My daughter, recently turned eleven, sometimes imagines herself a prophet. That’s really true when it comes to gender equality and women’s issues. When her candidate for president lost, she had so hoped for the first woman to take office, she took days to recover. And, three years ago, she decided to use Halloween to make a statement. Every year, she picks a hero from women’s history and makes that her costume selection. Rather than getting upset when people ask what she is supposed to be, she kindly explains, “I’m Susan B. Anthony. She worked to make sure women had the right to vote.”
Sometimes, her demands for justice get more specific, and can be unrelated to gender. Once, she protested on behalf of her class when the teacher punished all the students for the acts of one. This didn’t go particularly well, but she never relented. My daughter believes in justice, and I couldn’t be prouder. When she sees mistreatment, of her or someone else, she names it. Granted, she sometimes doesn’t act as I would have her act. While she’s typically gentle and loving, she can, at times, lash out. She’s been known to smack a classmate who’s mistreated her or one of friends. Those instances always make me uncomfortable. I support the impetus, the speaking out for justice, the desire for fairness. I understand why she gets angry, but I also worry about it.
If you read my blog, you know that I’ve written on anger. In fact, I used that topic for my last post. The reaction to it surprised me. It was shared around social media, and for some, it seemed an affirmation and breath of fresh air. Apparently, lots of people are tired of anger, of being angry or of being the target of others who are angry. Others, however, were less affirming. I’d specifically addressed the debate on healthcare and I had hoped that I made clear what I thought of the current proposal. I really dislike the plan passed by the House of Representatives. At the same time, I worry that the angry responses to it are harmful. They are harmful to those who feel such negative emotions. And, as importantly, I worry that the anger is only eliciting more anger from those who disagree. The anger seems to be buildings on both sides, and that’s leading to downright hateful behavior. Unfortunately, some read my response as a voice of support for the current plan.
I’ll make a partial disclosure of my own ideological convictions. I did not vote for President Trump. I won’t say for whom or whether I voted. But, even when I agree with something the President has said, and I have occasionally agreed, his rhetoric, his own obvious anger and the insensitivity when it comes to women, immigrants and people of color were just unacceptable.
On the other hand, the response to the President from many people I respect and with whom I often agree, just exhausts me. I’ve largely stopped checking Twitter. The President’s own use combined with the responses produce more anxiety than they are worth. I’ve stopped watching television news and news analysis. I get sucked into the anxiety and nastiness. For me, it’s just not healthy. These days, I stay informed by reading two newspapers, real, honest to goodness papers on newsprint, one reputed as progressive and one conservative. That’s the only way I can engage while keeping my emotions in check. The written word just seem to ease the emotions involved.
I do understand the anger. President Trump’s rhetoric can be intolerable, even to conservative Republicans. Like my daughter, I want to defend people of color, my Muslim neighbors and immigrants who find themselves targets. I’m angry on behalf of women who have been victimized by the rhetoric. I even understand the anger that won the President votes. Blue collar workers and impoverished rural families have been abused and neglected. I’m fully aware that anger is just part of life, part of what it is to be human.
But, I’m still not sure allowing ourselves to get angry at what we read or see is very healthy. A few days ago, I listened to an old episode of the podcast, Invisibilia. The hosts talked about the complementary and non-complementary responses. I encourage readers to take a listen to the episode called “Flip the Script,” here. Human beings tend toward complementary emotional responses, to match the emotional expressions of others. If a person greets another warmly, the other is highly likely to respond with warmth. If a person greets another with anger, the other is likely to respond with anger.
The hosts of Invisibilia explained this, then offered the story of a small town in the Netherlands. An alarming number of the town’s young, male, Muslim residents left their homes for Syria. They went to join the fight, and they went to take up the cause of ISIS. Yes, ISIS. The typical response to these departures in the Netherlands, like the U.S. was and still is anger. We look at what ISIS does and we don’t like it. They are angry. And we react with anger. And let me be clear. Nothing can possibly excuse the killing and acts terror.
That said, two police officers in this small town realized that if the town responded angrily, the young men’s families would almost certainly respond in kind. It didn’t matter that the parents in the Muslim community and the local mosque were just as mortified by the phenomenon as the white Dutch families. If the town reacted angrily, family of the men would respond the same way. That’s how complementary responses work. Worse, the officers knew that at some point, the young men were likely to return. A town receiving young men returning from fighting on behalf of groups like ISIS would rattle any town.
They took an interesting approach. Rather than cracking down, investigating, threatening the mosque, the young men or their families, the officers began conversations with the parents and mosque leaders. They realized that maybe it would be important to understand why the young men left in the first place. They learned that the young men were almost all victims of racism. They learned that, in fact, most of the young men had embraced the idea that they were actually serving God, doing what they believed God was calling them to do. Most didn’t share the same levels of animosity towards the West as the leaders of ISIS.
This doesn’t excuse participating in acts of terror, but the officers realized that responding with anger or violence was apt to only make things worse. The young men hadn’t yet committed any crimes in the Netherlands, and because of that, they decided to start a program of reintegration for the returning young men and one of general integration for those at risk of leaving. The program had some formality, but it started with a simple cup of coffee. Someone would identify the young men and one of the officers would invite him to the coffee shop. The young men were sometimes forced to go by a parent. Others reluctantly agreed after being asked several times, probably out of fear of arrest. But, over coffee, the officers would try and find out the young man’s needs and over time, his concerns and complaints. They sought to address them with job referrals, medical care, even financial assistance. One young man showed up with a gunshot wound received in Syria. The officers admitted they were almost certain he’d been a fighter for ISIS. Still, they got him in to a hospital with free medical attention.
In other words, these officers sought to break the pattern of complementarity. They responded to anger, even violence, with warmth. And….it worked. One year after starting, the number of young men leaving dropped from 29 to 1, even as the violence in Syria escalated.
The story moved me emotionally. The officers didn’t claim it, but their idea sounded an awful lot like the Christian understanding of grace. The young men left angry, believing that God had called them to be warriors for a cause and they returned to find warmth and care from some of ISIS’s very targets, western law enforcement. Let’s be honest, breaking complementary patterns is exceptionally difficult. We are hardwired to respond tit for tat. But, as a pastor, I’m constantly inviting people to be better than their hard-wiring. As the Church, we invite people to non-complementary responses all the time. Rather than responding tit for tat, we ask the faithful to respond to people with love, whatever that might mean.
I didn’t have the language at the time, but this is what I meant when I wrote my last entry. I’m tired of being and getting angry. I’m tired of what complementary responses lead me to do. It takes too much energy and distracts me from what I think is really good work. It prevents creating relationships with more people. I can’t tell anyone what to do. I’m in no place to judge. I don’t always win when it comes to breaking the pattern. Sometimes, when I’m greeted with anger, I get mad and I return what I’ve received.
But, this is my greatest hope for my daughter, that she learns to work for, to believe in, to be passionate when it comes to the work of justice, but that she does so through grace and love and peace-making. For our president, with whom I so often disagree, this is my greatest hope, that he finds the way to lead everyone effectively. I almost certainly won’t stop disagreeing with him, but I am going to try and stop being so angry, to start working to think of him and anyone with whom I disagree as another human being, one who needs the same warmth, love and grace that I need.