Do you remember your first breakup?
And I’m not talking about the time you broke up with the Jenny in third grade so you could go out with another 8-year old girl on the same playground. No, I’m talking about the first breakup that left you crumpled on the floor, tears flooding out of your eyes, and howling at the moon. You know, the one that hit you so hard you didn’t want to live anymore?
Yea, I’m talking about that breakup.
As the incredibly awkward high school nice guy who made it far too obvious he had a crush on you, I was, for the most part, single throughout high school. So my first real relationship didn’t happen until my sophomore year of college. Unlike some of my friends, I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 19.
Maybe it was because of the rose-colored glasses I wore, or a head full of naivety, or you could blame it on my youth and inexperience, but some part of me thought this girl, my first true girlfriend could be the one.
Not because she was the first girl I’d had sex with (alright, fine, maybe a little bit of that) but because at 19-fucking-years-old, I didn’t know the difference between love and the bubbly, oh-so-good feelings my brain and dick kept ricocheting between one another.
So, yea. I was getting laid — a lot — and for a kid who had gone pro as a third wheel for the last six years, I was finally in the big leagues. I was in a relationship (one that involved getting my penis touched).
Life couldn’t get any better heading into summer break.
With both of us heading home for the summer of 2006, I had plans laid out for taking long weekend trips to see her in Delaware. And, sure, it would be awkward getting used to sleeping alone again and not having sex (nearly) every night, but the summer would be over soon, and we’d both be back on campus in no time.
I drove up for my birthday weekend in June and spent half a week in her hometown and sneaking in as much sex as possible while staying at her house. Everything felt fine. It felt like nothing had changed since we’d departed for summer vacation.
All of that started to crumble a few weeks later.
Shortly after the 4th of July, I noticed that something felt off during our conversations. Our typical late evening AOL Instant Messenger chats had stopped, completely. And our nightly-before-bed phone calls morphed into me leaving a voicemail saying, “goodnight, I love you.”
Still, for some reason, I felt a small disturbance in The Force — a stinging sensation in my gut, as if my stomach knew something my brain didn’t: “Robbie, she’s acting strange…I think she’s gonna break up with you.”
Nah, she loves me. I love her. We’re weeks away from being back on campus; our love is all that matters (stupid stomach, shut up).
Then it happened. Like a sucker punch to the back of the head.
“Robbie, I don’t think we should date anymore.”
In an instant, it felt as if she’d performed Kano’s famous fatality by ripping out my heart, throwing it on the ground, and walking away.
Dazed and lost in shock, I sat at my computer motionless, unable to think. Then, minutes later, with a gaping hole in my chest cavity, came the hot sting of molten agony. I spent the next few days secluded under the covers in the fetal position, nearly choking on tears, and sucking at the teet of a bottle of whiskey while Dashboard played as loud as possible.
You can last two or three days on a steady diet of junk food, Domino’s pizza, booze, and the salty taste of your tears. But then it all changes; the bender morphs. Tears dry, anger builds, resentment envelopes you with its soft cloak. And revenge — the darkest and most dangerous of all emotions — begins to coalesce in your soul.
Until recently, I didn’t have a name for this period of darkness and time of constant self-destructive behavior. But as I re-read through some old comics, I realized that moments like this (and a more recent one I’ll touch on further below) puts us in direct touch with our most chaotic elements. Or what, thanks to one Marvel comic series, I’m calling: Thanos Moments.
Thanatos and Our Desire for Death
In Ancient Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death. Millenia later, Sigmund Freud would theorize that all humans have two drives: Eros, or our life force, and a death drive, which leads us down a path of death and self-destruction. It was one of Freud’s early pupils, Wilhelm Stekel, who decided to refer to death drive as Thanatos.
Jim Starlin, in 1973, created one of the most iconic and destructive comic book characters of all time. Who, ironically enough, had a brother named Eros and not only brought about massive amounts of death to the universe, but worshiped Marvel comic’s own personification of Death aka Lady Death.
