Transform Like the Hulk: Lessons from Stan Lee
What To Do With An Angry Kid
I’ve always said if there was one celebrity I’d be really tempted to go Annoying Fan Girl over, it would be Stan Lee, not even for his entire body of work, which I do enjoy, but for one lovable lug.
I’m not sure how I first got into comics. I think a boy told me they weren’t for girls and then subsequently lost a chunk of his collection to my stubbornness… I gave them back when I was done; I’m not a monster.
My favorite, as that same friend can tell you, was The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner.
I remember crying to my mother because this comic book character had to leave everyone he loved and be alone forever out of fear that if he lost control, those close to him could get hurt. Mom pulled me into her loving arms and told me I didn’t have to read any more of those upsetting books. She was sweet, but I wasn’t about to give them up. I wanted to keep reading them, not because they were making me sad, but because they were giving voice to the sadness I was already carrying around inside me.
I was an angry kid, really angry. I had stuff going on that I didn’t know what to do with. Weird emotional stuff that I didn’t know how to talk about. It got me in a fair amount of trouble… a ton of trouble the first few years of school. I was an early bloomer, bigger than all the other kids in my grade but still very small in the world. I was smart, but I was easy to set off. I led with my heart, and my heart had taken some damage, even at that puerile age.
I once attacked my mom’s best friend’s son, because I caught him throwing rocks at a horse who was locked in a cage with no where to run. The horse was fighting and neighing to no avail. The kid out matched me in size by a wide margin, but he also didn’t fight back much, just some defensive shoves as he let me wear myself out a bit. He could’ve hurt me if he wanted to. I ran home and confessed to my mom immediately. I figured it was best to get the punishment while my blood was still boiling. I think submitting myself for discipline like that threw her off guard because my penalty never came. No one in either family ever spoke to me about it, in fact.
I once beat up a guy 3 grades ahead of me because he was pounding on a bunch of the smaller kids in the neighborhood. He ran home to tell his mom, who was ready to fry me until the other kids started showing off the bruises and scraps her son had been leaving on them for weeks. When I saw the look on her face, I felt genuinely bad for her. I knew at that moment, if I’d just talked to her, she would have intervened. Doing it this way, she was humiliated. He never did it again, at least not to any kids in our school.
I know those may sound like noble fights to some of you, but trust me, they came from a dark place inside me. I was quick to come to blows because that rage was looking for a way out of me. These weren’t a few isolated incidents. The fights were frequent, and they were causing other problems. I spent so much time in the principal’s office in first grade that I started falling behind in class.
Parents and teachers didn’t know what to do with me. You can give a kid the best life you are able to provide but you can’t stop them from feeling anger or sadness or fear. When those emotions become problematic, when they take control too often and too intensely, you can’t make them not real by ignoring them and neither can your kid. It can be hard for adults to know what to do when tiny people have complicated emotions that outgrow their ability to cope, to reason, or even to verbalize.
So they did what they knew to do: punishment. I got plenty of punishment, but as you can probably imagine, it didn’t work.
I didn’t need consequences from adults to want to stop being that way. The experience of losing control to a crushing emotion and then feeling deep remorse afterwards was worse than any punishment they were ever going to devise. Banner wants rid of the Big Guy as much as anyone. You can’t spank the Hulk out of someone. You can’t shoot him or drop him into a volcano. You can’t fight or hurt or hate him out of yourself. I couldn’t, anyway. Tried.
My mom gave a good speech about not letting other people control my emotions and knock me off my path. It was a smart speech. She wasn’t wrong. Banner was smart, too. Logic doesn’t lull the beast back into his cave.
My Hulk, my anger, was real and needed to be dealt with. The Incredible Hulk was the only thing in my life at that time that spoke to me in a relatable way about anger. Because I had compassion for Bruce Banner, I developed compassion for myself. He taught me that it was possible to stop punishing myself and to instead put my demons to work for the greater good.
Anger can be protective when it is driven by love and compassion. Anger cannot be annihilated at will, but it can be pointed towards justice and measured out in righteousness. Righteousness means it does no harm. It doesn’t have to hurt anyone. You don’t have to lose everyone you love.
Watching Banner and Hulk through the years negotiating this balance of power in service of goodness gave me a model for how to grow into the person I wanted to be in the world. Not just shoving down bad emotions, but cultivating strength grounded in kindness wherever I could.
I was big for my age but I was never going to be big enough to fight the Hulk and win. I could only win with love, love for myself and love for those around me. I know it’s a corny message that we’ve all heard a million times. But this memory is special to me because this is when I heard that message, really heard it. This is when I got to see the work that turns rage into love, over and over. And I vitally needed it right then.
I eventually went on to become a child therapist, helping other kids find the words and models they needed at their most vulnerable times. Helping families understand and support each other when their burdens had gotten too heavy.
So to Stan Lee and to everyone who contributed their talents, creativity, and wisdom to the Marvel Universe, thank you. They are more than comics. They are more than entertainment, though they are excellent diversions. For some of us kids, they were also a lifeline.