Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | January 14, 2011

Compassionate Confrontation

One of my favorite blogs is a diary of a mom (the link is also in my sidebar under “Blogs I Read”, for future reference).  It is profound, lighthearted, loving, angry, joyful, desperate, determined, and so much more, all in just the right measures.  It is impossible to read it and not become a better person for having done so.

This week she’s written about the pain and anger she felt as a result of a co-worker who used the word “retarded” as a slang pejorative, and how she was able to raise his consciousness to where he is working sincerely on breaking himself of that habit.

Today, she wrote:

“How do we shoulder our bats when we want to come out swinging? How do we move past anger and defensiveness to interact with one another thoughtfully, respectfully? How do we dig deep enough to find the place where compassion dwells? How can we find common ground with those who feel so far removed from our experience?”

I wrote the following as a comment, then asked if I could repost it here and she said, “Please do” – so, here it is (with a bit of editing).

These are exactly the questions I’ve been trying to answer for years and years. I have some thoughts and hope others will respond with theirs. There are two books that immediately come to mind: Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

In Anger, Hanh describes dealing with anger as developing compassion for yourself first – compassion even towards your anger. Anger is an emotion we’ll never be able to just avoid entirely, and it is an appropriate response at times. Your anger is a part of you, and all of you deserves compassion. The analogy he refers to throughout the book is that anger is like garbage.  We can’t just leave it sit around, it will make a stench. But through compassion, we can compost it into fertile ground, and grow beautiful flowers in it.

Hanh writes a lot about suffering in relation to anger as well. When you are angry at someone, generally it is because that person has caused you suffering in some way (e.g. by saying “that” word). Responding while angry means that you will cause suffering in return. Unless that person has the kind of highly developed compassion described above (and if they did, I don’t think it possible they’d be using that word) then that person will become angry in response to their suffering. Then it becomes a cycle of anger and suffering instead of a cycle of compassion and connection.

When you understand how that cycle of anger and suffering feeds upon itself, you can go a step back in time to just before that person did the thing that you feel angry about. That person caused you suffering, because that person is suffering. Finding the suffering in that person will help you feel compassion for them. Then if you can lead the other person toward overcoming their own suffering, they will stop hurting others.

In The Untethered Soul, (of which I’ve read only the first two chapters so far), Singer writes about that voice that you hear telling you things, all the time. (If you just heard in your head, “What voice? I don’t have a voice.” – that’s the voice he’s talking about.)  The voice is not you. *You* are the silence that listens to that voice. Sometimes that voice says things that aren’t helpful, and you don’t have to listen to that. Because it’s not YOU. When you’re in the immediate heat of your anger, as DOAM said you want to come out swinging, it’s that voice that’s egging you on, telling you to swing for the fences.

You – the inner, silent, you – are not your anger. You – the real, inner you – can observe your anger. Notice that you are angry, be mindful of it. Then you can use your free will to *choose* how to respond instead of letting that voice that is not you speak for you. DOAM used writing an email to quiet that voice and speak from her compassionate heart – her true self.  And she was very successful in creating change, by doing so.

So I think that the way to shoulder your bat is to remember that if you swing it, you will only distance yourself further from the person you want to change. The further away from someone you are, the harder it is to change them.

Try this: get a pen and piece of paper. Write your name. Now move back one foot (or 30 cm) and write your name again. Keep doing that. Notice how much sloppier your handwriting becomes, the further away from the paper you are. When you get far enough away, you can’t write at all. The pen doesn’t even touch the paper. Anger causes distance. Compassion brings people closer.

If you want to write on someone’s heart, you have to be very close to them.


Please also check out:

 the saddest word of all on Diary of a Katie

 The Bigotry Behind The Word ‘Retard’ by Timothy Shriver

Spread the Word to End the Word

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