I love Anger. Rage is beautiful too. And Disdain? Don’t get me started. These emotions have been, and may always be, my greatest teachers. But these emotions get a bad rap. They always have to sit at the front of the bus so we can “keep an eye on them.” Love, Humor, Joy, Peace, Contentment…. they all get to sit in the back where all the unsupervised fun is happening. We pay very little attention to those emotions. Joy and Love hop on and off the bus without a ticket. Those emotions don’t have to be kept in check. They get to run amuck, throwing spit balls, switching seats, yelling out the window. Ohhhhh, but Anger. Anger gets supervised, micro-managed, scolded, disciplined, put in the seat right near the driver. The driver is watching the road ahead, but frequently glancing into the mirror to keep an eye on anger. Still seated? Hands to yourself? No chewing gum. Don’t raise your voice. Rage, you don’t need to talk to Anger. You mind your own business. Disdain, keep your hands to yourself. No, you can’t share a seat with Contempt, are you crazy? You two together are nothing but trouble.
Anger, Rage, Disdain, Contempt. I have been filled with all of them. They are hot, acidic, nauseous feelings. For a long time, I had them in the category of “bad”. I would control them, ignore them, deny them, eat my way through them, but never choose to learn from them. This was a huge mistake. Big. These emotions are the gateway to solving some of the greatest challenges in our lives today. Do you think Mother Theresa wasn’t enraged by poverty? I can make a guess that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t start his journey feeling luke warm about racism. Princess Diana didn’t troll land mine fields because she needed to stretch her legs. These people were pissed. They were angry. I suspect they had great disdain for a system they saw as unjust and failing. The difference is their anger was not in the driver seat. They listened to their anger, and moved forward with what they were meant to learn from it. And I think we can all agree; our world is better for it.
It’s 3:25 am and I am up writing. I don’t want to be up writing. I want to be in bed. My kids will be up in 3 hours. But I must write about anger because we are all so confused about anger. We are misusing it. We are in an abusive relationship with anger. I don’t know who to call to report this…. a domestic violence hotline? crisis center? Police? Fire? Rescue? Who do you call when an entire country is misusing one of the most important emotions of humanity? We are in an epidemic of misusing anger, and, well, it’s making me angry.
I tell my clients who find me, “Clean your own house first.” Often they want to improve outside areas first: get the raise, quit the job, start a company, get divorced, get married, move. I have to slow them waaaaaay down, because all those things may or may not happen, but you have to clean your own house first. You have to do your internal work before any of those decisions or choices can be made. When you make choices with a house that is falling apart, you are piling more stress and pressure onto a foundation that cannot hold it. What happens next is that the lessons will be repeated until they are learned. That marriage you are leaving? In 10 years, you will be in the same one with a different person. That career that is killing you? You will get back on that hamster wheel and be razor thin in 9 months. That raise you want? It’s going to cause you to build a bigger life, that needs more maintenance, and guess what? More money. That person running for President of the United States that you can’t stand? Yeah, they’ll be back in 4 years. Different name, maybe a different gender, same dysfunction. Lessons will be repeated until we learn. We are not learning, we are reacting. Learning requires curiosity, questioning, studying, respectful listening, and having healthy, safe dialogue.
You might assume that because I wrote about my recent journey with compassion that I am a big fan of it. I am not. It was much easier to be angry. First off, anger is super fun. It’s fun to be certain of something. It’s fun to feel you are right and correct. Anger made me feel smart and sure of myself. If you knew me better, you would know how much I crave to be certain and smart. We all have our drugs. Every one of us. Maybe your drug is being a certain “type of family”, maybe it’s Facebook, on-line shopping, working out, your religious beliefs, gossiping, sleeping, over-working, being perfect, or being liked. My drug is certainty and smartness.
The other thing is, anger is popular. You can have a lot of friends if you stay angry. You always have people around you to kibitz with. And a room full of anger and rage? A room full of adrenaline, cheering all together about how crappy things are…well that’s a real high. It can almost fool you into thinking you are doing something valuable. If your Facebook timeline is filled with clicks and likes and posts that are all in agreement with your views, it feels good. It feels like being invited to the “cool kids” table. Or better yet, troll people on social media who disagree with you and spend the day attached to your phone disagreeing with them, but never, ever really knowing them. Anger is a temporary hit of oxygen. It will get me through the moment, but it will kill me in the end. Compassion requires pausing, thinking, questioning, and changing my mind. Ugh. I want fast answers, certainty, and to be right. Leaving room for changing my mind feels like failure. Not fun.
Compassion sucks. Compassion is tough. When you are angry, you have lots people to join with and tell you that you are right, that anger is the way to go, and they fuel it. Compassion is lonely sometimes. It asks you (gently of course) to clean your own house before you go trying to point out how messy other people’s houses are. It’s a bummer. And you can’t just pick and choose with compassion. You can’t pull up to the compassion drive-through and say,” Yeah, I’d like to try a #3, Compassion for Homeless Vets, Abused Children, and Endangered Salmon please.” Compassion asks for you to include everyone. If you are practicing compassion, you are called to practice it with the person that left a nasty note on your car, the colleague who cut you off mid-sentence, the Presidential candidate that offends every fiber of your being.