First appearing in an Iron Man comic, The Mad Titan Thanos is one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. For over 50 years, he’s found his way into numerous storylines (including the MCU) and in 1992-1993, he was the chief protagonist of one of the most iconic comic book storylines ever: The Infinity Gauntlet.
I could spend an entire article breaking down the Infinity Gauntlet series and the comics that led to the event in 1992. But, for those who haven’t read this required nerd reading, here’s what you need to know about Thanos:
He’s a miscreant, an outcast, a mutation of his perfect race (The Eternals) and since his introduction, he’s been hell-bent on acquiring absolute power.
In most of the comics, Thanos has had but one goal: acquire the all-powerful Cosmic Cube. An ancient weapon that allowed whoever wielded it the ability to reshape reality around him. Meaning that anything its holder could think of was possible.
An instrument that you wouldn’t want in the hands of a nihilistic, nefarious, narcissist like Thanos.
Okay. Now that I’ve given you a brief look into who Thanos is, here’s why his quest for power is relevant to a gut-wrenching breakup.
Do It For The Ladies
The end goal for Thanos is to acquire enough power (the more infinite, the better) so that he can prove to Lady Death how much he loves her. Though there are many different storylines where Thanos shows up, what you need to know is that he fails multiple times to acquire limitless power and at one point is turned to stone.
Lady Death revives Thanos, endows him with more power, and leads him to believe that the universe is unbalanced between life and death. And that it’s his duty to restore said balance.
While peering into The Infinity Well, Thanos discovers that there’s still a way for him to prove his worth to Lady Death. And to do this, he must acquire The Infinity Stones. With these stones in his possession, Thanos is certain, this time, he’ll be able to prove his love, and worth, to Lady Death.
But there’s one problem.
Acquiring all of these stones makes Thanos the controller of reality, time, space, soul, power, and mind. Granting him complete omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, which in turn, makes Thanos a more powerful entity than Lady Death.
This, Lady Death cannot stand for and refuses to accept Thanos’s love.
You’re as Subtle as a Brick in the Small of My Back
Unrequited love is an impenetrable fortress that drives the greatest of men and warriors straight into the bosom of insanity.
When Lady Death first tells Thanos that she cannot accept his love because he’s more powerful than she, he breaks. And it’s at that moment that he decides, with all of his acquired power, that he will destroy half the universe with a snap of his finger.
So think back to your first breakup. How much did you plead for that person to take you back? Did you promise to change for them?
Did you do tell them you’d drive 14 hours to talk to them in person? Spill your heart out and say words you’d never said out loud but only thought, all in a last-ditch effort to convince them to not break up with you?
For a while, you refuse to accept reality. It’s over. Done. Your once peaceful and ordered life has been thrown into chaos.
Where it All Leads
By now you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about breakups and Thanos.
So to prevent myself from going too far into the comics and dissecting them, let me (briefly) share what sparked all of this.
At the end of October, in less than 48 hours, I lost half my clients. Gone. Like a snap of Thanos’s fingers, half my income was obliterated.
Like those dark moments after a breakup, I began to question my worth. I began to doubt my skills and wonder if this was the moment where life was telling me to throw in the towel. It felt as if a levee had broken and fear, doubt, and the pain of failure began to surge forward.
My livelihood and business had been thrown into chaos and my first thought, like the first days after my first gut-wrenching breakup, were to engage in self-destructive behavior.
Like Thanos, this jump into chaos, into self-destructive tendencies, happens because we feel we need to take some form of power back. Immediate and intensely gratifying actions provide us with a short-lived reclamation of power.
The terrifying downfall of all of this happens when we go too far, and we lose ourselves in the dark abyss of chaos. Something that isn’t uncommon after your heart is shattered.
The Hole You Need to Get Out Of
It could be a load of bullshit your friends tell you when you’re in your twenties and going through a breakup. But I’ve heard it a few times in my life: “The time it will take you to get over your relationship is equal to the total time you spent together.”
(Little did I know until my wife told me, but the above quote actually comes from an episode of Sex and the City.)
