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Forgiveness and Our Way Forward

Human beings are an unfinished species, both in the sense of having some rough edges and in having a potential that is not yet fully actualized. At different times in history our immaturity has pushed us to the ledge of suicide where we almost gave in to an either/or, all-or-nothing wager on destiny. Thankfully the better parts of ourselves pulled us back for a second thought.

Today we live in one of those times.

Most likely it isn’t disease, starvation, or over-population that will be our undoing. One thing that our growing population is forcing on us, however, is the challenge of learning how to get along and work together for the maximal benefit of all. As our living quarters become more crowded and the crowd becomes more diverse, we are confronted as never before by our differences. Strangers and outsiders have always threatened our neat, closed horizons of identity and mutual trust. We can get along with what we know, with others like ourselves. But with those we don’t know, or who have a different worldview and way of life from ours – what are we to do with them?

The great traditions of spiritual wisdom developed their distinctive visions around this challenge of getting along, particularly at the flashpoint of our differences. Whether it was the ideal of covenant fidelity introduced by Judaism, the universal compassion that awakened Siddhartha and became the central insight of Buddhism, the radical message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness that Jesus lifted into our collective consciousness, or the ideal of full surrender to the divine will beyond our constructs of god that brought Muhammad to his knees – the initiating provocation in each case was a quest for the way of salvation, for a way that leads to genuine community.

Obviously I’m not using “salvation” in the popular sense, as a program of deliverance, escape, and everlasting security in the next life. The word literally refers to a process (spontaneous or gradual) whereby injury is healed, health is restored, division is repaired, hope is renewed, and wholeness is actualized.

If salvation in the history of religion has been mythically and metaphorically represented as being set free, made clean, pardoned from guilt, and saved from certain perdition, the deeper energizing concern has always been over the forces within us and between us that keep us out of paradise, locked up in our suffering, and tragically short of our higher ideal.

As long as human beings have been around we’ve lived in societies – from small clans and larger tribes, to neighborhoods and nation-states. And so, for that same period of time we have had to learn how to get along, work through our differences, and contribute creatively to the formation of genuine community.

I’ve used that term – genuine community – a few times now, so it demands some definition. What I mean by it is a certain qualitative and transformational shift that happens when individuals in partnership make an empathetic connection and experience a deeper communion. Out of this grows a shared intention, a cooperative spirit, and a common vision of their life together. In other words, community is not just a synonym for “assembly” or even “congregation, and it doesn’t just happen. Instead it must be created – cultivated, nurtured, fortified, and regularly renewed.

And that’s where forgiveness is important.

I should really say, that’s where forgiveness is essential, since without it a strained or broken relationship cannot heal and continue to grow. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when the bond of trust at the heart of a healthy partnership is ruptured. Or maybe the partnership was never healthy to begin with. How can you – we might as well make this personal – be an instrument of salvation where there presently is abuse, betrayal, misunderstanding, or estrangement? Although none of us is off the hook as perpetrators in causing harm to others, for now we will pretend that you are the victim.

Whenever you are injured, offended, or betrayed, you will notice – if, that is, you can manage a little introspection – that two impulses arise simultaneously in you. One is the impulse of anger: You didn’t deserve this, it’s not right, that other person is guilty and should pay the price for his or her sin. I’ll call this the vengeance impulse, and as it rises within you in reaction to what’s been done to you by that other person, your anger is preparing to fight back and get even.

The other impulse is fear, which I will call the avoidance impulse. You don’t want the hurt to happen again, so your survival strategy marks a quick departure and takes long detours to keep it from happening again. As long as you maintain your distance and avoid crossing paths with your enemy, you stand a chance of staying safe. Because getting even will likely provoke further assault and additional suffering, your fear might be regarded as the wiser of these two impulses. Just cut this person out of your life. Push him away, leave her behind. You deserve better.

The thing about vengeance and avoidance that you need to understand is that they don’t lead to community. In fact they are serious digressions from what I earlier called the way of salvation.

Getting even or running away actually destroys the conditions in which genuine community can flourish. Think about it. When has the retributive reflex, where vengeance “pays back” hurt for hurt, worked out to the satisfaction of both sides involved? The vengeance impulse will wait for its opportunity – whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or three generations from now. The score will be settled: that’s just the way vengeance works. And running away or hiding out? How can individuals learn to live in community if they are living in separation?

