When our children were little, they’d get mad about one thing or another, as children (and adults) are prone to do. My husband and I would look at their puckered up faces and balled up fists and we’d say to them, “You are right to be mad about this! We are mad, right along with you! We are going to be mad about this, together, because it’s okay to be mad about this!” Then, with the angry child in our lap, or snuggled up close enough for us to whisper in their ear, we’d add to that and say, “Let’s be mad about this for two more minutes (or days, or weeks, or whatever seemed reasonable in light of the offense), and then let’s figure out a way to move forward, together.”
It always worked.
Usually, before the allotted time passed, the angry child had pressed through the anger and toward a restored relationship, and a restored heart. Sometimes, pressing through the anger meant the child had to pound out her (or his) aggression on a mound of Play-doh, or center himself by taking a nap, or wrestle through her feelings while brooding in a chair set in the corner of a room. But, putting a reasonable time limit on the experience of anger (which — please hear me, here — is not the same as grief), seemed to help focus the child’s attention forward. He realized the anger wouldn’t last forever and so, he began to think about a life beyond the anger.
After this election season, I found the need to set a time limit on my own anger. I gave myself until Thanksgiving. I think it worked.
I’m only sharing this because it’s given me a great big breath of freedom. I’m not sharing it as a prescription. As my husband always says, “You can’t help but tell your story.” My story includes a strong belief in the power of love and the sacred (although frustratingly sustained) march toward unity. I know there are those who really would rather not talk about unity and, I’ll be honest, I had a few moments in there where I was ready to throw unity overboard — quickly.
We All Kept Living Together
Decades ago, when I was a young college student, I sat in the back of a room one evening, listening to a young woman tell us what it was like to be gay on a college campus, living in a women’s-only dormitory. This was in the 1980s, when the hysteria and limited factual knowledge of the AIDS epidemic had everyone on a witch hunt for anyone who dared not toe the heterosexual line. To say this young woman was brave is an understatement. She was in the minority, for sure. And yet, there she stood, in the front of the room, essentially coming out to all of us without knowing whether or not we were for her or against her.
It was a civil conversation. After all, the people in the room had been invited to this event — it was not a requirement of any class or program. I don’t even think it was sponsored by the University. A few days before the event, fliers had appeared in the halls of our dormitory, inviting anyone who desired, to participate in the dialogue. After the young woman shared her story, attendees in the room raised their hands and asked her questions. “What about what the bible says about homosexuality?” “Did you choose this, or were you born this way?” “Why did you choose to live in an all-women’s dorm?” “What you’re doing is wrong.” This young woman graciously fielded their questions and comments. She was kind, yet firm. There was laughter and, at the end, there was applause. But my take-away from the evening was this: no one changed their position as a result of that one conversation.
Everyone in the room that night believed very strongly that their position was the right one. As much as the woman at the front of the room believed she was right, the people on the other side of the argument felt they were right, too.
In the weeks following the election, I’ve been reminded of that evening in my University dormitory, time and time again. One conversation with people who see the world differently from me is probably not going to have much of an impact. But, here’s the thing: after that conversation in the University dormitory, we all kept living together — in the cafeteria, in the hallways, in the lounge watching “Days of Our Lives,” and in the shared bathrooms. And that’s where the difference is truly made: in actually living life together through all the ordinary moments of all the ordinary days.
Toward a Personal Peace
Once I set a time limit on my post-election anger, the way toward my own, personal peace and healing began to open itself up to me. Honestly, the way was always right there in front of me, but releasing my anger helped to clear my view of it. As I learned all those years ago in college, I’m not going to convince anyone to see something they cannot yet see and so, I decided to stop trying. Instead, I chose to focus my energy on taking hold of the direction unity seemed to gently be coaxing me toward. Here’s what I discovered:
A break from the noise: As the way became clearer to me, I felt an invitation to take a break from noise. I turned off my screens — television (I haven’t watched the news since the election), laptop, phone, and even Instagram — and went outside, into the public square. Once immersed in the community on the other side of my front door, I discovered people still holding doors for me, still laughing and smiling, still letting people merge in front of them on the road, still embracing their loved ones at the airport baggage claim. Every single scene a beautiful signet of hope, tied around my ring finger and sending its promise to my heart.
The art of listening (again): Turning away from the noise is not the same as ignoring the reality of what is going on in our world. A theologian once said we should start our days with the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other. In my quiet mornings, even in the midst of presidential transitions and the like, the story of Standing Rock keeps rising to the surface of my soul. I want to pay attention to that prompting, and — from the way it won’t let me go — it seems to want to pay attention to me, too. And so, I’ve lit a(n electronic) candle and placed it in my front window, where it will burn in solidarity until I know what to do next.
Loving my neighbor: Right after the election, I found myself walking around in the world, distrusting everyone I saw. I’d squint my eyes and drop my chin and think, “I’ll bet you’re my enemy.” That looks crazy in actual, black and white words, doesn’t it? I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s the honest truth. I think there’s a case for justifying that reaction to the world right now. I don’t begrudge anyone who has the same reaction to the world at this moment in time. The truth, for me, however, is that I couldn’t get beyond my anger while at the same time, insisting on making complete strangers (and some people I know and love) out to be the enemy. So, I had to let it go. I had to decide to hope the best, even though logic screamed at me to fight first, ask questions later. It seems backwards and unsafe, to be sure, but the more I let love overrule logic, the better I feel about the world and the people living in it. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all about being vigilant. But now I’m letting love, not anger, guide my watchfulness.
I’ve alluded to it, already, but I want to do more than allude. I want to state clearly that anger is not the same as grief. Anger is often a component of grief and frequently, grief is buried in the very core of anger. The thing to be clear about here is that neither should be rushed. Grief should be completed. It should be felt fully, with all of its rending and lament and questioning and fierceness. It should not be quenched. Grief is holy and should not be told to sit down and be quiet. This is not to say that grief is never still and quiet — it’s just that grief should be free to choose this on its own, and not be told to do so.
Should you decide to put a timeline on your anger, do so with the realization that anger is not necessarily the end of grief. Be gentle and generous with yourself. The three steps I shared above were not practiced in the absence of anger. Rather, they were presented to me in the midst of my anger, and as a doorway through my anger.
Finally, let me clear when I say there is nothing wrong with anger. Anger is a legitimate and pure emotion. It points us toward something in us and in our world that needs mending. And we are menders, aren’t we? We are healers, and we are bearers of light, and we are builders of bridges, and we are battle-weary prophets of hope. We feel the world deeply, and we exhaust ourselves with the working out of believing the best of one another, even when all of the signs tell us we’ve lost our ever-loving minds. We dare to step across the line and extend a hand into so-called enemy territory because we remember our true enemy is not one another.
Somehow, grief, when it is allowed to do its work in us, expands the landscape of our souls. In a supernatural exchange, grief hollows out a place in us that makes more room for grace and grace, as you might already know, is the perfect proving ground for the continued, relentless, sustained, and richly rewarding journey toward peace.
Join us for the #OneConference, April 21 and 22, 2017.
We believe unity is possible, and we’ll spend two days together, sharing practical solutions to help you elevate conversations that tend to divide us, story-driven truths about the gift, the grace, and the grunt work of reconciliation, oneness, and healing, and no-nonsense research, and effective responses for those who desire oneness over division.
Visit oneconf.us to learn more, and register today.