Anger is easy and fast. Anger is fast-food, it’s super-sized, and its dash-n-go. It’s the “Roller Food” of emotions. Always available, temporarily fulfilling, but within an hour you are hungry again. Compassion is slow food. It’s a small, authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is out of the way with no cell coverage. Fast-food you can eat alone in the car and multi-task. Slow-food invites eye contact, intimacy, conversation, engagement, savoring and appreciating. When I am tired, stressed, under pressure, overwhelmed or confused, anger is a quick fix. That is how I know I need to clean my own house. When I am taking care of myself, firing on all cylinders, rested and open, compassion offers me a feast of answers, energy, opportunity, growth and connection to myself and others.
Please do not confuse compassion for not liking anger. This is critical. If your anger causes you to join something; a talking circle, an anti-bullying rally, starting an after-school club, creating a foundation, going on a mission, joining public office, then please, please hang on to your anger. It’s guiding you to your work in this world. If your anger leads you to owning a cause, or fighting an injustice, I want you to pay attention to me right now. Hang on to your anger. Don’t let it go. Get pissed. Get off the couch. Skip the workout. Leave your neighborhood. Grab your sword and answer the call. Do not under any circumstances let go of your anger if it causes you to play bigger and join the team. We need you. To repair our systems, we need everyone on the bus. Your anger is welcome. No ticket needed. It’s a one-way ride. I would never ever ask anyone to give up what is serving them.
BUT, if your anger leads you to stay home, if it leads you to shrink, hide out under “I’m too busy” and not take a seat at the table, I am begging you to notice that. How is your anger serving you? Is your anger feeding your social media habit? Your drinking habit? We don’t need more clicks and likes of all the articles that tell us where you stand on the election. We know where you stand. Vote. AND THEN DO SOMETHING. We don’t need more angry people numbing out alone at home. We need more people talking, engaging, forgiving and listening. Join your City Council. Join a board. Teach a class. Write a letter. Make a call. Find what you would wake up at 3:25am on a school night for, and DO THAT.
My anger, my long-term love affair with anger, resentment, rage, disdain, contempt (Dear Contempt: I still love you, no I don’t, we are done…. call me). MY anger led to pizza. My anger led to craft beer. It led to Netflix. Parks and Rec, The Office, Facebook, endless conversations about how awful things are, and numbing out. My glass of wine on Friday started on Wednesday. Every day was a treat because we were all going down in flames. My anger did not incite me to join anything to make things better. My anger told me: “Just take care of your tribe. This is not your circus. These are not your monkey’s.” But it is my circus. It is your circus too.
Compassion asks more of me. It asks me to open myself and look with honesty and gentleness. Why am I afraid to let go of anger? Because it feels safe. It’s popular. It feels productive. Somehow I believed if I was angry it meant I cared deeply. But if you care, don’t you act? Anger was freezing me up. Making me hard. Making me protective of my family. Making me feel there was an us vs. them. Compassion thawed me out. It hurts to thaw out. But then the blood flow comes back and you can finally move.
I worried at first, if I choose compassion, am I approving or consenting to behavior? If I choose compassion, am I agreeing to always be nice and say everything is ok? For me the answer is no. Compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive. I can be compassionate with racism and ignorance and still march and vote for laws firmly standing for equality. I can compassionately demand equal pay, equal rights, and my seat at the table and not shrink away. Compassion is not soft and fluffy. Compassion doesn’t sit in the corner and wait. Compassion is tough as nails and is at the root of any major social justice change we have ever had our history. Compassion asks me to clean my own house first, but it also makes one hell of a beautiful mess.
I used to choose anger and hand it a microphone so I didn’t miss a single word. Now I sit with anger. Oh, I feel you anger, wow, you are pissed. Tell me what’s going on here? Anger is never short on words. It tells me what is going on. It rants and rages and tells me, “click that link” “share that post” “stay at home” “don’t give a damn” “people are just idiots” “what a jack-ass”. I sit with that and I don’t do a thing. There is always more to the lesson than name-calling and ranting. Sometimes anger speaks for weeks and months. I listen, listen, listen. When anger is tired and wrung out, I pat it’s back and put it to bed. The answers will emerge in the morning. And in the morning, I make the difficult call I need to make, I have the hard, but important conversation I need to have face-to-face, I say no to the work that is a ton of money, but not right for me, I write the letter or reach out to the organization I need to join, I gently, but firmly, close the door to people pleasing, I volunteer to be of service.
Anger teaches me the lesson’s; compassion shows me the path. Compassion is not for the bleeding-heart. Compassion is for the brave badass that has the courage to sit and listen when others rant and yell. Compassion has no need for political affiliation or religious doctrine. Compassion has a million lessons and no tests. There is no pass/fail. Compassion is a practice. Just using the word “practice” implies there will be trial and error, there will missteps and gigantic leaps forward. I would not say it’s fun, but it has been meaningful. While I like to have fun, at this chapter in my life I also want meaning. Anger has taught me interesting things about myself, but at the same time it’s a little boring after a while. All that ranting and being “right” just got hard on my ears.
Cleaning your own house isn’t exactly fun. But with the right music, and a few trusted friends to help, it has been rich and rewarding to step back and look at the house compassion has built. It’s a small house, on a solid foundation. It’s my house and I love it. I believe it is a house that will be standing for generations to come.
I will leave the light on for you.