It Ain't You, It's Me (August 19, 2012)

posted Aug 19, 2012, 11:18 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Aug 19, 2012, 11:35 PM ]

           There was a business man who boarded an overnight train in Chicago for Wynonna, Mississippi.  As soon as he boarded the train, he hunted down the porter.  "Now listen, you have got to wake me up tomorrow morning when the train pulls into Wynonna.  I've got the most important business deal of my life awaiting me there."

          "Yes, sir, I promise to wake you as soon as the train gets to Wynonna," said the porter.

          "But you have to understand," said the business man, "I'm not a morning person.  I'm a hard sleeper, and I don't wake easily.  In fact, I will probably fight and resist you when you try to wake me, but never mind that.  You just make sure I get up and get off the train at Wynonna."

          "Yes, sir, I understand.  I will do whatever it takes to get you up.  I'll greet you with piping hot cup of coffee and will get you off the train at Wynonna," assured the porter.

          "Now I really mean this," the man persisted.  "I have got to get off this train and make my appointment."

          "I got it, sir.  I promise you that I'll get you off this train at Wynonna."

          The next morning, the business man was awakened by sunlight peering in his sleeper car through the window blinds, and he noticed that the train was sitting still.  He peeped through the blinds and saw that the sign at the train station read "McComb, Mississippi," which is two hours past Wynonna.  Well, the man just lost it.  He screamed and hollered.  He stomped the floor and beat the walls.  He yanked down the blinds and kicked out the window.  He ran out into the passageway, pushed down a woman, and grabbed the porter by the throat.  It took two other porters to pull him off, and it took them more than a half-hour to finally calm the man down, and they did so only after they promised to file a complaint with the president of the Illinois Central Railroad. 

          After the incident was over, the porter wiped his brow, "Whew, that was the angriest man I've ever seen!  Have you ever seen anyone get as angry?"

          "That's true," said the other porter.  "He was some angry.  But I've seen one person angrier than him, and that's the guy we put off the train at Wynonna."        

          This morning I want to talk about anger.  Last Sunday I talked about what I think is the most excruciating emotion -- shame.  Today I want to talk about what I think is the most problematic emotion.  I don't know about you, but I've had a conflicted relationship with anger.  I've always been somewhat afraid of anger, whether it's someone else's or my own, because in my family getting angry meant losing control.  Some of the cruelest things would be said between people who were supposed to love one another.  Sometimes things would be broken.  Sometimes there would be violence.  I don't think it's any coincidence that we say that someone is mad when they are angry because anger can present itself as a kind of madness. 

          Anger has been problematic for me because I was raised in the church, and Christianity frequently treats anger as a sin.  To be angry is to be unchristian.  The Christian church typically portrays a meek and mild Jesus, a milquetoast Jesus, a Jesus on Valium.  I have never understood this because when you bother to read the Bible, you see there a Jesus who occasionally loses his temper, like when he ripped the Pharisees:  "You hypocrites!  You're like white-washed tombs -- outwardly shiny white but inwardly full of dead men’s bones and filth. You may appear righteous, but you're full of hypocrisy and iniquity." That's not very Christian, is it? 

          Or like the time Jesus had had it with the money-changers in the temple.  Worshippers were required to offer an animal sacrifice in the temple, which they had to buy with temple currency.  So the money-changers set up tables where people could exchange their Roman currency for temple currency … at a hefty exchange rate.  I know it's hard to believe, but there were people using religion to exploit folks for financial gain.  Jesus was indignant.  According to the scriptures, he turned over their tables and beat them out of the temple with a whip.  Jesus was not always as gentle as a lamb. 

          Anger has been problematic for me because I am a born-and-bred Southerner and in the South, good boys and girls don't get angry.  They might get headaches and ulcers, but they don’t get angry.  In the South, we are raised to be polite and "mannerable," as my mother would say, at all times, at all costs.  In the South, you always smile, no matter how your really feel.  You even smile when you're angry.  To be a Southerner is to be a well practiced hypocrite.  If you must attack someone in the South, you do so as compliment.  "Why, you look wonderful in cheap clothes."  "You look really young … for your age."  "Bless your heart" is Southern for "Screw you." 

          It's not just the South, but our American culture as a whole has certain unspoken sanctions regarding anger.  The higher your position on the status ladder, the more socially acceptable is your anger.  It's ok for employers to lose their temper with their employees, but if workers get angry, especially about their working conditions, they're called insolent or insubordinate.  It's ok for whites to get impatient with African Americans or other minorities, but if minorities express their indignation, they're called uppity, disrespectful, or ungrateful.  If a man displays anger, he's regarded as strong, assertive, competitive, manly.  If a woman expresses anger, she is likely to be labeled the "B" word. 

