Crafting Gentleness

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Gentleness and anger

[Jim: As for gentleness... I would say there are times to be gentle and times not to be. My mind begins to wander and I cast about among the events of the day. I am Iraqi. My house has been destroyed by an American bomb and I have lost all my children. My country is occupied by powerful foreigners. Try as I may - and despite all the good wishes of people watching from afar - gentleness is a little out of my reach right now. Anger, yes. Sorrow, confusion, panic. But I may very well metamorphose into something more dangerous and who would you be to criticize?]

Hi Jim, and thanks for posting. These are things we have chatted about before, and will again, I'm guessing :)

There are a few things that come to mind ...

A basic principle for me is that I am working to reduce the power of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression (CVDO) in my experience. Adopting an attitude of gentleness is my way to do that. It is important for me not to assume that gentleness is sometimes an inappropriate political response or that it ever equals political inaction. For me, gentleness is all about appropriateness-to-context, all about working for ways of relating to people that might be more appropriate, i.e, helpful, for transforming relations of CVDO. Being gentle, for me, would mean being politically engaged at a highly calibrated level of appropriateness-to-context, working with a keen awareness of what is actually going on, cutting through the sh*& that my heightened passions often ply me with.

I believe that the more I distance myself from an attitude of gentleness (the more I allow myself to succumb to the gravities of anger, for example), the less appropriate my actions will become because anger tends to blind me. It most crucially tends to blind me to the long term or broader consequences of my own participation in a situation.

I think for me it is important not to assume that gentleness and reactive anger are incompatible. Sometimes I get angry. It's important for me to acknowledge and respect that. Reactive anger, to the conditions of a particular situation.

But I do not desire to remain angry, I do not find anger helpful, and if I get angry I will try to work afterwards so that I am less likely to become angry next time something similar happens.
I grew up in a country where people often killed each other in meditative, stewing anger. I have no desire to make anger my friend. An acknowledged companion occasionally, but not someone I want to make an effort for. I do not want anger to be important to me.

I had a terrible temper when I was younger. I contributed to a lot of hurt and harm in the lives of people around me in ways that still resonate. At whatever time, people do what they do in ways that make sense to them, so I will acknowledge and respect that I was often exploding boy, and move on. I am glad I am not there any more, and I am glad that I didn't 'solve' my anger by trying to bottle it up. I am also glad that I get opportunities to treat people with a little more respect now. I don't get angry much any more, usually just when some of my older buttons get pushed, when some of my remaining 'old protections' get breached. Anger is always a possible response for me, one of many, just not a desirable one. If reacting in anger feeds the dynamics of CVDO, and if I am trying to work to reduce the power of CVDO in my own life, then it makes no sense for me to desire anger. I do not desire anger.

I think that maintaining or feeding that anger beyond an immediately reactive response will likely make any thing I do less rather than more appropriate. For me anger can be an opportunity, an opportunity to ask 'what's going on here?', and 'what I can I do that might helpfully transform this situation?' And also, to ask, 'how can I become less angry now, without becoming less aware of my part in all of this?' At other times I may have the opportunity to ask, 'where is my anger coming from?'

For me, there are many situations that provoke anger, but there is no situation that necessitates anger as a direct cause and effect response. (Working with the idea that nothing is fixed, nothing is necessary, and nothing has to be the way it is).

It is not my place to judge or criticize people for experiencing anger. People do what they do, feel what they feel. But it is my place as a human being to seek to understand whether or not anger may or may not be helpful in my own life, and to invite others to consider that, not only are there ways other than anger, but that sustained anger may be one of the least helpful, least appropriate ways of making the world a better place. Also, to invite others to consider the black-hole gravity of anger, the nourishment it provides for unhelpful thinking, and unhelpful relationships. So if someone's anger metamorphoses into something more dangerous then, yes, what they do and how they think becomes the focus of critique for me, but primarily for the purpose of working out more helpful responses to whatever I encounter in my life.

