"Don't let people pull you into their storm. Pull them into your peace." –Anonymous
Today is Wednesday, March 20, 2013.
This quote has been buzzing around the Internet lately, and I've seen a couple of different photos used with it. Nobody seems to know who said it first, but I guess it doesn't matter. It's thought-provoking, no matter who said it.
My spiritual path teaches that anger is never a good option, unless you are in a teaching situation where you mock up anger to get a point across. But then, mocking up anger doesn't mean you are angry inside. Rather, you are speaking sharply to your students in order to get them to pay attention. It's very hard not to rationalize our anger as "righteous," especially when we are sure we are in the right. Anger only gets one so far, though, and then it generates diminishing returns. We can use anger to get ourselves and other people motivated to support a cause or oppose a wrongdoing, but later we only end up turning people away. It may make us feel better in the short term to express our discontent, and it may even generate a feeling of pride in being "right." It may allow us to feel sorry for ourselves. It may create a little dramatic diversion in our lives. It won't solve any of our problems, though. Even when we wish to right a wrong, it's not our anger, per se, that heals the wound, but some other action, taken independently of our anger, that makes things right.
Another teaching from my spiritual path is that when others are angry, we should not take it personally, even if the anger seems directed at us, because when people are angry, it's "their stuff." It's their feelings about whatever has happened. Our own response to the situation should not be colored by the feelings of others. We have our own feelings, and we have the right to express them. In a vast majority of cases, when we express anger, the underlying cause is fear. We fear that something may or may not happen. We fear loss, reprisal, or change.
Maintaining a sense of inner peace is very difficult in the face of someone's anger directed toward us, or in the face of our own fears. It requires an inner awareness – awareness that the other person's anger is simply how he is feeling, that it isn't about us. When we realize that anger is really an expression of fear, and if we can stay calm enough to figure out what the other person is really afraid of, we can respond in a way that addresses the person's fears, which generally has the effect of diffusing the situation and restoring harmony.
Maintaining inner peace requires also an awareness of our own fears. When we force ourselves to name our fears exactly, we can then decide if there is any specific action that we or another person can take to avoid or overcome whatever it is that we fear.
In addition to awareness, in order to maintain inner peace, we must practice. For those of us who find this discipline difficult to master, life gives us opportunity after opportunity to practice staying calm and focused, rather than lashing out in anger. As we begin to master inner peace, the opportunities get more difficult and more complex, but the other side of the coin is that we are more able to handle it.
I remember waiting at a bus stop one summer day with two other people. A fellow came by who looked like he was homeless. This guy began to shout at us, hurling thunderbolts of anger toward us, so strong that his anger was actually palpable. My body and mind actually sensed the man's hostility in a physical way, triggering a very real fight-or-flight reflex in me. One of the other people at the bus stop started arguing with him, and I noticed that this only made the situation worse. That day I remembered to say nothing. I can't necessarily say that I was calm, but I was at least able to refrain from being drawn into this man's storm.
Another time, a colleague of mine became angry over something that I can no longer remember, but I remembered thinking that it was his stuff, and not mine. I also remember thinking that he was trying to use his anger as a tool to manipulate people into doing things his way, or punish them for not agreeing with him. Once again, I was silent, even though I was feeling a little scared.
More recently, a friend of mine lost her husband to cancer, which is of course very upsetting. Nobody wants anybody to die. However, this woman's husband was much older than she was, in his eighties, and he had lived a long and fairly healthy life. The cancer was in his organs, and therefore difficult to treat. I recall that the husband had surgery, but I can't remember now whether or not he had any chemotherapy. They made heroic efforts to use alternative treatments, which helped for a time, but ultimately failed. This woman had been so smug toward those of us who chose the more standard chemotherapy treatment, insinuating that our decision was wrong and that theirs was the only right one. My hat is off, in general, to people who "fight the good fight," but there is a point where one has to recognize that the patient's quality of life has diminished to the point where it's necessary to let go of our efforts to save them, that we are only prolonging the patient's suffering.
After she lost her husband, this same woman angrily and bitterly criticized any of her online friends' efforts to console her, no mater how carefully or circumspectly worded. One thing I have learned in life is that nothing one says can really console a person who loses a loved one. Nevertheless, people try to say something loving and kind to the survivors, because it's often the only thing they can do – to simply remind the survivors that they have friends who love them. Just because a person is suffering a great loss does not make it OK for them to bite people's heads off, even if the people understand where the anger and bitterness is coming from.
I should have just left well enough alone, but I was tired of walking on eggshells around this woman, and tired of the way she was treating her other friends. I was tired of hearing her talk as if she was the only person in the world to suffer grief, and tired of her rebuffing her friends' offerings of kindness. At one point, this woman wanted me to agree that she had been right to prolong her husband's life at all costs, and that it was OK for her to snap at people who tried to console her. That's when I rebelled. There was no way I was going to pull this woman into my peace. Instead, she succeeded in pulling me into her storm. I wrote her a candid message that expressed my feelings. Instead of just letting go of my need to be "right" and quietly and gradually letting go of the friendship (because sometimes you just need to walk away, at least for a while), I just had to make my point. That was my mistake.
She responded by writing me a long, long diatribe, calling me every name in the book and expressing every grudge against me that she had been "saving up," as it were, for things that I had said or done years earlier. She informed me that she had already blocked my email, so there was no hope of sending a response of any kind. She also blocked me from Facebook for a while, although she has evidently unblocked me recently. When I realized that this same woman had blocked others – very probably for speaking out as I did – I decided that enough was enough. I didn't block her. I simply erased her emails from my inbox and took her off my friend list.
I understand why she said and did what she did. I know, at least intellectually, how fearful it must be to lose one's life partner. So for all that, I can forgive her. I truly do wish her well, and I don't mind being cordial if it is ever necessary to speak directly with her, but I don't believe I will ever accept an offer of friendship, because, as a dear friend reminded me, it is evident that this woman creates storms wherever she goes. I'm not the only person she has tangled with, and I suppose I will not be the last.
Sometimes you cannot pull a person into your peace. Sometimes you just have to walk away. :-/