Blackest Night begins this week and for our final installment looking at the emotions guiding the corps of light who are battling within the Green Lantern universe, we look at fear, hope and willpower.
In Green Lantern, the yellow power of fear can be disabling to the green energy of willpower, which writer Geoff Johns has equated to real-life fear impairing someone's ability to act. "Willpower was the focus of Rebirth. It was Hal’s will to live. To continue on despite everything he’d gone through. He overcame his fear. With Sinestro Corps, I wanted to explore fear further, because fear is so prevalent in our society," he said. "It can be completely disabling. It can be completely overwhelming. And there are days where fear can freeze somebody, and it can stop you from enjoying life when you should be enjoying life."
In fact, in the Green Lantern stories, the power of fear wielded by the yellow lanterns of the Sinestro Corps is something that rookies in the Green Lantern Corps have to struggle to overcome and can fall victim to.
In real life, that type of fear also exists, said clinical psychologist Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, editor of the anthology, "The Psychology of Superheroes."
"Fear becomes problematic if it leads to significant distress or it impairs your function in some way," Rosenberg said. "Phobia is an extreme fear of some object or situation. Most of us might be afraid of lions. That's adaptive. That's not necessarily bad. Even fear of spiders or snakes. For most of us, it's not a problem because it doesn't impair our functioning. But if you wouldn't put clothes in a closet because you're afraid there might be spiders crawling into your clothes, then that starts to become a problem.
"Social phobias are even more common and affect willpower," she continued. "Like, if you turned down a job because you would have to speak at meetings, and your fear keeps you from doing that, then that fear becomes a problem, because it's interfering with your life. Even in a relationship, you'll see that someone is afraid to ask a person out on a date. So it really affects how a person lives."
Johns also made a distinction between the idea of being without fear and having the ability to overcome fear, saying Green Lanterns do the latter.
"It’s not about being without fear. We’ve made the Green Lantern Corps about overcoming fear. You’re not fearless. You overcome fear," he told Newsarama. "You work through your fear. You’re faced with something that’s hard to face, you’re afraid to tackle an issue you don’t want to tackle, and the best thing you can do is to find the willpower to tackle it, to overcome it. It’s hard to do, but you have to do it. I think that overcoming fear is something all of us have to do. We don’t always succeed, but we have to try."
Rosenberg said that's a good distinction to make because being completely without fear isn't healthy. "Sociopaths or psychopaths are people who typically don't have the same kind of fear response. And they also don't respond to punishment in the same way. For people who don't have fear, punishment doesn't do much for them. And they don't learn what to avoid because it doesn't matter," she said.
In the Green Lantern universe, the opposite of the power of fear is hope, and it has the opposite effect on the Green Lanterns who wield willpower.
"The blue and green are kind of symbiotic in nature," Johns has said, referring to the fact that the blue energy of hope has no power on its own but instead enhances willpower. "Hope can be prayer... You have to believe in something and have faith in something [to be a Blue Lantern]. As long as it's a positive force in your life, a positive symbol in your life – whether it's religion or any type of spirituality, as long as it's a positive force, you can tap into that hope."
Rosenberg said hope is a very important aspect of a person's psychological health and definitely affects what he or she can accomplish.
"Hope is crucially important because it provides us motivation to do things that are hard. Why else do we do things that are hard?" she said. "It's the hope that things will be better. Hope is what sustains us. I might get a little cosmic here, but I think a lot of religions are based on hope. Some are based on fear, or both. But hope is an incredibly powerful motivator – hope for ourselves and other people. Hope is very powerful."
She used the example of immigrants who moved to America and took menial jobs because they hoped for a better future for their children. Suffering through that type of life was only possible because of hope.
The psychologist also pointed out that a lack of hope is typically behind depression. "In fact one of the hallmarks of depression is hopelessness, in the sense that things can never be better, so what's the point? There is no hope," she said. "It's a belief that things are bad now and they'll always be bad. So hope is very important. I don't know what more I can say. Hope is very powerful."
The middle "emotion" on the spectrum is willpower, which artist Ethan Van Sciver described as more of a "drive" when he talked about its depiction in Green Lantern: Rebirth and Sinestro Corps War, the series he helped design with Johns, who also describes it as more of a center, balancing power that preceded the cosmic creation of the other emotions.
"I love the idea that, the moment the first sentient being willed their finger to move, they created that spark of green energy out there that could be harnessed and wielded," Johns said. "That was the first power to ever exist. And beyond that are the other emotions and colors and their power."
Rosenberg said she would also see willpower as being a drive, or even sees it as playing the role overcoming emotions. "It's more of an imposing force on emotion," she said. "It's like, 'I'm going to do this,' and you're telling yourself to overrule other emotions that get in the way. It seems much more of a thought pattern than it is an emotion. It's almost a repression of emotion."
The idea of repressing emotions actually goes right along with the ideas of Green Lantern, Rosenberg acknowledged, because the Guardians of the Universe who control the "willpower" battery are all about discarding or controlling emotions.
"I'm sure there are some people who are able to do that more than others, to utilize willpower in a bigger way like the Green Lanterns. If a person is afraid to the point of a phobia, they would require willpower to do an exposure treatment, for example, where you would expose them to that target of their fear to help them overcome the fear. That's what Bruce Wayne did in Batman Begins, facing the bats in the cave. He went out of his own accord and faced his fear. That's an act of willpower. So that's a lot like what they're talking about in Green Lantern when they overcome fear by using willpower."
Rosenberg also understood why hope would enhance willpower's strength in the Green Lantern universe.
"I think it's harder to realize willpower in the absence of a reason to do it. Hope is the reason to exert willpower," she said. "Interestingly, willpower could also be seen as the power of emotional regulation, to a certain extent, because really, what it's doing is overriding other emotions, for some greater purpose. So even with anger, people who manage to keep their anger in check are exerting willpower. Or someone who is madly in love and really needs to stop the obsession about the person -- they are exerting willpower when they come down to earth and stop the obsession."
One of the most common uses for the word willpower in the world of psychology is often applied to eating disorders, Rosenberg said. "One way of thinking about willpower is just the ability to regulate your emotions for long-term interests or goals, like with weight loss," she said. "Emotions are often here and now. They're very present in the moment. And willpower is about suppressing them for some higher calling or purpose."
With fear, hope and willpower, their psychological descriptions seem to match up pretty well with their Green Lantern counterparts, who will surely be central to the ongoing saga in Blackest Night.
"It's emotion-based. It's all about how people feel and react, with action involved," Johns told Newsarama at the beginning of the saga. "And that immediately appeals to me. That's what I like – emotion-filled action. And so it's just exploring what the primal emotions mean, and what they can do if we're overwhelmed by them, and how we use them as a power or a weapon for good or evil. Everybody can relate to one emotion. So it's just something great to explore for Green Lantern and Hal Jordan as a character and all the Green Lanterns as characters."