Avengers: Endgame, trauma and therapy

Who knew we could all do time heists?

I know, I know, the world has moved on from the blip. But I saw a video on YouTube this week and I have thoughts and I think you might be interested. 

I loved Avengers: Endgame, of course (if you know me, you’d know there was little chance I wouldn’t), but I had a bit of a nitpick with it, as I mentioned when discussing it with a friend. (By the way, major spoilers ahead, but if by this point you’ve not seen it, do you even really care???)

My nitpick (which many had, I later found) was with Captain America getting to go back and live the life that was taken from him: I felt it was being too simplistic in suggesting the past could be undone without consequence. Yes, the past was undone with the stones, but that did come with unexpected serious consequences. But the whole Cap going back thing just felt too neat. 

Then again this was happening at the end of a 3-hour movie and there was just no time to delve into the implications of reliving the past after we’d spent all that time explaining the logistics of changing it. Plus let’s be honest: everyone was happy to see Cap get his girl after all, me included. 

Like I said: small nitpick.

But something happened this week that made me even more forgiving of that nitpick (which I still have, mind you).

I saw a video on YouTube (link below) that suggested a new way to look at the movie that was truly profound. And the thesis of the video was that Avengers: Endgame is, among other things, an exploration of how we engage trauma.

Mind. Blown. 🤯

It tied in with stuff I’ve been pondering for about a year, about the stories we tell and how much they define us. 

I think a lot about stories (see here for instance): both the stories we are told in writing and on screens, and the stories we tell ourselves in our heads. I’ve written quite a bit about stories already, and will certainly write a bit more. 

Of all those stories, though, perhaps the most important is the story of identity. Because when we come down to it, that’s what identity really is, isn’t it? Not just any story: what we call our identity is a story we tell ourselves *about* ourselves

And that applies to both individual and group identity: who I am, and who we are (however you define the various “we’s” you consider yourself part of).

And like all stories, the story of identity requires imagination. What happens then, when that imagination breaks down? What happens when the story doesn’t work and you feel unable to expand it or craft yourself a new one?

What do you do when trauma cripples your imagination?

Because that’s one way to think about what trauma is: an event so powerful and painful it overwhelms your imagination and cripples it.

Avengers: Infinity War is the story of the trauma. Endgame is the story of the response to and recovery from that trauma. I don’t know if the authors thought it through all the way, but the time heist is literally our heroes returning to specific past events to re-examine them and being back elements of that past to reshape the present.

You know what else is like that?

Therapy.

To clarify, by “therapy” here I don’t mean professional therapy only. I’m using the word more loosely to mean any process by which we do the work of re-examining our past and reinterpreting it with a new or larger narrative that helps us to rethink our present.

Basically, us doing a time heist of our own lives, whether by ourselves, or (more realistically), with help from others — whether that’s friends, a community of faith, or yes, professional therapy. The main plus with professional therapy is really just having the “time heist” set up by someone who’s trained for that specific work and skilled at it, and whose role in your life is precisely setting up the “heist.”

Like, you know, your own personal Iron Man-plus-Hulk genius team.

And that just gives new meaning to the entire film, doesn’t it?

Yes, I still think Cap getting to relive the past was too neat to be true. But it’s much easier to forgive when I think how the time heist-as-therapy angle is just such a great picture of the way therapy makes a difference, and how impactful that difference can be.

For a while now I’ve thought of therapy as personal storytelling: it’s great to see a story that offers a great picture of therapy.

How about you? And if you’ve ever tried professional therapy, how did you find it?


Below: the video that inspired this week’s letter: