Creating a shared vision to manage anger in divided times

From my Facebook wall:

"Let us neither express, nor cherish, any harsh feeling towards any citizen who, by his vote, has differed with us. Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling."

- Abraham Lincoln

In these post-inauguration days, complete with worldwide anti-Trump protests, I have been reflecting upon my Facebook wall. It's a small Facebook wall, since I follow only my extended family on my personal page and open up other Facebook pages to a public space.

But perhaps like many of your own Facebook walls, it has been quite active since November 7, 2016. And in these past couple of weeks, the number of posts have multiplied as the unofficial non-conversation between family members of widely varying political viewpoints is carried on intensely via status updates, live feeds and references to blog posts.

Our nation's inability this year to enter into a civil conversation in a political space is painful to watch. On the surface, it seems we're defending issues, pointing out injustice, making our voices heard . . . all important things to do in a democracy. I'm watching a lot of people on every side of the political spectrum trying to prove their points. I wonder, however, if the way we're going about it — on all sides — is contributing to a greater culture of anger which will make us all dig in our heels more and more around our own beliefs, unable to hear each other.

Really, though, is it any different than it is in other parts of our life? How difficult it is to break open our hearts and embrace in humility the courage to build a shared vision — even on a small scale — in a family, in a community, in the place where we work or study or volunteer? In all of these places, we experience the same non-conversation.

When I sit in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus holding one of the small situations that makes me feel angry, I enter the center of my being and re-experience the situation. In that moment I feel lost, unsure of what to do, afraid. At the same time I want to put order in the situation, control it. I want everyone to understand me, and I want to understand them. Somehow it is anger — my own or others — that gets in the way of the softness that would reach out and create connection and understanding.

Why do we get angry?

  1. We get angry when we don't have a shared vision about how we can work something out together for mutual benefit. Perhaps we are too afraid of losing something to try building a shared vision. Even though I understand this, when someone is angry with me it is hard to go beyond the content of their remarks to understand what is behind their stance.
  2. We get angry with others when we feel unhappy. When we are not satisfied with how something is done or the way we are affected by another person, it is easiest to act as though the other were responsible for how we feel. The habit of blaming others is deeply ingrained. How do we slow down and do the personal work needed to assume full self-responsibility? If we can consider an unpleasant situation an opportunity to see God at work in our lives, we can look at ourselves honestly and engage in a conversation respectfully.
  3. Behind every complaint is a voice that wants to be heard, a dream that wants to be lived. Unfortunately, complaints provoke defensiveness. It is difficult to hear feedback aimed directly at us, because we know our motives are good. Having that feedback delivered in an accusatory tone can lead to an emotional shutdown. Lately, after painful interactions, I have found it helpful to focus my attention not on arguing my point but in feeling empathy toward the other person. Why are they feeling the way they do? What are they not saying that they really wish I would understand? How could we both find a more open-hearted and safe space?

Creating a shared vision in humility

Think about several situations in which you received angry feedback or had conversations that escalated into arguments. Then complete this sentence: In these situations I wanted others to think I am . . . (example: smart, caring, capable . . .).

Look at your list. These are the things you are afraid of losing when you enter an unpleasant situation. It is natural to want to hold on to these images of yourself (even if you are the only one who thinks them!), but holding onto these images is one big reason why you dig in your heels in an argument.

I created my own list: I want to be seen, among other things, as a virtuous person, as psychologically aware, as the victim of the situation, as going out of my way to help others. All of these are somehow "good" things, but if I admit it to myself, they are also somewhat disordered. They are a way of saying, "I'm right," "I'm better," "I really know what's going on here." I don't want to lose what I think I have.

Following is an exercise that takes a lot of courage to do, but is immensely freeing. Ask Jesus for the grace to have others think about you in terms that are the opposite of what you're holding onto. I pray, then, "Jesus, may others see me as not a very virtuous person, as psychologically inattentive, as the cause of the problem, as interested mainly in myself." When I first started praying this prayer, I winced. I didn't want this at all. Gradually, though, it became a little less painful. I noticed that I could breathe a little easier. My soul began to rest. I didn't get into as many argumentative situations. I am beginning to hear people more, cherish the time I can spend with a wider number of friends. It has become my own personal quiet Litany of Humility.

I want to keep this prayer as a centerpiece of my Lent this year because I have experienced how powerful it is. When I become less absorbed in convincing everyone else about how I see myself, an inner silence begins to grow. In time, I just might touch my own truth more deeply. My words and actions might arise from both an inner necessity and an essential sense of the oneness of us all — for it is the fear of losing the perfect image of ourselves that gets in the way of creating a shared vision,

The political non-discourse playing out around us, like my Facebook wall, is a window into the human soul. My latest kerfuffle with someone I live or work with is a window into the human soul. All announce to me the coming of God into my life, if I have the courage to let go of my fears and reach out to the other, to create a new vision together.

[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]

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