often this translates to deeper respect for the struggles that others face with their own fears.
- Banner shows this in a tangential way by voicing his sympathy for others who fear him and what he is capable of as the Hulk. Natasha shows it in her acceptance of Banner’s departure (seemingly motivated by his fear).
Today it is superheroes that provide the examples of how fear can lead to a small, walled-in future, as well as images of the growth that comes with tolerating fear. Are you curious about its role in your own life? How does fear push you around? What can you do to get to bring it into the light, take its power, and alter your future?
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