There’s a bit of truth in that line, though. Within those seven months of being single again, I opted to ignore my feelings and stuff them inside, and I threw myself full force onto a path of self-destruction.
- I drank more than ever
- Allowed malice, anger, and dreams of revenge to fuel my thoughts
- Started smoking cigarettes
- Smoked more pot than ever before
- And I stopped caring about my actions towards other people
Full of spite, hatred, and contempt, I attempted to drown away and leave forgotten in the depths of my vacant heart all these painful feelings; I wanted everything around me to suffer — I became Thanos.
How to Know You’ve Become Thanos
Life isn’t easy. It’s a struggle. But so too are relationships. And breakups cloud not only our judgment and emotional state, but we often forget that another human being, who has their own feelings, emotions, and life goals are involved in this predicament.
But, as human beings, we’re selfish. And when chaotic moments arrive, and break our ordered lives into a million different pieces, it’s easy for us to place ourselves in a victim mindset.
You’ve seen the signs of someone trapped in a victim mindset before, they’re:
- They feel entitled
- Unwilling to take action to alleviate their situation
- Easily paranoid that others are out to get them
- Believe others are fundamentally happier, more talented, better off than they are
Any of this hitting home for you?
Who hasn’t been through a breakup (or another chaotic/traumatic event) and months later find themselves still absorbed in their own pain or rejection and unable to move past it?
How about the time you didn’t get that job and felt because of your skills, education, or knowledge that you should have gotten it?
- “Yea, well since so-and-so has more money than me, I bet they’re happier. They never struggle like I do.”
- “My friends are happier because they have girlfriends. I’ll never be happy if someone doesn’t love me.”
- “I know I should get over him/her, but I can’t. I just can’t do it. I’m too hurt.”
The last bullet point above is one I know without a shadow of a doubt, that we’ve all thought, felt, or said out loud at some point.
Escaping a victim mindset isn’t easy. So please, don’t assume that I’m saying you’ll wake up the morning after an Earth-shattering event and everything will be fine and fucking dandy.
It probably won’t be. Depending on your situation, the next day might feel like the worst day of your life. And we’ve all (and if you haven’t, you’re an anomaly) felt those first moments the next morning where we try with all of our might to convince ourselves it was only a dream.
I’ve said it before in a previous post, but I believe pain is the harbinger of truth; and truth, like change, doesn’t come when you’re happy. You only make changes or discover the truth in your life because of pain. But too often than not, when these Thanos moments happen, most of us retreat and hide from our pain.
The thought of facing our problems is too much. And it’s here, hiding within the walls we construct in our minds, where we chain ourselves to a victim mindset.
The longer we avoid and the longer we numb, the more painful it will be when we finally do confront our issues. – Mark Manson from “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck“
But wait, Robbie, the comics make Thanos out to be a brooding, nihilistic, morose, psychopath from childhood. That’s true, and you may be an upstanding member of society, but the point is: you can still become a destructive force like Thanos — if you allow a victim mindset to take control of you.
If I’d Known What I Know Now
In the days, weeks, and months that followed my first breakup, what drove me deeper into the dark nether realm of my soul was the same demon, dragon, or being that I’ve been terrorized by my entire life: the feeling of not being good enough.
The victim mindset I found myself in during those seven months settled like concrete. I hardened this mindset by allowing my demon to whisper that I wasn’t good enough. Or that I wasn’t:
- Adequate in bed
- Didn’t listen to her enough
- Wasn’t smart enough
- Didn’t meet her “standards” (my family was too redneck)
- Wasn’t as talented
To put it bluntly: she could do better, and I was a fucking loser.
During high school, I would have retreated within and stuffed these feelings of inadequacy deep in my heart — hidden all my pain — only letting it out while singing Brand New as loud as possible alone in my car. But this time, things were different.
Love, sex, and vulnerability were involved, and never before had I put myself out there with another human being; never had I felt what I thought was true love, until her.
For the next seven months, I allowed the dark ravenous emotions of chaos — resentment, jealousy, malice, and hopelessness — to gorge on my soul.
