BATMAN: Your Magnificent Obsession
Syllabus: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008)
Extra credit: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)
As a mythical archetype, Batman has always tread closer to the world of shadows and darkness than most other superheroes, and for this reason he has always been my favorite. For although on the surface I look very respectable and conservative, I am and always have been, at heart, an uber-goth. Because I try to live by the principles of compassion, love and unconditional contentment, people might think I’m the happy-go-lucky type when nothing could be further from the truth. Inside my heart swirls a cloud of gloom, doom and rage. I swear I would walk around with a black cloak fluttering about me were it not for the fact that it kind of makes it harder to find a job (and dates). My positivity, therefore, is simply how I consciously choose to express my darker emotions.
Some schools of thought – especially within certain new age spiritual traditions – seem to believe that any kind of negative thoughts or feelings are “bad.” I don’t share that belief. I believe that what we usually call the “negative” emotions – anger, fear, guilt, sadness, frustration and the events that trigger them – are not necessarily completely bad in themselves. They can be harmful and destructive, yes – to both yourself and others. But the key is not so much whether we have those feelings or not. Personally, I believe it’s impossible for a human being to not have these feelings, anyway. The key is what we do with these feelings when we have them.
The Batman archetype is powerful because it suggests a more realistic and productive way to deal with our negative emotions, especially when they become overpowering. We do not deny them, oppress them or run from them, but neither do we indulge in them and let them slowly eat us up from the inside.
We use them. But use them for what? Revenge? Destruction?
Well, if you like. The typical response to feelings of anger, for example, are desires to inflict some kind of aggression, harm or revenge – ranging from very small to very big – on whomever we feel is responsible If this is what you want, try it. But aside from the brief sensation of gratification you may get from successfully achieving those things, you will soon see that you that you cannot be happy for long. It will, in the long run, only bring you more undesirable events and circumstances that again trigger more feelings of anger, fear and sadness and the cycle goes on and on ad infinitum.
Or take fear. The typical response to fear is the fight-or-flight syndrome. We either run and hide or, like a cornered animal, we draw our claws and fight. The “face your fears” school of thought encourages doing the latter, and when this becomes an automatic habit you have people who are habitually confrontational over the slightest imagined threats or affronts.
In the magnificent and complex Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) spends his early life being consumed by both fear and anger until he meets the mentor who will help him confront and channel these emotions. Throughout his mythical journey he learns several important lessons which we will examine here. If you like, try incorporating them into your own lives. I do.
Lesson #1: What are you really afraid of?
The first principle lesson the Batman archetype teaches us is to accept, face and embrace our fears. Facing our fears doesn’t necessarily mean conquering our fears in the sense of engaging in adrenaline-rush scenarios like skydiving or walking over hot coals. These things give the temporary illusion that we are conquering our fear, but the fear always returns in different forms.
As a young man Bruce falls into the same trap. After a failed attempt to either avenge his parents by killing their murderer or successfully confronting the reigning crime boss of his city, he travels the world trying to infiltrate the criminal underworld. He thinks he is conquering his fears this way, but he is actually running from them.
“You’ve travelled the world to understand the criminal mind and conquer your fears…” his mentor tells him. “But what you really fear is inside yourself.”
On the surface, Bruce Wayne’s greatest fear seems to be bats, but it is not. If you study Batman Begins closely you will realize that the bats are really just a symbol of his true and greatest fear: the unbearable emotional pain and guilt over his parents’ death that he does not want to face. And in order to avoid facing that terrible pain he fears more than anything, he covers it up with the far more tolerable negative emotion of anger, which becomes a protective armor that keeps him from having to face the unbearable pain and guilt over his parents’ death. But it is a double-edged sword because while his anger empowers him, it becomes yet another source of fear, for so overwhelming is his anger that he is afraid that it may drive him to do “great and terrible things.”
Layers upon layers of fear. Strike a nerve? Yes, look deeply and honesty within yourself without flinching and you shall discover layers upon layers of fear. We all have so much fear.
When Bruce is crouching in front of the dark, gaping mouth of the cave hidden under his yard, working up the courage to go in, the cave actually symbolizes his own subconscious. And when he stands up amidst a maelstrom of agitated bats, closing his eyes and holding his arms out, his is not “conquering” his fear. He is simply accepting it, letting himself be consumed by it and to be taken to its deepest core.
