Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Loyalty, Anger, and Empathy

A year and a half ago, I had my anger management tested when someone mocked a dear friend of mine.

Up late one night at our yearly conference, my writing group friends and I were playing games with an assortment of others we'd collected. Everyone was having fun, letting loose, laughing. I was too, until I noticed one of the hangers-on give a scornful reaction to one of my friends' jokes.

It was subtle, just a facial expression and a toss of the head, but I happened to look over at the right moment to see it.

Then I couldn't stop seeing it: expressions of disgust, a mocking eye-roll, pointed repeatedly at my friend. My friend and I had known each other online for some time but this was the first time we met in person (my writing group is far-flung). Regardless, she was part of my tribe, and some girl was quietly ridiculing her.

Maybe the offending young woman was tired and had a bad week. Maybe I was exhausted, too (I was). Those things weren't exactly crossing my mind. When she aimed a sneering comment at me, it was all I could do to stay calm and not retaliate.

The fury lasted for weeks afterward, and with it, the guilt about being so bitter toward someone. I try to like everyone I come in contact with. In one evening, this woman lost all chances in my eyes. I felt shame in that: what are humans without second chances?

Some months passed before I could forgive myself. Several more months passed before I could forgive her.

But I remembered I follow a God who is fine with anger. There are some things worth getting angry about. It's a natural human emotion God created. We may go on to use anger as a tool for bitterness and scorn, but luckily God forgives those things.

It was a small incident in the grand scheme of life, but I still remember it a year and a half later. The resentment and guilt had a hard hold on me.

This is something I'm learning about myself: when someone mistreats my friends, I get really mad.

Since a friend in Virginia first pointed this out, more people have told me the same. I guess I never noticed because in my mind this is normal.

My loyalty-anger shapes my life in many ways. It gives me a new understanding of love as something solid we can lean on, not an intangible concept. It hones how and where I apply my passion for justice. 

It shapes the way I interact with the Christian church, too. Few of my friends believe what I do spiritually (I seem to be happiest in this setting). Years ago, a friend told me, "You're not like the other Christians I know," and it made me ache. Not but because of the compliment, but because someone had hurt her.

Ever since, I've wanted to be a Christian who does not, by accident or otherwise, shove a spear through someone's heart.

The desire to show a concrete, loyal love to my friends affects the influences I seek out, the books I read, everything. I don't want to be another empty voice. I want to be real.

Sometimes it feels like only God and I care about my people. Others are willing to write them off or trample them. People hurt my friends and don't give a damn about it.

But my looming failure here is not seeing that everyone is this way.

Everyone gets scorned, disregarded, damaged, and unfairly accused. Everyone faces a world which is not as kind to them as it could be.

If I could be best friends with the entire world, I might be less prone to rage.

On a practical level, we can't be friends with everyone. But we can empathize with everyone. That's what novels are about: getting us inside others' stories. Even if I'm not the one who's there for someone through all life throws at them, I can still relate with their point of view.

Acknowledging other people's pain keeps my anger from becoming a weapon aimed at someone's heart.

I'm not going to stop myself from feeling angry. It's an instinct I don't want to tamp down. I will try to not be bitter or let anger keep me from seeing the humanity in another person. I'll try to empathize. I'll try not to get too defensive and thus treat my friends as weak or unable to fight their own battles.

There's a balance in all of it, somewhere.

But I'll still get angry, because that's part of the balance.

I know I'm going to struggle with my protective instinct, and I'm okay with that. I hope I can stop writing off those I deem responsible for my friends' pain. Meanwhile, I hope I can keep loving the people I care about.

Word count: 818. Photos: Angry by Rodrigo Suriani, and Friendship by Rainier Martin Ampongan.