Why wasn’t I worthy enough of her love? Why couldn’t this be? How could she go from loving me to not?
Though he may have been a brute, I assume many of these questions swirled in the cranium of the Mad Titan himself when Death rejected his love.
The First Cut is the Deepest
It’s cliche, but it’s true: time heals all wounds. My first steps out of the shadow of chaos may have come seven months after that breakup, but my final departure from the outskirts of that land took a lot longer than that.
Much of the self-destructive behavior I started after that breakup remained with me for years in the form of smoking, drinking, and, because I was too afraid to be vulnerable and let down my defenses, I more or less became a bit of a dick towards women.
The Eternal Battle Between Order and Chaos
Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and tenured professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has spent much of his academic career (and now rising YouTube fame) talking about the delicate balance between order and chaos, and how going too far into one or the other leads to oppression or hopelessness.
Using the imagery of the Yin and Yang, JP (for short) believes that to have a balanced life, we must have one foot in order and one foot in chaos, precariously balancing between the two.
See the opposite colored dots in each section? There’re a hundred different ways to interpret those small dots. But in the case of this article, there are two that stand out to me:
- There is life in death (or order in chaos). And there is death in life (or chaos in order)
- If we are to believe as JP says that, for a balanced, virtuous life, you need one food in chaos and one in order, then those dots would mark where your feet must be placed.
This concept, or battle between order and chaos, goes back to the beginning of time. It’s a war that’s been waged since the first single celled organisms evolved into multicellular lifeforms.
Evolution introduced chaos through mutations, while natural selection played, and still plays, the role of establishing order by weeding out the weak and allowing the strong to survive. And evolution’s gift to humanity is the ability to make conscious choices, to feel pain and remorse, pride and joy, love and hate.
Revolution’s Effect on Evolution
Evolution is a slow progression. But change, whether in nature or our minds, cannot happen without some bit of stimulation; and ultimately, this stimulus must come from revolutions. Or as we often call it in the term of the mind, revelations.
Derived from the Latin word revolutio meaning “a turnaround;” revolutions (or revelations) are our Thanos moments: the time where chaos has suddenly, and many times, uninvitingly, entered our lives — leaving us with the choice of either improving and evolving, or stagnating and regressing.
Our biological processes are always looking for homeostasis. But the human body, if it’s one thing, is resilient and adaptable; but to become more resilient, you need some form of chaos introduced.
Autophagy is the process by which our cells (thanks to induced stress that comes during exercise, caloric restriction, or fasting) break down cellular components and rebuild.
Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2016 because of decades of research into the phenomenon of autophagy. As detailed in the press release for Dr. Ohsumi’s award, autophagy was described as: “[a process that can] rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is, therefore, essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress.”
Exercise and restricting calories are both stressors on the orderly state of our bodies. Both of these throw our energy systems into a chaotic state where they’re forced to respond.
(At the same time that eating less is a stress on your body, following a structured set of rules in how much you eat, or if you practice intermittent fasting when you eat, helps provide your body with some sort of order within the stress (chaos) of a calorie deficit. See, one foot in order, one foot in chaos.)
A Reason for the Turn
So why did I just take a hard right turn out of the heartbreak hotel and start talking about yin/yang and an evolutionarily crucial biological process?
Well, like the opening scene from Die Hard where a guy tells John McClane to take his shoes off and make fists with his toes in the carpet, sometimes you need an extra scene that doesn’t look like it means much so that later on, the rest of the story makes sense.
The point for the right turn is this: where order provides us the rules or a roadmap, chaos is the autophagic process that helps reorder and improve our lives, business, relationships, and ideas.
Through the Mind’s Eye
Everyone reading this has at some point experienced the pain of rejection. And like Thanos, when something Earth-shattering happens, we catapult ourselves further into the realm of chaos. And for some, we lose a bit of ourselves in its dark abyss.
Like the small dots within the Yin/Yang, there is life in chaos: lessons that we can learn and take with us to become better. But those can only happen if we choose to face our fears, instead of hiding from them.