This is the question that Jesus pondered. For our future to be long, prosperous, and happy, human beings can’t keep trading violence or seeking refuge from each other. We have to get along. We must learn how to create genuine community. And everyone needs to be included – the stranger, the outsider, especially our enemy. It was his focus on this particular relationship between enemies that inspired Jesus to understand, profess, and exemplify a new way.

This is the way of unconditional forgiveness. And even though his message got buried underneath centuries of Christian orthodoxy that took his movement in the exact opposite direction, this gospel of Jesus is finally being heard again.

Let’s come back to the very moment when your friend, or someone you trusted, became your enemy. No doubt, our most significant enemies are not those on the other side of the world, but who share our bread, our bed, and maybe even our genes. We opened ourselves up to them and made ourselves vulnerable. We trusted them, and they took advantage of our trust. There you are. What will you do next?

If you let your anger or your fear determine what you do next – whether you allow vengeance to make you into a combatant or avoidance into a defector – you will be giving power to your enemy, for the simple and straightforward reason that your identity in that moment is defined by what they did to you. Your attitude, character, and behavior will be decided in reaction. If you get even, it is in reaction. If you pull away, it is in reaction.

In either case, you are allowing your enemy to define you and limit your options. Fight back or get out. What other choice is there? This is where Jesus saw a third option.

Not as a reactor and giving power to your enemy, but by getting centered in your true nature as a creator. Picture that flashpoint immediately following the moment when the injury, offense, or betrayal takes place: let’s just call that “the space” between you and your enemy. As a creator, your challenge is to step into that space, stand your ground, and demonstrate love.

The ‘standing your ground’ part sounds as if you should be preparing for a fight, but that’s not what Jesus meant. When he counseled his disciples, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well” (Matthew 5:39) he was not suggesting that they should just submit themselves passively to violent treatment by others. For a right-handed assailant to slap your right cheek, he’d have to use the back of his hand. This is how an aggressor intends to humiliate you and put you in your place. In order to “turn the other cheek” you would have to straighten up again and face your assailant, asserting yourself as his equal.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration for his nonviolent resistance to British rule in this very passage from the teaching of Jesus. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Baptist pastor who was additionally empowered by Gandhi’s more recent example, took it to the urban streets for the sake of race equality and human rights.

The message of Jesus was not a glorification of weakness and suffering; his was a gospel about power – specifically about the power of love.

So you step into that space, stand your ground, and then demonstrate love. I say “demonstrate” because chances are, you probably don’t feel much love for your enemy. He just hurt you; she just betrayed your trust. Your anger and fear are both very real. The point here is not that you should have gooey compassion and warm fuzzies towards the one who just “slapped you on the right cheek.” To demonstrate love is to act out the behaviors of love – even if you don’t feel very loving. What are those behaviors? You probably already know:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In the spirit of fake it till you make it, demonstrating love in such ways eventually brings about two very interesting outcomes. First, your anger and fear dissolve away, and in their place arises a creative force that has no equal in all the universe. This force is the bond of partnership, community, and wholeness. A second outcome is that you will completely “disarm” your enemy. Where he was inwardly preparing for your vengeance or avoidance, your forgiveness removes the fuel for his fire, and it won’t be long before he loses all confidence in his power over you.

Forgiveness, then, starts in letting go (the literal meaning of the Greek word) of anger and fear. Jesus taught that it is really not about pardoning sin or absolving guilt. It may be the case that your enemy doesn’t even see the need to repent, and perhaps doesn’t care enough about you to make the effort. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. He may need to be held accountable for the damage he’s done, but it won’t be about appeasing your anger. You may need to move out of the relationship and get on with life without her, but it won’t be as a victim of fear.

You are free, and that’s what matters. Genuine community is where individuals are learning to live together, in the freedom that love makes possible.

 

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The Web of Passions

web-of-passionsHave you ever noticed how ‘devil’ has the word ‘evil’ inside it, and how ‘god’ and ‘good’ are so similar? It can’t be a pure coincidence that a devil and a god are personifications, respectively, of evil and good. Such mythological depictions of evil and good provide a way for us to connect our cultural narratives to the experience of reality as either against us or for us, as a theater of adversity or prosperity, as malevolent or benevolent.

Perhaps deepest down we orient ourselves in life according to whether what we require to live and flourish is actually there for us when we need it. Surely what we need most basically is to stay alive, so it would make sense if all other concerns and aspirations somehow revolve around the passions dedicated to our survival.