Fear is a daily emotion. Its range begins with a vague, peripheral sense of anxiety and unease to full-blown terror and panic. For most people, the latter is not that common but the former is experienced on an almost daily basis, triggered by such a range of stimuli that it seems like there are many things we are afraid of. But, actually, if you very carefully observe your mind and emotions you will come to realize that in reality there is only a small handful of things that you are really afraid of, and all the gazillion other things you think you’re afraid of are just symptoms of these core fears.
And I believe that the deepest core fear we all have, of which all other fears are ultimately masks, is the fear of great emotional pain. Abandonment. Loss. Despair.
If, then, you can come to terms with these core fears – realize that they’ll most likely not happen and even if they do you’ll still be okay – then you can become a fearless, unstoppable juggernaut in your daily life.
Lesson #2: Anger is an energy
“Anger is an energy,” snarls Johnny Lydon in the song “Rise” by Public Image Limited. And it is.
Anger is such a more attractive emotion than fear, guilt or grief because it gives you a feeling of power while the latter ones strip you of a sense of power. It is also addictive because of both the psychological sense of strength it provides as well as the addictive biochemical hormone it releases in our bodies, adrenaline. But it is also a blinding emotion because it compels you to act without the obligation to stop and reflect if your action is actually helpful or harmful to your cause. It is also, if unchecked, destructive to yourself because excess adrenaline dependence will eventually eat away at your body and health, just like any other drug addiction. It will also end up hurting the very ones you sought to protect.
The first step to developing a healthier relationship with anger is to understand that neither repressing it nor overindulging in it is helpful to your cause. What you’re seeking is a balance.
The second step is to realize that anger is, in itself, neither a “good” or “bad” thing. It is simply a signal from your body to you that something about a certain situation is not to your liking. Fine, you don’t like it. So do something about it.
The third step is taking action, for anger is simply energy and energy should be expressed and expended or it will fester and stagnate inside you. But the key is what kind of action do you take? Well, the Batman archetype teaches that we should take productive and beneficial action – in his fictional case, fighting crime. Find your “magnificent obsession” and channel all your hurt and rage into that. But take care to clearly separate yourself from the very things that made you hurt and angry.
I’ll use myself and my own struggles as a example to clarify. In the world of work and business there are, of course, many people out there whose hearts and minds are clouded by fear, greed and cynicism. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily “bad” people; it just means they’ve been corrupted into believing it’s the only way to do things. When I was younger I was naïve and often at risk of being used or abused, but as I got older I became increasingly filled with rage at the sheer wrongness of the “system” and realized I needed to wizen up to protect myself and what I was struggling for. It’s a fine line to walk and I am often tempted to resort to the same tactics that my enemies use (thinking the means justify the end, etc. etc.) But I always come back to the realization that becoming more street smart is one thing; becoming the same as my enemies is another, which leads us to the next lesson.
Lesson #3: What separates “us” from “them”
“Fight fire with fire,” the popular saying goes. But let’s actually take a look at that saying. It’s meant to be symbolic, yes, but even symbolism must obey logic. Have you ever tried fighting fire with fire? What happens? The fire gets bigger and worse. Duh.
If you are serious about your cause, you must vigilantly prevent yourself from becoming the same as those people who seek to destroy your cause. To do this, you must study your enemies just like Batman studies the criminal world so that he can protect himself against their tactics.
But your ultimate goal in learning their tactics is not to use the same tactics against them. It is to protect yourself and what you cherish from those tactics. Moreover, study fire and understand its nature and you will understand that fire cannot be fought with fire. It can only be fought with water.
In his quest to reduce crime, Batman uses virtually everything at his disposal. He is sometimes brutal, even. BUT there are two important distinctions between him and what he fights:
(1) He is motivated by compassion and a genuine desire for justice whereas crooks are motivated purely by self-gain or nihilism. (2) Sometimes, some of his methods verge on the thin line between right and wrong, and he won’t hesitate to break society’s rules, but he never ever breaks his own ethics and principles. He never kills, for instance. He never uses a gun. He never becomes fire. He is water, even though water, like fire, can be vicious in its own way (think floods and tsunamis).
