Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On Anger & Empathy (Alternate Title: If you want to keep screaming, please move down the hall.)

 Continuing in the vein of being brave, I want to share with you something I've been pondering for a little while. Anger. It's everywhere. Angry speeches from politicians. Angry articles from pastors. Angry rants from any person with a modicum of a platform.

And I get it. Truly I do. I naturally skew angry. I'm a fighter, so my knee-jerk reaction to any perceived "threat" is to get angry and fight back.  I get this from my dad - which is absolutely not a criticism. It's something for which I'm profoundly thankful. It has taken time to harness (and I'm still working on it), but the tenacity and fierce determination I inherited has served me well. Especially since I now am raising 3 daughters who seem to operate in the same fiery way that I do. (Pray for me.)

Lately, though, I've been exploring anger, my own and everyone else's.

As I was earning my psychology degree (when I was young and dumb and possessed little insight), I heard "anger is not a neutral emotion." Okay, cool. I can regurgitate that on an exam.

I also was taught that "anger is a secondary emotion". Nice. I'll work that into my next essay.

Thanks for my degree. Have a nice day.

Now that, finally, a nice chunk of years have elapsed since earning said degree - after 3 children, the ending of a marriage, grad school, and several careers (2 of them in the psychology field) - finally, I'm internalizing some meaning behind what my professors were trying to convey.

Anger is not a neutral emotion. It takes sides. When I get angry, my anger blazes out against someone or something. They are the object of my anger. They are on one side; I am on the other. When I was young and got angry, it could be explosive. Just ask my sisters. When I got mad at one of them, family ties were forgotten. We were NOT on the same side. Now, raising my children, my anger is a familiar force that I'm learning to rein in because. . . .

Anger is a secondary emotion. (I know there are different schools of thought on this, but this is the conclusion I have come to.) Anger is driven by deeper emotions that come from the core of who we are. Anger doesn't exist by itself and it is not self-sustaining. It must be sparked, then fueled, by something else. That "something else" comes from a deeper part of us, the part that must be protected. (I'm still trying to determine if that need for protection is innate or if we are taught that we must protect it. I'm leaning toward a learned behavior.)

The deeper part of us is where those profound and more complex emotions reside: fear, love, joy, sorrow. These emotions are "shared humanity" emotions that humans throughout history have experienced. That's why I can read poetry by Rumi (writing in the 1200s) or a novel by Hugo (1800s) and still identify with the emotions conveyed; they are at the core of us all.

 In an email to some family members, I recently wrote:

I know that when my anger flairs with regards to politics specifically, it's because I feel like I'm being told that the convictions I hold are ridiculous or stupid or unreasonable - ultimately that I am (or at least my beliefs are) inadequate. One of my greatest fears is then realized: that I am not enough.

My anger is often driven by fear. If that's the case for me, who else is this the case for? And if people are driven by fear, not anger, then maybe they're not the horrible, feral humans I'm assuming they are. Maybe they're just like me.

[Cue the arrival of Empathy from stage right. Uproarious round of applause ensues.]

The world feels like it's on fire. Everyone seems angry. And I'm thinking that the only way that anger is going to subside and those fires to be extinguished is for people to start looking at what's underneath. I'm also convinced that anger is not a sustainable state to exist in. It either consumes or is extinguished. (This is why fire is an appropriate metaphor for anger.)

There's already enough being consumed - we've got embassies attacked and drones bombing and riots happening and people screaming (or scream-tweeting). And it's not working. No progress is being made. People are not made better; the world not made kinder. (Although if better and kinder is not your goal, then by all means, keep screaming. Just move down the hall a little bit or close the door because the rest of us want to actually get stuff done.)

Does examining the underbelly of anger actually solve anything? I'm going to defer to the One Candle theory. I was at a Christmas Eve service not long ago where 1 candle lit another which lit another which lit another. (I feel like there are a lot of fire analogies in this post.) The candles didn't undo the darkness of the unlit sanctuary, but it certainly pushed it back into the corners.

Working within our spheres of influence, imagine the anger that could be pushed back by a flood of empathy.

I'm interested in better, calmer, kinder conversations. The kind of conversations that connect people at a core level. I'm still learning how to be brave. I'm still learning how to whisper. I'm learning how to have, as Bren√© Brown puts it in her book Braving the Wilderness, a "strong back, soft front, and wild heart".

And I'm hoping there are others of you out there who want the same. Let's be brave together, my friends.

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