I’ll make an even finer distinction and suggest that while our physical safety is very close to the center of what we most need, finding the energy our bodies require to live and be healthy is the pivot of everything else. When it comes down to it, we will risk injury and even death for the sake of basic nutrition.

In this post I will propose a model for understanding the passions that drive our behavior, connect or divide us from each other, and motivate our constructions of meaning. Our ‘Web of Passions’ (as I’ll call it) underlies and energizes even the Matrix of Meaning, which I’ve explored elsewhere. I will make a case that our Web of Passions is the deeper inspiration behind our myths – those grand narratives and sacred stories that orient us in reality and provide guidance through life.

Despite the obvious and sometimes overwhelming complexity of our emotional experience, I will suggest that just ten passions make up the structure of this web. My diagram above illustrates them in their various correlations and proximity to the center, where a couplet of passions, desire and disgust, anchors the whole system.

Keeping in mind our basic concern over energy, nourishment, and health, desire can be appreciated as that passion which drives us toward and takes in what we need to live, while disgust drives us away from what is rotten, toxic, and not good for us. We might think of these as the ‘open’ (desire) and ‘closed’ (disgust) positions in our animal engagement with reality.

Desire and disgust, then, serve as the visceral – or, more exactly, the gastrointestinal – seat of our passions. All the other passions will differentiate and evolve out of this binary set of open/desire and closed/disgust.

And since opening to reality is the path to life, just as closing to it is the path to death, it’s not surprising that so many sacred myths and scientific theories of human origins identify an act of ingestion or the introduction of a novel food source (e.g., the fruit of a tree at the center of Eden or the shift by our hominid ancestors toward a carnivorous diet) as the precipitating event.

What I’m suggesting here is that desire and disgust together determine that ‘first taste’ of reality which originates and underlies our cultural distinctions of good and evil. Furthermore, because go(o)d and d(evil) are principal characters of sacred story, the primordial inspiration for myth-making, along with the art and theology of religion itself, may have unfolded out of this earliest experience of reality as delicious and desirable, or conversely as nauseous and disgusting.

Thus religious community gathers around feasts and festivals (food-centered celebrations), heaven is depicted as a banquet of saints and angels, while hell is imagined in all its slimy, putrid, and gut-retching detail. Purity codes of morality have roots in archaic distinctions between clean and unclean foods; ‘wholesome’, ‘healthy’, and ‘holy’ are derivations of the same root word.

From this point I’ll move pretty quickly through the Web of Passions, since their branching differentiation from the central binary set of desire and disgust is easy to follow. When we desire something, we say that we ‘love’ it; just as when we find something disgusting, we ‘hate’ it. Desire, through love, ramifies into joy (as the fulfillment of desire) on one hand, but into grief (as separation and bereavement) on the other. On the opposite side of the Web, disgust, through hate, bifurcates into anger (as the impulse to push the nasty thing away) on one hand, and into fear (as the panic to get away) on the other.

Further alchemy between grief (from the desire side) and anger (from the disgust side) generates envy, which, as we well know, fuses a longing for what another possesses or enjoys with resentment over the fact that we don’t. Opposite of envy is hope, produced from the odd marriage of joy and fear. The object of hope is, by definition, ‘hoped for’, which presumes its absence in some critical degree, as something we are looking forward to but is yet unrealized. Such anticipation is the joy in hope. But at the same time, we are also aware that what we hope for may not materialize or come to pass, an ambivalence that shows up in our common confusion over feeling ‘eager’ and feeling ‘anxious’ for something good to happen.

These ten passions – desire and disgust, love and hate, anger and fear, joy and grief, envy and hope – are the motivational forces in us that, as we say, make the world go ’round.

Our primal engagement with reality and uniquely human orientation in the universe; the stories we tell about ourselves and others; the sacred myths of ancient and modern cultures; the genesis and apocalypse of the world itself – while the structure of this elaborate human habitation is made up of words and their meanings, it is our passions that make it all meaningful.

As I suggested in Thoughts on the Apocalypse, the end of our world coincides with the breaking-open of awareness to the present mystery of reality, seeing through (and burning away) our illusions of meaning and stepping into our creative authority as makers of a new heaven and a new earth. Our Web of Passions doesn’t determine what kind of world that will be, though I’m confident that its inherent tensions and polarities will keep things interesting.

 

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