11/25/2012 10:09 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2013

Why You Should Watch a Movie Tonight

I said something to a friend a couple of months ago that I wish I hadn't. The moment the words left my lips, like a bubble around the words in a cartoon, I could see them make their way over to him, and I wanted to take them back. Too late. Damage done.

A few days and an accepted apology later, as I was still beating myself up, I got on a plane to see a client in Chicago. They were showing the film, The Avengers, and near the end of the film, a scene brought me up short. The Stellan Skarsgard character has been under a spell by the antagonist, and comes to himself on a rooftop in New York City, which is under massive attack. And he has the realization that the destruction all around him is the result of something he created while under the spell. And that moment -- the look on his face of dismay, horror, responsibility -- reached out and took hold of me.

All of a sudden I was back in that conversation with my friend and my feelings of dismay and horror over my own comment, and the aftermath of beatings: Why did I say that? What was the matter with me? What was I thinking? Then, a curious thing happened: As I looked at the expression on Stellan Skarsgard's face, it was overwhelmingly obvious how futile his dismay and horror were. Warranted, but useless. There was a larger landscape to consider, and action to be taken -- he and Ironman and Captain America and the rest of the Marvel heroes were in the middle of a situation that required all hands on deck, and staying in a state of dismay wouldn't help. This realization of the futility of prolonged dismay got to me on a visceral level.

As the scene unfolds, we then find out that the Stellan Skarsgard character has built into the destructive system something that can save the day. So he gets busy with that -- taking action on something that would be helpful and useful in the current situation. And that got me thinking about my comment, the conversation that followed, and the action I'd taken with the apology. I also thought about the fact that, both of our pain and my remorse notwithstanding, the whole situation actually wound up advancing the relationship.

The film ended, the plane landed, and I was tremendously lightened. I had a new clarity: Prolonged dismay doesn't help, beatings and self-judgment are useless, action is paramount, and in this instance, the whole situation actually advanced the relationship (a bonus!). Now, none of these thoughts were new. What was new was that I had this clarity on a gut level, not just an intellectual one. Talk about great use of plane time.

In the ensuing days, when I remembered my comment to my friend and was tempted to beat myself up again, I called that image to mind. I saw the look on Stellan Skarsgard's face, recollected the feeling of futility in giving in to that, shifted my focus to the larger landscape and/or action I needed to be taking, and the temptation passed. REALLY great use of plane time.

Most of us take a reactive approach to media, entertainment and art. We turn to these for many reasons, but not often to help us improve our lives in a proactive way. Yet there's a growing body of research that shows it has the power to do just that. In considering visual media, developmental molecular biologist John Medina weighs in: "Vision is probably the best single tool we have for learning anything ... The more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized -- and recalled."[1] Keep in mind that I'd been trying to stop beating myself up. I knew it wasn't serving anybody, least of all me. But there are times, especially when we're overcome, that an idea, such as "this doesn't serve," is too intellectual to be of help to us. But an image can call to mind all that it represents and hit us more deeply, more quickly. Ph.D. psychologist Gary Solomon says, "When you become caught up in the emotional life of the movies, you experience feelings that in turn lead to breakthroughs in negative thought patters and the opening of new ideas."[2] And Ph.D. psychologist Skip Dine Young refers to films as "equipment for living." He writes about how "people use the movies they watch" and that "movies can be used to facilitate our ongoing development as human beings."[3]

I heard Jim Lehrer interviewed, and he referred to film as something to entertain, not inform. He said, "I'm a moviegoer to escape. I can get informed somewhere else." "Escape" does, indeed, have an important role -- it can provide relief from stress and the pressures of life. And yet, I can't help but see a wasted opportunity. There could be some "informing" we may derive from that film that we may not find elsewhere. And it may have a real impact on our lives.

And with the many demands on our time and attention, why not, while we're being entertained, find embedded opportunities to grow and move forward? We say we'll read a book or go to a seminar for that, but rarely seem to find the time. "Using your media" is an approach that doesn't require extra time, since it uses what's probably already in your life.

As the unfortunate conversation with my friend has receded from the forefront of my mind, something interesting has happened: Although the memory of that particular frustrating experience has receded, frustrating experiences, themselves, have not. Life has continued to offer them (surprise!) in various forms: the 405, 10 hours of work in two hours of time, long lines, aphids, need I go on? And what has not receded in my mind is that visual of Stellan Skarsgard's face. In the first couple of weeks after the conversation with my friend, I intentionally called the image from The Avengers to mind, and it stopped me from indulging in my old habit: the downward spiral of beatings. Now, I don't have to be intentional anymore. When I find myself becoming frustrated about pretty much anything, that image of Stellan Skarsgard's face simply comes to mind, and along with it that overwhelming sense of, "Staying in the dismay isn't worth it. There's probably a larger landscape, and action is the answer, even if it's just the action of shifting my focus elsewhere." It serves as a quick and decisive wake-up call. And shakes me out of the wrong spiral and into the right one. Up, please.

A billboard used to hang in my neighborhood in New York City, in front of ABC News headquarters at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue. It pictured then-anchor of World News Tonight Peter Jennings, looking directly at the viewer with a gaze at once inviting and challenging, and a caption that read, "Don't just watch the news, use it." If you want to create change and forward movement for yourself, consider Peter Jennings' advice, and then consider broadening it to take a more proactive approach to all of your media, entertainment and art. Starting with the movie you see tonight.

Note: A very proactive way to do all of this is to create a "library" of MIMs, for Media Into Motion. A MIM is anything from any form of media that captures your attention as particularly interesting, stimulating, helpful, even beautiful. And it's something you can use. Develop your own MIMs, and feel free to use ours. And if you have something you need to "get over," could use some entertainment, and haven't seen The Avengers, rent it. Ninety-two percent on deserves a look.

Tool: Getting Over It
Source: The Avengers
Applications: To get past frustration from any source at work, home or in life


[1] Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. [Link.]

[2] Solomon, Gary. The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning: 200 Movies to Help You Heal Life's Problems. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Aslan Publishing, 1995. [Link.]

[3] Young, Skip Dine. Psychology at the Movies. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. [Link.]

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