Road to Blackest Night: Spectrum Analysis p. 2

Green Lantern #39 cover

As Blackest Night begins, the emotions guiding the corps who are battling for power in the Green Lantern universe are at the center of DC's summer event.

"The whole idea is that life itself, sentient life, is what gives birth to power," explained writer Geoff Johns to Newsarama in 2007. "And emotions, which complex lifeforms experience -- like humans, who are on the low end of complex lifeforms in the universe compared to other advanced races -- when they experience an emotion, when we do, it's much more powerful than just an evolved and complicated brain. It's about the soul and the spirit, and that releases a kind of energy into the universe. The more people feel certain emotions that are important to our spirituality, either positive or negative, the greater that power will exist in the universe, and the more someone can tap into it."

And tap into it, they do, with a multitude of lanterns wielding the powers of the emotions showcased in the Green Lantern stories leading up to Blackest Night.

But how accurate are these cosmic manifestations of emotions? Are they really representative of the emotions that humans experience here on Earth?

That's what Newsarama attempted to find out as we talked to clinical psychologist Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, writer of college psychology textbooks and editor of the anthology "The Psychology of Superheroes."

Just as we examined love and hate yesterday, today we talk to Dr. Rosenberg about two of the other emotions in the "emotional spectrum" of the Green Lantern mythos: Greed and Compassion.

In Blackest Night, the "lanterns" who wield the orange power of avarice are actually controlled by one creature, the greedy Agent Orange named Larfleeze. Because he was so filled with greed, he could not share the power of avarice housed within the orange central power battery, and therefore wields the power alone.

"Greed is an interesting choice of emotions for this story. I see 'greed' relating more to the idea of a personality trait. And among personality traits, we know a lot about things like being sociable or outgoing, or being shy. But greed isn't one that is commonly investigated," Rosenberg said. "But I think some people, by nature, are more inquisitive and like to hoard things and like to own things. And that isn't necessarily the negative that you see with these stories, where greed is on the negative side of the color scale. But it becomes negative when environmental factors exacerbate that trait."

Rosenberg said that there are personality characteristics among humans that are unique to each individual because of "nature," due to a person's "genes or prenatal conditions."

"But if you think about a person's trait on a continuum, the environment can pull that person in one direction or another," she explained. "So your biology kind of anchors the range of what's possible for you. And with someone who hoards things or is more inquisitive like that naturally, something can happen because of the way they were raised or their experiences from a peer group or something in their environment that can turn that into a negative."

The psychologist said greed isn't a basic emotion like anger, fear and love. These emotions aren't as sophisticated as emotions like greed, willpower and compassion. "It involves more cognitive processing, more thought," she said. "Greed isn't usually [focused on] every single thing, either. It's usually certain things. Money, wealthy, fame. I mean, most people don't want all the spiders they can get. So it's a channeled emotion. It's complex. It's sophisticated. And I think a big part of it is what people learn. People could be prone to that trait, but being greedy about a particular object of their desire would be something that would develop. And usually it's about power. That's a big one."

Greed could also be very unhealthy if it gets to the level of obsession, which is what the stories in Green Lantern seem to portray, Rosenberg said.

As Philip Tan told Newsarama, the whole idea behind the lanterns of avarice is that they have "this horrible look of being greedy, so they should look grotesque. It's not so much scary as it is just, twisted by avarice. They are the lanterns of avarice. A perfect example, if you think about it, is Gollum from Lord of the Rings," he said, referring to the creature who became so obsessed with the "one ring" that he lived his whole life for the acquisition and retention of "my precious."

"I think when you describe it more as a 'power,' as it is portrayed in the Green Lantern universe, it is more like what psychology calls an obsession," Rosenberg said. "I mean, all of us have things that we'd like to have. Some of us may pursue them more ardently than others. But it's the really ardent pursuit that makes it noticeable and turns it into something that would be labeled as the kind of greed in the stories. It's not about the acquisition of the object, but it's about the destructive behavior in the lust for it."

While the indigo-colored "compassion" lanterns in Green Lantern haven't been revealed yet beyond a few teases and interviews, Rosenberg said the idea is probably best examined from a psychological point of view by first understanding the difference between compassion and "empathy."

"There are different kinds of compassion, and the ability to put yourself into someone else's shoes can lead you to feel what they're feeling, but not necessarily make you compassionate," she said. "We can empathize that someone's angry, but we don't necessarily want to help them or have the ability to take that step to compassion.

"Compassion has much more thinking involved," she continued. "It's a higher cognitive emotion. It requires almost empathy plus distance, paradoxically. It's not to be them, not to be in their shoes, but to take a step back to recognize the situation and have compassion for their motivations and understand it on a higher level."

Rosenberg said that's what she tries to do clinically, particularly when dealing with families where some members are annoyed with another family member. "Most of the time, people are well meaning, and if you can capture or resonate with their intention and develop an understanding, I think it's much easier to have compassion," she said.

The psychologist said the level of compassion that would be involved with lanterns who utilize the power of compassion in Green Lantern would probably be comparable to people who have an extreme commitment to social activism. They take compassion to an extreme, she said, using as an example Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who lived most of her life in poverty, giving everything she had for the poor, sick and orphaned.

"Not every form of extreme commitment to social activism involves outward compassion the way someone like Mother Teresa did," Dr. Rosenberg said. "There is actually a condition in those types of extreme levels of compassionate activism for the person to have what would be called dispassionate compassion. For example, doctors without borders or people who work in war zones or the Red Cross may not outwardly be exuding compassion, but they're motivated in the same way.

"I would even say superheroes have the same sort of dispassionate compassion, that extreme giving of oneself for social action or social causes for other people," she said.

She said that type of commitment is difficult to do continually, and there is a danger of a person who is overly compassionate and giving to the level of extreme social activism to get burned out. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a negative. In fact, in most cases, it's not only a positive psychological experience to give of oneself, but it's positive for obvious social reasons too.

"Who am I to say that's a bad thing? I think when it's a good fit, and when it's done for sustainable reasons, it's a wonderful thing," she said. "So when you think of it that way, it makes sense that it woud be on the positive side of this spectrum of emotions."

That covers Love, Hate, Avarice, and Compassion. Come back tomorrow for the next installment on the big premier day of Blackest Night #1

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