For many these days, anger comes from experiencing or bearing witness to injustice, systemic violence, oppression. We can see the global prevalence of violence, poverty, educational inequality. Everyday experience may traumatize us, or exhaust our conscience beyond understanding. The political climate recently in the U.S. comes to mind, as it stirred up feelings for everyone, both in the U.S. and around the world — about international diplomacy, gender equality, racial equality, privacy — the list goes on. For many, hearing insults hurled publicly by politicians, often based on gender, race, and religion, isn’t a recipe for feeling good and eager to connect.
My aim isn’t to encourage people to forgive and forget. Or, as my friend Sylvia Boorstein would say,
“Forgiveness is not amnesia.”
And as CNN commentator Van Jones says,
“Empathy does not require agreement. It just requires understanding.”
Here in post-election America, I’ve wondered about how we can wrestle with the prevalent and terrible feelings of alienation, and begin to explore what reconciliation might feel like on a more macro scale. How we can, and if we can.
When it comes to ideological disagreements, such as those that arise in politics, some thrive in the context of confrontation — wrestling with ideas that threaten them or harm their worldview. That’s why some people go into politics! But many of us feel exhausted, still angry, and afraid.
So how do we move from strident polarization to reconciliation and peace while still maintaining the integrity of our own sense of right and wrong? Some of it is acknowledging the pain.
I cried the other day reading my Twitter timeline, when someone I know wrote (probably accurately), “They are going to take away my health insurance.” I recognized that feeling of being told by someone, in effect, “You don’t count. You don’t matter.”
Even aside from the fear of the practical consequences of that kind of shift in policy, there is the sense of just being nothing in the eyes of someone else. It’s excruciating. We can resolve to practice empathy.
I also, in that moment, felt a renewed commitment to never giving anyone that message of disregard. I felt the energy and uplift of remembering what has been, in a way, a big part of my life’s work — helping people practice tools that keep us from treating ourselves or others as less-than or irrelevant. To consider inclusion instead of exclusion, even when it’s hard. We can try to remember what we really care about in terms of what gives our lives meaning.
Anger itself, of course, is one of the reasons it is hard. Anger in all its nuanced forms — sadness, fear, loneliness — tends to be a site of angst and questioning for many of us. By definition, feeling angry is unsettling each time it happens — it’s as if we’re constantly being invited to negotiate with how to deal with anger, even as we reach seemingly new feelings of closure or acceptance about it.
We wrestle with our emotions, our experiences, our memories, and try to figure out how to create space for the process of letting go.
We have to create space to acknowledge discomfort as much as we try to pursue greater freedom from it. That is a more metaphorical way to think about reconciliation. In the midst of great difficulty, it may be impossible to imagine ever being able to appreciate the turns our life has taken — and it’s important to remember that, just as much as it is important to be grateful. By accepting these paradoxes, we can begin to reconcile with ourselves and feel a sense of reconciliation with life itself. It’s in that space that we can let go.
Marie recently told me her story — one that underscored the relationship between love and this kind of reconciliation:
“Some years ago, I was in the absolute depths of pain about my son, Paul, who was struggling with a form of schizophrenia. To hear the psychiatrist say the word ‘schizophrenia’ was like a serrated knife going through my heart.”
From that moment on, Marie explained, she simply had to learn to let go, which was a process of self-forgiveness, acceptance, gratitude, and love — for her son, for herself, for the fact of resilience, and for the power of letting go. This was reconciliation.
“There was no other way to cope with the overwhelming urge to rescue my son, as he fell to this side and that side, in his own efforts to find a way… I had good reason to fear for his life. Over time, and by the grace of God, I recognized that I, too, needed help — and once I got it, my understanding grew about the nature of Paul’s illness, as well as the resources available to us both.”
Marie’s process of truly acknowledging what was happening and how she felt about it was a necessary part of her reconciliation — with the circumstances of her son’s mental health, with her own reactions to it, how it was affecting her life and relationship with him, and, above all, with herself. There is a way in which I think reconciling with the reality of life is the greatest form of love we can enact for ourselves. In a way, it’s the greatest act of self-love — love for those whom we care about, and love for life itself.
Marie used the world “miracle” to describe what really hinged on her own radical process of letting go, and seeing the profound love beneath her process of relinquishing her desire to control life.
“Gradually, my son and I became closer and, in the end, miracle of miracles, he sought help and has been steadily finding himself… There is a great bond between us that sees us through any number of challenges, and we often have a good laugh these days. To me, that is the best love I have ever experienced. I’ll forever be thankful for whatever powers there are in the universe that first brought us to our knees, then raised us up, with some idea of what prayer is.”
Marie’s process was not passive, but an active one of alchemizing her fear into a recognition of the necessity to let go into what was true. Ironically, perhaps, the etymology of the word “reconcile” is to bring back together — from the Latin concillare, which means “bring together,” and the prefix “re-,” which denotes “back,” and connotes the idea of intense force. And yet, there is a great force of connection that is involved in letting go. This doesn’t mean that Marie stopped caring about her son’s disease, or her own reactions to it, and its effects on her life. But it does mean that she didn’t hold on to those more inflexible feelings of fear, guilt, and anger.
Some of the move into reconciliation is opening to a new way of thinking. I recall the time just after the metro bombing in London, in July 2005. Willa, a friend’s seven-year-old daughter, had another perspective. She and her family were visiting London at the time. In New York City they lived very near the World Trade Center, so this was the second time in her young life she’d encountered terrorism. On being told what had happened in London, her eyes filled with tears and she said, “Mom, we should say a prayer.” As she and her mother held hands, Willa asked to go first. Her mother was stunned to hear her daughter begin with:
“May the bad guys remember the love in their hearts.”
I think that’s how we do it.