A Hidden Truth in a Comic Book
**Side note: I reached out to Marvel to get permission to post 3 images from the comic I reference below. They denied my request. And since I didn’t want to taint the spirit of the piece by drawing stick figure art, if you have Marvel Unlimited you can check out the comic I reference. If not, I’ll do my best to describe the panels below.**
As I dug deeper into the history of Thanos, I discovered an issue of Captain Marvel from 1973.
Hidden in this issue, issue #29, is one of the most profound life lessons you could ever learn. One that stopped me dead in my tracks. (and since I can’t post the image from the comic book, here’s my description)
The entity known as Eon whisks Captain Marvel away from Earth and into his domain. Once there, Eon explains to Marvel the story of Thano’s race and what Thanos is after (The Cosmic Cube).
For Captain Marvel, he feels he’s being tortured by this creature (Eon) while he’s educated on matters that terrify and shock him to his very core. And then Eon say this:
Knowledge is torture, and there must be awareness before there is change.
What Eon says to Captain Marvel is no different than what I said above:
Pain is the harbinger of truth; and truth, like change, doesn’t come when you’re happy.
It’s easier to remain blissfully ignorant. And when faced with a Thanos moment, we run, hide, and choose to ignore the problem. Thinking that if we give it no credence, it will go away; but it doesn’t; because the consciousness that you know you must accept at some point, is the torture you dare not face. And without facing it, you’ll never change; and you’ll remain stuck, possibly forever, in the realm of chaos.
As Eon shows Captain Marvel the errors of his ways, Captain Marvel has his own mental revolution, and he realizes his mistakes and what they’ve cost him.
Eon tells Marvel that he’s physically capable of handling the most daunting of issues. But explains that Marvel’s greatest challenge can only be dealt with once he becomes conscious and accepts his mistakes as a chance to grow and evolve — a process that can only happen mentally.
In the following pages of artwork, Captain Marvel defeats The Ravagers, which, for this article, we’ll call: Doubt, Fear, Failure, and Pain. For you as a reader, these are entities that after any traumatic event, like a breakup, ravage our minds and spirits.
Or as Dr. Jordan Peterson said:
What lurks underneath comes up to swallow you.
When you allow those ravaging emotions of doubt, fear, failure, and pain to lurk underneath, you allow those emotions to rob you of not only growth, but fulfillment, joy, happiness, and hope.
You Are Your Own Worst Enemy
In the final two pages of this Captain Marvel comic, a truth is revealed, one that echoes through all of life and rang out to me. After defeating The Ravagers, Captain Marvel is told he has one more task.
He must face his inner demon.
Or, as Eon explains to Captain Marvel:
“This is your cancerous other self. He is your hostility, your battle lust, the side of you which loves destruction, perpetuates hate, and seeks death. He is your personal Thanos. To truly live, you must overcome this within yourself.“
Death and rebirth are a common theme among ancient myths and even comics today. But they’re there for a reason.
For you to improve, in any way, some part of yourself must die. And through this death, only then, if you decide to face your inner Thanos, can a rebirth become possible.
There is, and will always be, order and chaos — yin and yang; Thanos and Eros; Mario and Bowser; Link and Ganon; you and your demon. And until the day you die, you will continue to battle with your innermost Thanos.
What I want you to take away from this piece is that to grow and be your best, physically or mentally, you need the occasional Thanos Moment.
If you’re too ordered, too focused on rigid rules, or try to be too streamlined all the time, so that you avoid hardship(s), you’ll never improve or evolve. Too much order breeds atrophy and apathy.
But catastrophic events shake us up and force us to make changes we otherwise would’ve never made. Because without these events, we’d never find ourselves evolving, growing, and working towards our highest self — or as the Ancient Greeks called it, apotheosis.
Man Becomes God
Nassim Talib’s idea of a modern Stoic, as outlined in his book Antifragile, is this: “[a] modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
Thanos did none of that. And I doubt he ever had a single Stoic bone in his body.