When he is first teaching Bruce, his mentor Raz Al’Gul tries to persuade him to use his own merciless method of fighting crime which involves using the same cruel, heartless methods of violence. When Bruce’s conscience prevents him from accepting his teacher’s philosophy, Raz criticizes him.
“Your compassion,” he says, “is a weakness your enemies will not share.”
It is a very good point, actually. But Bruce’s response is beautiful, wise and profound:
“That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.”
Out of all the many ideas I’ll be discussing in my blog, this is one of the hardest to grasp because it involves straddling the line between idealism and realism. Most people tend to be one or the other because it is extremely hard to find the balance between the two.
Turn the other cheek in your heart. Love your enemies, understand and forgive them. But do not stand by idly and watch them destroy everything you hold dear. Fight.
But be careful lest ye become the very thing which you seek to fight.
Lesson #4: It’s what you do that defines you.
Sometimes we complain about how nobody seems to understand and acknowledge who we really are underneath. It’s often a valid complaint, but the next time you catch yourself doing this, take an honest look at your outer actions and decide if they are in line with who you really are underneath. If they’re not, then stop complaining and use that energy to align your actions with who you really are.
There’s a great scene in Batman Begins when Bruce, hurt by his best friend Rachel’s judgment of his shallow playboy exterior (which he actually uses to divert attention away from his identity as Batman), says, “Rachel, all this… it’s not me. Inside… I am more.”
Rachel smiles and says: “Bruce… it’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.”
Little does she know that he does do what he is underneath, but she has a good point anyway.
What it means is that it doesn’t matter how good a person you are inside if your outer actions stem don’t reflect that. There are those who do whatever it takes to “get theirs” in the world and then wonder why nobody recognizes the goodness that lies deep inside them. God will love you no matter what you do, but as far as the world is concerned, it is your actions, not your thoughts and feelings, that speak for you.
Lesson #5: Accept that you may be hated and misunderstood.
There’s a catch, however, to letting your actions define you. Even if you do align your outer actions with your inner goodness, you may still be misunderstood and unacknowledged. That’s because outer actions, especially when they’re seen out of context, are deceiving. And a whole complicated web of factors can make you look bad when you were actually being good. Just think back to how many times you’ve misunderstood the actions of your friends or loved ones. You became angry when their actual intentions were to help you or make you happy. You’ve also been on the receiving end of this, haven’t you? We all have.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This line is said repeatedly in The Dark Knight.
Well, that’s just great, you might say. What’s the point, then?
The point is this. Do you want to be a person of true integrity and virtue or just someone who looks like it? If it’s the former, then you might be put in situations where doing the right thing makes you look bad. But you do it anyway.
Because you’re a hero.
- Ponder what it is you are really afraid of and bravely accept those fears. Paradoxically, this will make you fearless.
- Channel your anger and negative emotions toward productive and creative, not harmful and negative, behavior.
- Have the courage to be hated and misunderstood if it means doing the right thing.
- Preventing your obsession from consuming your soul.
- Knowing where to draw the line to accomplish your goals (i.e. not abusing your power).
- Not becoming the very thing you seek to fight.
You’ll need some private, quiet time for this. If it helps, turn on appropriate music to suit the mood. Do whatever it takes to conjure up your negative emotions. Recall and relive the thoughts and memories that trigger them. Were you unfairly passed over for a promotion in lieu of a lying, cheating co-worker? Did your lover dump you without due cause? Let that anger course through you. Feel that fear that you’ll never get what you want out of life. Understand that the world is the way it is because it is run by fear, ignorance, greed and rage. If you give in to these feelings you’ll be contributing to the problem, not the answer.
However, don’t repress these feelings. Interpret them positively. Trapped energy will give you either cancer or chronic depression, whichever kills you first. Now use this energy to do something productive and non-destructive that contributes to your growth. Join the gym and work out. Write a song. Go to an animal shelter and play with the dogs. Whatever, as long as it doesn’t involve intentionally hurting someone. For as they say, “Living well is the best revenge.”
“What you really fear is inside yourself… Now you must journey inwards… Breathe. Breathe in your fears.” –Ra’s al Ghul (Batman’s mentor)
“Your anger gives you great power, but if you let it, it will destroy you.” –Ra’s al Ghul
“It’s not who you are underneath but what you do that defines you.” –Rachel Dawes (Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend)