Thursday, February 17, 2011

Managing emotions

We had a situation in church that escalated to the point that someone accused someone else of lying, in a very public and hurtful way. Both of these people are good people, in the estimation of me and my husband, so it was surprising and saddening to see this happen.

I'm trying to keep this generic, but one person, let's say "Sam," had a number of issues with one of the church leaders, "Peter." Sam wanted to meet with Peter and have a mediator present, but Peter refused, so instead Sam went to the committee that oversees the church leaders. In that meeting, Sam accused Peter of lying and trying to make Sam look bad. I think the committee members, for the most part, were a bit stunned about how Sam reached many of these conclusions. However, I was not there, so I really can't say for sure. It seems like Sam was operating from a place of deep hurt, and the origins of that pain were fanned by the interactions between Peter and Sam.

I think that there were some strong emotions that overtook Sam and perhaps clouded reality. I see this as a microcosmic example of one of the primary causes of global conflicts -- these out-of-control passions that inflame people to violence. There is very good reason for people to have strong emotions in conflict-torn regions, because in many cases, there is a long and extensive history of violence between groups of people. It's like the Hatfields and McCoys, but on a much larger scale -- Israelis and Palestinians, Hutu and Tutsi, and so on. (Note to reader: I do some basic fact-checking when posting; be glad I didn't write about the Hatberrys and McCoys and leave it that way.)

I can't say that I would be have any kind of handle on reality if members of my family had been killed by an opposition group that seemed out to get me, my family, and my entire tribe. It's impossible to know how I would react, and thankfully God has not placed me in that position. But it seems (from my comfy armchair here) that the best testament to a family member who has been killed is to make a solemn vow that the violence ends here and now, and no more lives will be taken, for revenge or any other reason. Yeah, how easy and cheap it is to sit here and blog about it. And yet, something drives me to do just that. To take a stab at looking into this problem -- oops, I shouldn't use that analogy!

My ongoing struggle is how to make the world a better place ... this is a dilemma that makes me feel desperate at times, because I feel so ineffective and so tiny. It is so hard to truly help other people. Really, you could argue that it is impossible to help someone else -- if they cannot reach back when you reach out, or if they are not ready or receptive. It's so easy to fall into traps like being condescending, feeling holier than the other person, or to live under the illusion that you are actually in the role of "helper," not receiving anything of benefit in return. And motive is always questionable when you purposefully set out to "help" someone else. You immediately are up on a pedestal, instead of in an equal position with that person, and that sense of being better is a falsehood. Plus, it adds distance between you, and makes it harder to find common ground.

In contemplating the problems of the world, I see that many are attributable to uncontrolled outbursts of negative emotions. This can be long-term and simmering, like the wish for revenge (some might call it "justice" though revenge is not the same thing at all), or refusing to forgive others. Or it can be an instantaneous episode where someone blows up and does something terrible. I believe that as human beings, we are all capable of being pushed over the edge and doing something quite horrific. I know that but for the grace of God, there were moments where I could have died or killed someone else in my life -- not just once, but a number of times. So we should be aware of this very deep, primitive nature that lurks in us and may urge us to do something that cannot be remedied.

I talk about this as a global problem, but it's also deeply personal. Here is something I can achieve, myself, in my lifetime ... better control over my own negative emotions. I see the fruit of this work in my life everywhere ... how much happier my family seems, how much I enjoy being around other people (nearly everybody!), how the petty conflicts of daily life seem so much more minor in comparison to all the love and beauty out there. I love to listen to the Dalai Lama, which I often do while driving, because he is the living embodiment of the fruits of compassion. Being in his presence, through his spoken words, has an amazing effect on me. It's so uplifting.

My wish is that through the hard work of one person in their own life, the benefits can spread slowly outward, like the ripple of one small pebble tossed in water. However, it seems like our existence in this world is not a calm pond, but more like a tempest-tossed ocean, and this tiny ripple may be swallowed up by the tsunamis out there!

I also wanted to mention something that has helped me. I still feel these turbulent emotions that arise out of nowhere. I have learned that I can stop and say, Oh! Julie is feeling this emotion. It is not a reflection of reality. It's just the feeling of the moment. Let it be, sit with it, and it will pass away. This little mental trick has really worked well. At times at work, I have felt so lonely, just this ache deep in the middle of me (a familiar ache), and I realize that this particular feeling is constructed, made up. Poof! It disappears like a phantom. I have lived with this ache, this sense of complete isolation, my whole life. Funny to find that it isn't real at all.

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