          The point I want to make about anger is that it's not about something else or someone else; it's about you.  My anger is my responsibility.  If I get angry, it's my thoughts and interpretations that make me angry, and it's my decision of how I will express my anger.  Typically, we blame others or a situation for our anger and for our expression of our anger.  "He made me angry when he did that."  "They made me lose my temper."  "I had no choice but to slap her because of what she said."  Circumstances and other people's behavior may be a stimulus for our feelings, but they are not the cause.  We are never angry or sad or happy because of what someone else says or does.  Their words or actions may trigger certain thoughts and judgments on our part, but it's our thoughts and judgments about their words and actions that cause our anger … or any other emotion we may feel.

          For example, auto accidents happen all the time, and the emotional reactions of people are as varied as the people involved.  If this person is rear-ended by another car, he or she may be furious.  This person may feel panic.  That person may feel relief.  This person may be sad.  That person may be grateful.  It all depends on the interpretation a person chooses to give the accident.  This person may be sad because he or she had just bought their dream car and now it looks like a nightmare.  That person may be grateful because no one was hurt.  Even people who get angry when they get rear-ended get angry for different reasons.  This person may be angry because he just got his car out of the shop from another accident.  That person may be angry because now she'll be late for an important appointment.  The other driver or the accident doesn't cause us to be angry … or to feel any other particular emotion.  The accident stimulates our own thoughts and judgments about the accident, and our thoughts and judgments cause us to feel what we feel.

          Last week, I talked about shame.  Some cultures, like many Asian cultures, are shame-prone.  Some, like ours, are guilt-prone.  When we are uncomfortable, we are prone to blame others or the situation for our discomfort to make them feel guilty.  "I turned out this way because of my genetics."  "I can't help it because of my childhood."  "I acted that way because of my job."  "I did that because of my income."  "I said that because of the circumstances."  "I feel this way because my boss did that."  "I feel this way because my wife said that."  And the English language facilitates our guilt proneness.  "You made me angry."  "You hurt me."  "You disappointed me."  "You made me sad because you did that."  Of course, there is an emotional payoff for making others feel guilty when we feel uncomfortable.  It feels good to judge and blame others.  It makes us feel morally superior, and it shifts the responsibility for our feelings to someone else.  But judging and blaming others do nothing to alleviate our anger.  In fact, judging and blaming others make matters worse.  They cause us to focus out there instead of in here, and they lead us to say things we may regret saying and to do things we may regret doing.  In other words, judging and blaming lead us to violate our values.

          So, if we want to remain true to our values of compassion, understanding, and acceptance, the first step in dealing with our anger (or, again, any emotion) is to divorce other people from any responsibility for our anger.  Other people do not make us angry.  Our own thoughts and judgments make us angry, which is good news because it means we can control our anger instead of our anger controlling us or others controlling us.  What I am suggesting is having a different relationship with your anger.  Instead of reacting instinctively with judgment and blame, stop and listen to your anger.  When you feel angry, stop and pay attention to the judgments and labels that are racing through your head, those thoughts of what other people "should" do and what they "deserve."  "He rear-ended me because he's a reckless teenager."  "I bet she was yapping on her cell phone."  "He was probably drinking."  "She needs to learn to slow down."  "He deserves to get a ticket so he won't do that again."  "I hope her car got as scraped up as mine so she'll know how this feels."  These judgments may be right or wrong, but the point is they take us away from ourselves, and spiritual growth begins when we pay attention to what is going on inside.  Judgment and blame serve the ego; self-examination serves the soul.

           Gandhi once made of list of ten fundamentals for changing the world:

                    1.       Change yourself.

                    2.       You are in control.

                    3.       Forgive and let go.

                    4.       Without action, you aren't going anywhere.

                    5.       Take care of this moment.

                    6.       Everyone is human.

                    7.       Persist.

                    8.       See the good in people.

                    9.       Be congruent, be authentic, be your true self.

                    10.     Continue to grow and evolve.

Now if we Unitarians made a list of how to change the world, ours would say things like, "Regulate the corporations," "Pass more laws," and "Go to the demonstration at the Statehouse."  No one was more dedicated to social change than Gandhi, and he certainly participated in protests and demonstrations against injustice.  But notice that for Gandhi, social change begins with spiritual change, and spiritual change begins with paying attention to what is happening on the inside.  This is why he said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

          It helps to remember that anger is a secondary emotion.  It always follows on the heels of some other emotion, usually hurt, fear, or frustration.  When you feel angry, before reacting with judgment or blame, stop and ask yourself, "How am I hurting?"  "What am I afraid of?"  "What goal am I not reaching?"  "What need do I have that is not being met?"  Let's say, for instance, that someone arrives late for an appointment with you.  It would be easy to say something like, "That's inconsiderate of you," or "You never think about others," or "My time is as valuable as yours."  It would be easy to say such things because they judge and blame the other person, and judgment and blame make us feel superior and shift the responsibility for our feelings to another person. 

          But if you decided to take responsibility for your feelings, you might stop and ask yourself, "What is my anger saying to me?"  "Am I feeling hurt?"  If so, you might say, "When you showed up late, I was feeling hurt because I was thinking that maybe you weren't as excited about our time together as I was."  You could ask yourself, "Am I afraid?"  If so, you might say, "When you didn't show up on time, I was afraid that something bad had happened, like maybe you were in an accident or something."  You could ask yourself, "What need is not being met?"  If that fits, you might say, "When you were late, I started getting frustrated because I have a lot of things to do today and my time is limited." 

