Exploding Robots and Instructive Feelings

A close friend and I recently had a heated argument about Iron Man.

I know. Bear with me.

Personally, I love that egocentric, wisecracking billionaire. Flawed heroes are my jam.

My friend? Not so much. She likes her good guys good and her bad guys bad. If you ask her, heroes should be heroic.

The crux of our disagreement was over the ending of Iron Man 3, when, in a show of devotion to Pepper Potts, Tony Stark destroys his Iron Man suits. For me, that was a touching moment. Tony takes the source of his ego, something that’s become an unhealthy source of identity, and casts it aside for the woman he loves. It’s a beautiful sacrifice. It could even signal the beginning of positive personal growth.

That exact same scene makes my friend angry.

When she sees Tony destroy those Iron Man suits, she sees a man shirking responsibility. Those suits can save millions of lives, but Tony doesn’t care. He’d rather have a girlfriend. To my friend, this grand romantic gesture is a step backward. He continues to think only of himself and his own relationships.

We only made it a few minutes into our argument before stepping back and laughing at ourselves. We assured each other we still care for and respect each other, even if we have differing opinions on a cyborg crime fighter.

But as trivial as that disagreement was, it’s stuck with me.

To think one scene could invoke such differing responses is fascinating. As I continued turning the argument over in my head, I realized how instructive our emotional responses were. When I asked myself why I felt the way I did, I realized how important relationships are to me. I realized how much I care about maintaining a healthy sense of identity.

But I didn’t finish that scene and say, “Aha! This scene speaks to my value for personal relationships and my desire to only find value in the right things! Time to feel happy!”

I just felt.

That was it.

And I’m sure my friend didn’t roll through her list of values, decide which were applicable, and then choose an appropriate emotion. I’m sure she just felt, too.

When stories make us feel things, even in response to exploding robots, we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

So the next time you’re watching a movie and you feel joy or sorrow or relief or fear, ask yourself why. The answer may only be that the story is emotionally manipulative, but I’d encourage you to save that answer for a last resort. If you sit with those feelings for long enough and examine them, you might learn something about yourself.

And who knows? What you find may surprise you.

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