Anxiety is Not the Endgame: Lessons in Mental Health from Bruce Banner and the Hulk
EDGE Mentee & Attorney with Hall. Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, P.C.
I’m a sucker for Internet quizzes. There are few things I need to know more in life than which member of the Dream Team I am most like, which Harry Potter house I should be in, and which type of dog breed fits my personality. But if we’re being honest, most of us subconsciously self-select our results in these quizzes. Everyone wants to be MJ, no one wants to be a Hufflepuff, and everyone usually fits best with a Labrador Retriever. So it should come as no surprise to me that when I took the “Which Avenger Are You?” quiz in anticipation for “Avengers: Endgame,” I subconsciously tailored my answers so that I would get the Hulk.
For much of my life I have battled anxiety, and I have viewed that battle much like Bruce Banner views the Hulk. Despite Banner’s best efforts, the Hulk will often overpower the mild-mannered Banner and take control over their collective thoughts.
My anxiety acts similarly in each of my personal, professional, and spiritual lives. While I strive to be mild-mannered, thoughtful, and prepared in my relationships with my family and friends, colleagues and clients, and God, my anxiety seemingly works against those goals. The common narrative that anxiety attempts to present in these areas of my life is that I am not good enough.
For example, I distinctly remember battling anxiety during one of my finals in my second year of law school. I went to class, had a relatively good understanding of the material, and was genuinely prepared for this exam. Although that should have given me confidence that I would do my best on the exam, anxiety told me the opposite. I spent several hours lying motionless on the couch that afternoon in an anxious fog, thinking about everything that could go wrong and the importance of that exam. Even though logically I knew this was incorrect, I genuinely felt like my entire career depended on that one exam – one that anxiety told me that I was not capable of passing.
The narrative was similar in my personal life. A year or two ago, I remember spending a great evening with family, but afterwards I was battling the thought I didn’t provide enough witty commentary or encouragement to justify their love and attention. My spiritual life was more of the same. Despite grace’s central importance to the Gospel, anxiety doesn’t settle for anything less than legalistic perfection. Someone once asked me what it’s like to feel this kind of anxiety, and the best way I can put it is that it feels like the complete absence of peace. You feel unsafe, believing you are surrounded at all sides by heightened expectations and threatening, life-altering outcomes. As a result, for much of my life, my prayer was consistently for my anxiety to go away, believing that peace and personal, professional, and spiritual growth could not occur while I continued to battle anxiety. Like Bruce Banner, I viewed my anxiety as a “disease” that needed to be cured.
Yet during the past year, I’ve realized that I had a flawed view and understanding of the role of anxiety had in my life. A year or two ago, I began to realize that the presence of anxiety in my life was not inconsistent with a meaningful personal, professional, or spiritual life. In fact, my anxiety in some ways enriches those areas.
In my spiritual life, my anxiety constantly combats my pride and reminds me of my need for a Savior. The more I realize the depth of my shortcomings, the more beautiful Christ’s atoning sacrifice becomes.
In my professional life, my anxiety is an internal check on the part of me that wants to devote his entire life to work. Our bodies are not made to work 80 hours a week, and as much as I want to help more clients and take more cases, I am simply not physically able to so. Anxiety is the discipline that keeps my work-life balance in better check.
In my personal life, battling anxiety has shown me the love of my family and friends, seeing how they’ve walked with me and continue to do so through difficult seasons of anxiety. I have a better understanding that my family and friends’ love is not based on performance that changes based on subjective notions of success.
Professor Hulk epitomizes this concept (warning: very minor spoiler ahead). In the early part of “Avengers: Endgame,” the audience meets Professor Hulk, the combination of Bruce Banner and the Hulk. In that scene, Professor Hulk details how he used to view the Hulk as a “disease,” but when he changed that view, he understood that Bruce Banner and the Hulk could live in harmony – or in other words, in peace.
I would be lying if I said I feel absolutely at peace with my anxiety (I bet Professor Hulk still has some discomfort as well, even as a fictional character). I don’t wake up every morning thankful to experience anxiety, and even the Enneagram 1 perfectionist in me questions whether that is possible as a human. However, I can say for sure that living life with anxiety is not completely devoid of peace and is no longer something that I am praying to go away. Instead, my prayer is now that God can continue to use the anxiety I experience to glorify His name, which, as I continue to be conformed to God’s image, will continue to bring peace that defies understanding.
So in the end, I’m thankful for my anxiety. I’m thankful for how God has used my anxiety to help me understand the extent of His grace. I’m thankful for how I see God’s love through others supporting me and encouraging me through my anxiety. And, at the very least, I’m thankful that my anxiety prevented me from getting Hawkeye on that quiz.