Bravery and Anger and Talking to Each Other, Dammit!
Sometimes it’s really hard not to spiral into a pit of despair, where the life sucked is out of you by a grotesque machine while seemingly pleasant people watch on indifferently … oh, wait, that’s The Princess Bride. But sometimes it’s just hard not to be sad.
I talk to people who feel like they are not making a difference, like they’re not valued, like their work has no meaning. That’s hard. They feel so frustrated and angry but they’re unable to express those emotions in a constructive way. That makes it harder. And I get sad, because I feel bad for them and me and the whole situation and I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.
I often think if people could just talk to each other in public the way they talk to me in confidence, maybe some good could come of it. But this is scary. People don’t like the idea and they instinctively back away. I’ve tried to work with that. Sometimes we make tiny steps of progress while protecting everyone’s egos (including mine!), but it goes slowly. There’s just so much to risk in honesty.
That’s the trouble with anger. People are afraid that if they give honest voice to their discontent it will set off a conflagration that will engulf everyone and everything. Anger will be met with anger, aggression with aggression, and the whole thing will burn down. It’s too much to risk. Maybe they’re right. I’m from a prairie state. Fire is part of the ecological cycle. Everything must first burn down to the ground before anything new can grow. But the earth is rich and full of potential. The wind and rain return and soon enough the flowers bloom again. Can’t it work like this with people, too?
It takes a lot of trust. I give people a lot of credit. They are rich like the earth, with energy like the wind and rain. I believe collectively, we are wiser and kinder than we are individually. Not because individuals are mean, but because individuals are afraid. One person has a hard time protecting themselves and taking care of themselves alone, but together we are safe, together we can accomplish much.
Sometimes when disparate groups come together, though, there are divisions, differences, and obstacles. Because we feel safer together, we don’t want to jeopardize the group by pointing at the places where we disagree. We try to work around it, but eventually it become too exhausting to bear. Eventually, like a new iceberg calving from a glacier, it all just falls apart because there’s nothing supporting it anymore.
Ice and fire, surely they can’t get along, right? But I’m not talking about metaphors, just using them to make a point. I’m talking about people, and I have a lot of faith in people.
I believe honest communication can solve so many troubles, even when the thing being communicated isn’t what we want to hear. I don’t want the doctor to tell me I have cancer, but if he doesn’t I’ll never be able to get treatment. I don’t want to criticize others, but then how can I expect the situation to change? I don’t want to be criticized, but how will I ever learn? Moreover, how can I expect myself to change if I never have the opportunity understand some else’s view of the situation? If I point it out, maybe it won’t change, but maybe they’ll tell me a little more about how they see it. We could both grown and learn, but only if we’re brave.
Sometimes people mistake aggression for bravery. That doesn’t help. When we criticize others, they think we’re trying to hurt them and protect ourselves. To be honest, maybe we are. That’s what anger is after all. Anger flares up when we’re afraid. Fear comes from a sense of threat. We may perceive what we’re criticizing as a threat to ourselves or what we hold dear. I’m not an enlightened enough individual to say I’m beyond that. To be truly brave doesn’t mean not being angry. Being brave means being willing to work past that anger, work through it, and ultimately let it go. Anger is a very unpleasant emotion, like a burning coal in our bare hands. Who wants to hold on to that? Unless we look at the burning coal, acknowledge it’s there, we’ll never be able to open our hands and let it go. We’re stuck with it, burning away day after day.
Being brave is about being able to let go of our anger. Sometimes in order to do that, we have to talk about it, communicate it to other people, even and especially to those people we feel are the source of our current frustration. Maybe they have anger of their own they may need to express. Maybe that anger or its underlying fear even leads them to act in the way that frustrates us. Being brave means we have to acknowledge both their anger and our own anger, their fear and our own fear. Our own already feels like more than we can deal with. How are we supposed to deal with theirs too?
Most often we meet other people’s anger with aggression. When we do this we undermine the validity of their feelings and their viewpoint. We tell them their anger isn’t legitimate and we push all the blame for the current situation onto them. It’s not our fault they are afraid. But when we delegitimize their feelings, we delegitimize our own. When we close ourselves to them, they close themselves to us. We all just grip that burning coal even tighter.
So we have to be brave enough to let go of both our anger and our aggression. We have to be brave enough to talk about the underlying fear. Some people believe we shouldn’t even be talking to each other until we can be calm about it, until we’ve cooled down. As Buddhists, we have lots of inner practices for dealing with negative emotions like anger and aggression. Yet we live in a world full of other people. We’re not monks in monasteries who can sit all day ruminating on the Noble Truths and cultivating compassion. Wouldn’t it be grand if we were? But when it comes right down to it, we’re just not that enlightened yet.
We’re not enlightened enough not to become angry. We’re not enlightened enough to deal with that anger all by ourselves. The reality of our lives is that this anger is going to get out and burn people. So how do we ensure that when it does, it happens with a purpose? How can we make this constructive, rather than destructive?
Mostly I just wish people would talk to each other, even when they’re angry – maybe especially when they’re angry. Yes, take a few deep breaths, open your heart, be willing to listen, but don’t be afraid to speak up. Silence will rarely, if ever, change a situation. Sometimes we as individuals can change inside, but it’s very hard and it takes a long time and sometimes, in this fast paced world, waiting can cause more damage than acting.
Sometimes amazing things happen. We get up and shout about how frustrated and unhappy we are. Then someone else gets up and shouts. Maybe for a moment we think it’s all gone to hell, but then someone realizes we have something in common. We’re both angry. We’re both frustrated and unhappy. We’re both suffering and afraid. It’s truly amazing that sometimes that by itself is enough to arouse compassion. I don’t like being this way and neither do they. Isn’t that enough motivation to try to move forward, let go, get beyond these painful feelings? Because we work better together, shouldn’t we at least try? Suddenly things seem more workable than they did a minute ago.
All too often that scenario seems implausible. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen it fail to happen. Mostly I’ve seen people who never believe they could get there from here.
So people come to me with their anger and frustration, and I feel sad. There is so much fear in the world. We hurt because we’re afraid we aren’t valued. We hurt because we’re afraid of our own anger. We hurt because we’re afraid of other people’s anger. There is so much suffering. When people tell me things, sometimes they feel better even though they’re still angry. I just wish they could tell everyone what they tell me. If they feel better telling one person, maybe they’ll feel ten times better telling ten people. Well, maybe not, but it’s a nice wish, right?