Sustaining, feeding, or capitulating to anger also, for me, makes it more likely that I might think other people's thoughts and assume that they are entirely my own. It makes me more likely to live my life in the service of doctrine, of absolutes, of unquestionable truths. It makes me more likely, I believe, to assume a position of arrogance, or imposition, or denial, or hate. All things the power of which I work to try and reduce in my life.

[Jim: At times "gentleness" seems like a luxury.]

For me, sometimes I wish gentleness were a luxury. I find nothing more challenging, politically and personally. I think it's important maybe for me to make a distinction between 'acts of gentleness' and 'an attitude of gentleness'. In the Christian/Catholic traditions that I was raised in, the emphasis tended to be on acts of gentleness, on doing things that would be seen to be gentle, outwardly visible. 'This is what gentleness looks like,' was the general impression I got. 'Acts of kindness', similarly. This allows lots of room for the gentleness and kindness of colonial power or compassionate conservativism. "Look, I'm being kind to you, dammit! Can't you see that?" I'm not interested in espousing Anita Roddick's 'aggressive kindness' or in prescribing what gentleness looks like.

I am interested, though, in attitudes of gentleness. For me, gentleness is our baseline, the attitude that grounds us in being politically and personally present. I have thought about how to think most helpfully about this, and I'm still working at it, but what I have found most helpful most far is to not seek to identify what gentleness looks like or prescribe it in any way. Rather, I find it more helpful to think about what draws us away from gentleness.

At base, for me an attitude of gentleness simply happens (in whatever way it happens to happen) when our thinking, doing, feeling is not dominated by the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated. What I mean by that is a long conversation, and part of the purpose of this blog for me, and I've already posted a bit on it in the archives. But, as I see it, it's for me to work out how that works in my own life and I find it's a pretty good yardstick thus far. I invite others to see if it works for them.

[Jim: And of course, there's the standard example of the armed robbers coming into your house and putting a gun to your child's head. Should you be gentle?]

Gentleness for me in such a circumstance would mean operating as appropriately as possible, working to reduce the emotional intensity of the situation (the job of professional hostage negotiators, every good one a master of gentleness as I understand it), working to not make the situation worse. If I rush the guys with guns I increase the chance that both my child and I get killed, or worse. No matter what I do, they may still shoot and kill, but how can I engage in a way that makes that less likely?

But we don't need an old chestnut example to think about this. ;) I encounter situations every day where I have an opportunity to contribute helpfully or unhelpfully, appropriately or inappropriately (in view of my broader commitment to reducing CVDO). I am always able to dominate others, to belittle others, to treat others like inhuman monsters, to treat people like dirt, to hurt, to harm, to offend, to disrespect, to be arrogant, self-righteous, and bullying. I also frequently encounter situations where people are acting in these ways (thankfully, less so in my current situation). In any situation, am I helping? or am I making things worse? How can I gauge that? How can I guide my thinking and doing in relation to that?

Gentleness for me means being smarter about what's happening, being more aware of consequences, priming myself for more helpful contributions in any circumstance. Being more appropriately political. For me, opposition doesn't tend to be a helpful form of defence, if helpfulness is thought of in terms of reducing the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression.

[Jim: What I am suggesting is that all of the situations that we find ourselves in have their own vocabulary and their own set of primary concerns. We need to be flexible and realistic.]

Precisely what I believe espousing gentleness is about. :)

[Jim: Decisions and answers are a part of life. Yes, there is a correct answer, but it will change as soon as it is found because the question will change.]

Personally, I don't think there are correct answers, as answers invite the question 'according to whom?' and often it's not according to the person answering. I think there are helpful and unhelpful approaches, and if an approach isn't working it isn't working. If it isn't working, I think we can acknowledge, work to understand a little better, and try again or move on.

[Jim: So many people seem to be afraid of answers and decisions. They are real. Don't be afraid of them.]

I'm not afraid of either answers or decisions. I just don't think they're as necessary as a lot of people expect me to think they are ;) (and I think so many of them are self-generated by me on the basis of fuzzy thinking). Fewer of both has made my life a lot more liveable and interesting :)

Cheers :)

(Jim, you are missed over here, by the way. Sandino's is now down the road from where I work. If you can make it here I'll buy you a pint! :)

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