But when a Thanos moment happens to you, whether it’s a traumatic breakup, losing half your business, death, or being hurt by someone you care for, what good will revenge, or the immediate, gratifying feelings of a vitriolic response, or the drowning of your pain in a bottle of whiskey accomplish? What growth or self-evolution comes from that?
A balanced life, with one foot residing in the realm of order and the other in chaos, is more than likely, unattainable. But striving for that balance, as daunting and intimidating as it may seem, will lead to a far more virtuous, joyful, and meaningful life than one where you reside under the shadow of chaos, or hidden behind the veil of order.
We’re meant to carry loads heavy enough so that when we carry it, we can have some self-respect. But people do everything to try and lighten their load. The problem with this approach is that then you have nothing useful to do. And if you have nothing useful to do all you’ll have around you is meaningless suffering. – Dr. Jordan Peterson
**There would be another clip from the 29th issue of Captain Marvel here but since I can’t post it, here’s what happens. Captain Marvel is fighting his inner demon as Eon says:
“To live is to strive! To strive is to seek! In this sphere of existence….only one thing is worth seeking….that which gives life meaning…”
A Life of Ease, or a Life of Struggle?
On our way back from Christmas in New Orleans, my wife, as she is apt to do on long road trips, decided to probe me with a few “fun” questions. Including this one:
“Would you rather live to 100 and struggle all your life? Or would you rather live half that time with relative ease?”
To my wife’s surprise, I chose a life of strife. Because even though I could live with ease, without struggle, without a fight for something, what would it all be worth?
Thanos moments don’t knock on our doors and greet us with an effervescent singing telegram when it enters our lives. No. It rolls in shooting flames from the tailpipe of its eardrum demolishing monster truck that then proceeds to treat your life like a dilapidated 1995 Buick Century.
But when we hear the rumble of chaos’s engine, we run. We hide. Whether that hiding is done via drugs; alcohol; sex; or spending seven months consumed by anger and hate brooding with your broken heart in your hands, hiding from what we fear gets us nowhere.
Chaos is a chance for us to grow: to ascend to new heights.
Like the biological process of autophagy, Thanos moments allow us to reexamine not only the trajectory of our lives or business, but they’re instrumental in helping us reframe our beliefs or course correct our goals. And then, once we’ve become conscious, and faced that which we fear most, only then can we restructure and redirect ourselves towards rebirth.
I still vividly remember the moment I realized after seven months of heartache that it was time to start moving on. I remember standing on the stairs that went to my roommate’s room, listening to him groan about his current relationship issues and what he should or shouldn’t do. And then, out of nowhere, it came. Clarity. Epiphany. A revelation. A small part of the truth I had been looking for, finally, came to me and I took my first steps out of the shadows of chaos.
To Strive Is to Have Meaning
The first few words of this article started as an exploration into why we commit acts of self-destruction. Why, when half my business and income vanished in the snap of a finger, were my first thoughts about getting drunk? What good would that have done?
“We control our reasoned choice and all acts that depend on that moral will. What’s not under our control are the body and any of its parts, our possessions, parents, siblings, children, or country—anything with which we might associate.” – Epictetus
Like Thanos, man’s greatest folly is that he desires to be God. And it’s easy to feel like God when things are in order. But throw in a little chaos, something that was not in our plan(s), and the first thing we’ll do is jump on the anger train and ride it into self-destruction town.
As I’ve been listening to Dr. Peterson, flipping through pages of comics on my phone, and compiling notes and thoughts about this concept for the last three months, what has stuck out to me is the importance of Thanos moments — moments that shake us to our core and challenge us to improve.
We have them every day. Every day some part of you dies and has the possibility of being reborn. It happens with red blood cells, hair cells, skin cells, but it also happens with our ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.
Man is meant to be God. But not an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being that rules over others. No. You must be God of your own mind. Ruler of your thoughts and actions. And if your actions are leading you towards killing half the universe with the snap of your fingers, or in a non-comic book sense, punching a wall with your fist because your heart is broken, is that initial self-destructive action worth it?