          Taking responsibility for your feelings may be more difficult than judging or blaming because you are more vulnerable when you own your own feelings and honestly express what you are truly thinking and feeling.  But the payoff is that you are more likely to get your needs met when you let others know what your needs are (unless you are dealing with people who are skilled mind-readers).  And honestly sharing our thoughts and feelings is what connects us with one another.  It's what makes intimacy possible. 

          Now if you really want to work on your spiritual growth, you could approach your anger as an invitation to pay attention to what's going on inside the other person; in other words, as an opportunity to enlarge your capacity for empathy. 

          At my first pastorate, I lived in a parsonage, which conveniently -- and sometimes inconveniently -- was located right next door to the church.  I literally walked through my backyard to go to my office.  That was convenient.  What was sometimes inconvenient was that I would be frequently called upon to unlock the building at any hour of the day or night.  One Saturday night I had to go next door to unlock the building for a repair man so he could get our air conditioner working for our Sunday morning service.  Because I was white like him, he must have assumed that I was racist like him because he told a racial joke.  I didn't laugh, but I didn’t say anything either.  Instead, I seethed inside, keeping all my thoughts and feelings to myself.  Neither did I examine my anger to find out what I was thinking and feeling beneath my anger.  I simply dismissed him in my mind as a racist and impatiently waited for him to finish his work and leave.  I didn't connect more deeply with myself, and I certainly wasn't interested in connecting with him.

          If that were to happen today, I'm not sure that I would handle the situation any differently.  But if I pushed myself, I might realize that my anger was not coming from him or his words.  His remarks were triggering a volcano of thoughts and judgments inside my head that were causing me to feel angry.  If I pushed myself, I might ask myself, "What is my anger saying to me?", and I would realize that beneath my anger was hurt and frustration.  I was hurt because I knew that such comments kept alive the prejudice and discrimination aimed at a whole group of people simply because their skin was a darker color; and I was frustrated because by that point in my life, I had dedicated my vocation and my life to eliminate those kinds of attitudes, and his comments reminded me of how much further we needed to go as a society.  If I pushed myself, I might dare to say to him, "When you tell jokes like that, it hurts me because I have some African American friends, and I know how that would make them feel."  If I wanted to connect with him, it would be important that he hear my true feelings and that I risk sharing my true feelings. 

          But because we live in a judgmental society, he might assume that I am being judgmental in saying something like that.  So I could try to let him know that I'm not trying to put him down by saying, "I used to tell jokes like that, too, because it was expected of me and I wanted to fit in."  In other words, instead of judging him by putting myself above him, I could try to understand him by standing with him.  I could try to see not simply his racism but, as Gandhi counseled, the good in him, as well.  I could try to recognize that he was probably thinking and speaking the way he had been taught to think and speak and the way nearly everyone else in his world thought and spoke.  I could try recognize that he was probably trying to fit in and get by the best he knew.  Instead of seeing him as someone vastly different from me, I could see him as a fellow human being who shares a common humanity with me.  Perhaps beneath his hostile joke he was feeling hurt.  I know what hurt feels like.  Perhaps he was feeling fear.  I know what it's like to be afraid.  Perhaps he was feeling frustrated.  I know what it's like not having your needs met or your dreams come true.  Empathy requires a lot more courage and effort than judgment, which is another way of saying that spiritual growth doesn’t happen automatically or inevitably.  Spiritual growth requires courage and effort.

          If that kind of encounter were to occur today, I don't know that either he or I would have the courage or put forth the effort to have that kind of conversation.  And even if we did, I don't know that either he or I still wouldn't end up feeling defensive and becoming judgmental, with his brushing me off as just another liberal and my writing him off as just another racist.  But I do know that we live in an increasingly guilt-inducing, polarized society, where judging and blaming others come as second nature and where, because of our narrowly politicized news programs, websites, and blogs, people who think differently from each other not only don't know how to talk respectfully to each other; we no longer even have to talk to each other at all.  If we are ever to come together again as a people, we are going to have to get out of our heads with our judgments and get into our hearts to know what we are feeling and have the courage and put forth the effort to connect with the hearts of others.  Simply because we are human beings, we have a lot more in common than in difference.  

          It would not be easy because we would be swimming upstream against our culture, but don't you relish being counter-cultural?  It would take practice, lots of practice.  Where could we possibly learn to connect with our own hearts and with the hearts of others?  A few weeks ago, I described this congregation as a public interest group, advocating on behalf of freedom, justice, and equality for all.  Last week, I depicted this congregation as a recovery group, where we can heal from our shame by accepting each other as we are.  Well, this place can also be a training center, where we learn and practice how to respect our own deep feelings and how to communicate with respect with each other.  Practice becomes habit, and habit becomes character, and character becomes destiny.  If we want to change our world, we have to begin by changing ourselves, and I can't think of a better place to begin than right here.

                                                                                                                                  Rev. Dr. Neal Jones