The church shooting in Sutherland Springs marked the 307th mass shooting in the US in 2017. That is approximately one mass shooting per day. There is a role that mental illness plays in some of the violence. This article is not about that. There is a role that unfettered access to weapons plays. This article is not about that either.
We are a culture that does not understand how to responsibly handle anger. This article is about the bottling of anger and pain until it is simply too much for the body to handle, and the irresponsible expression of anger.
Psychological research shows that the capacity for violence is wired into all of us. It is part of the human condition. This is a complex topic, with spurs and trip wires along each individual path, but it cannot be denied that we all carry the potential for tremendous violence. Pain that great must come out; it is too much for the body to hold.
I know too well about internal pain, and irresponsible processing of anger, for I have come to see it regularly in my life.
Driving home from the grocery store one Sunday morning, my sister gave me an update on her son’s health. It was an ongoing issue with a condition he has had since birth, but I was worried about him and feeling helpless. I arrived home, upset.
Entering my dining room, I saw my husband and children playing with Legos. This is one of their many points of connection, hours shared arranging and rearranging Legos, and telling stories of their creations. What was going on in my head was an entirely different situation. My husband knew I was coming home, and nobody was in the driveway ready to help me unload groceries. (This never happens, by the way, but was somehow an affront in the moment.) The front door was locked, and my arms were full of groceries. I was mad, and started telling Jeff I was frustrated that the door was locked and that nobody was there to help me.
Somehow, I simultaneously had the presence of mind to witness the sweet moment I intruded on, and registered their beautiful connection alongside my stirred emotions. And then, I watched the energy shift and crater. It was like the soufflé just fell. Within a second, their cocoon was over, and my older son started yelling at my younger son over a minor infraction.
Having watched it happen, I knew without a doubt that my angry words had dumped onto them, and their peaceful play was now over. It was humbling to realize that I had created that shift. Even knowing this, I couldn’t undo what I had done and bring them back to their state of love and grace and flow. I swiftly called a family meeting to apologize. I told them that I had been upset and worried about my nephew when I arrived, and had taken that out on them.
My expression of anger is clearly not on the same scale as the mass shootings, but it is on the same spectrum. Through a regular energy practice called qi gong, I see that energy is never neutral – it is constructive or destructive, positive or negative – but not neutral. Expressing anger while it is in a negative or destructive energy is violence.
Anger is a powerful emotion and tool. It is our truth-teller, a superpower we all possess. It tells us that something isn’t right, and can be a powerful motivator to initiate change. It is critical to see it when it uncoils and rolls in waves through our body. To acknowledge it, and to honor it. And, it is my belief and practice that any expression of anger when it is in the destructive stage is on the spectrum and continuum of blind pain acting out.
This realization has led to a framework for processing anger that we practice in my family.
First step is that we see, hear, and acknowledge our anger to ourselves. This is critical. Denying or suppressing anger dishonors our truth. It is the first step to bottling anger. And, as a parent, telling a child to calm down or to prematurely say sorry is the same thing. It denies and suppresses another’s truth.
But. When we are in waves of anger, the pain active and the fear blind, it is not the time to engage with another person. Throwing waves of anger at another person is irresponsible. Childlike.
The second step is to honor the destructive energy, alone or with a safe uninvested party, like a therapist. Let it roll. Throw rocks. Hit balls. Scream into a pillow. Breathe deeply. Physically allow the energy to move through the body. Destructive anger is a real and vital part of our emotional spectrum. It is not wrong, or messy, or to be denied, but … it is not yet ready to be expressed with our counterpart.
Only after the destructive energy has been seen, heard, acknowledged, honored, and processed can the constructive energy emerge. It is our job to take responsibility for our energy, and only after we are feeling constructive – as long as it takes – are we in integrity to discuss this with another human being in a constructive way. That is our personal responsibility. This is when we speak our truth, tell our side of the story, share how an action impacted us, ask for a change in behavior, express a consequence. Express our fear. Calmly, constructively, responsibly.
This process takes time. It takes practice to become aware of the first stirrings of anger – when the destructive energy is active – and it takes discipline to bite back a tongue loaded with sharp words.
Honoring all of the stages of anger feels counter to an aspect of our culture, in which it is somehow unfeminine to feel anger, and maintaining a peaceful surface is more socially and culturally acceptable. But it denies our humanity and our dignity to dishonor our truth. For me and my family, this is the trade we make. We take longer to reach the conversation, but along the path have taken responsibility for our own pain, for our destructive energy, so that our pain doesn’t become so dense and painful that we lash out, in big or small ways. When we act on it it has integrity. Respect.
I don’t believe this is the only way to handle anger, or that it is a panacea. There are some pains, some injustices, that are simply too big for the body to bear. This may be very little consolation to the families and communities that are ripped apart by pain. But I seek to create meaning and growth from these horrific experiences. To grow through the pain. To take a lesson that will ultimately empower me to live a more wholehearted life and not crater in fear. Monitoring my feelings and my energy and taking responsibility for those feelings regularly, in the small triggers of my daily life, provides a framework that is ultimately empowering. I can’t change how others will behave or act, but I can reduce the violence in my world, one trip the grocery store at a time.