Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Behind anger tends to be fear.

As a pastor, I am often exposed to people's anger.  Often this anger is directed at me; other times, it's directed at another member of the congregation; sometimes it's toward another third party.  Whatever the case, I'm their pastor, and their problems are my problems.  As I walk through life with people, and as I live in their world, I experience the troubles, the anger, and the fear that they experience.
This usually takes a long time.

I know church leaders (very effective church leaders) who keep a tight schedule and whose visits are short and to the point.  I am not that kind of leader.  If somebody is angry, I do attempt to visit them quickly and address the anger.  However, I'm not just looking to diffuse a situation quickly.  I want the person to whom I'm speaking recognize the root of their anger.  Usually I find that behind their anger is something else.


When I listen to somebody who is angry with a significant other and I allow them to speak for some time, it becomes clear that there is some kind of fear behind the anger.  Fear of the relationship ending.  Fear that things aren't moving forward.  Fear that the relationship is stagnant.  Fear that the trauma the person experienced as a child when they heard their parents fighting is coming true in their own life.

When I speak to somebody who is angry about something I've said in a sermon, as I listen it becomes clear that this person is angry about what I haven't said.  "Why didn't you address abortion?"  (inner monologue: "Because it was a message about stewardship").  There's often a fear of something being talked about in the world that concerns this person--something that I didn't address in that week's sermon.
Fear dictates many of our reactions as humans.
Fear is not a bad emotion.  In fact, fear is life-saving at times.  Fear causes us to look both ways before we cross the street.  Fear causes us to duck under something or throw our hands up if we see someone with a gun.  Fear causes us to study hard when finals are approaching.  Fear causes us to use a walker or a cane when our legs are not working in the ways that they should.  Fear is a motivator, and it can be very effective.
Unfortunately, fear can also lead to uncritical thinking.  It can lead to unnecessary or unwarranted outbursts. 
Fear is what drives America to attack it's enemies with drone strikes which can and have caused the deaths of civilians. 
Fear causes people to demonize, vilify, and throw baseless accusations at another group of people simply for wanting a particular person in the White House. 
Fear causes people to put many who are mentally ill into prison instead of giving them the help and support that they need and deserve. 
Fear causes Christians who believe in a God who cared for the oppressed and the alien throughout the Old Testament (see Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Numbers 9:14, Jeremiah 29:10-14), and who was himself an alien (Matthew 2:13-18), to want to shut refugees out of the country.
We think that most of these examples are motivated by anger, but in actuality they are motivated by fear.  Fear of the unknown.  A desire for safety.  Fear of what could be.

The anger and pushiness expressed in many of these conversations seems to come from a person's fight-or-flight response.  (I'm no brain scientist, and this explanation is probably going to make some people cringe).  When a person is thinking critically, they use a different part of their brain than when they experience terror.  In moments of terror, people tend to act from the brain stem and/or the hypothalamus.  This part of the brain controls the instinct to flee or fight.  A caveman when facing a large animal and armed only with a stick will not have time to ponder the ethics of whether or not he should cause harm to the animal.  A modern person facing a man who is high on crystal meth and ready to attack does not have the time to reason with the man.  He needs to defend himself or flee.  The brain stem is useful from a survival perspective, and we are lucky to have it.

On the same token, if somebody is incredibly angry with one of us, and we try to reason with them, they may not be in the state of mind to reason with us.  It does not necessarily mean that they are crazy, or unreasonable, or stubborn.  It may simply mean that they are thinking more from the brain stem than other parts of the brain.  When I talk to people who are angry, I find that more often than not, the emotion behind that anger is fear.  When I allow someone to talk for around an hour without pushing back, I find that they are often afraid of something.  Once we've established "the problem behind the problem," the real conversation can begin.  They move from thinking from their brain stem to thinking with other parts of the brain.  If I were to spend the entire conversation berating them for their "stupid opinions," they would probably continue to think and act from the brain stem.

I recently had a conversation with a homeless man outside of our church building.  I was heading to the garage to check on something when I met this man.  I casually said to him, "How's it going?"
"How's it going?  I'm going to throw myself off of the St. Johns Bridge, that's how it's going."
As a pastor (and as a human with decency and a desire for people to continue living), I had a responsibility to talk further to him.  I also legally needed to report this conversation (which I did).  I couldn't simply say to the man, "Oh, well, I hope you get better."
I sat down next to him.  "Talk to me.  What's going on?"
"What's going on is I'm going to kill myself."
"Look, I love you and I can't let you do that.  Talk to me.  What's bringing you to this decision?"
"I'm going to kill myself. You can't talk me out of it.  I'm throwing myself off of the St. Johns Bridge."

This was going nowhere, so I tried something different.
"Do you have family here?"
"Not here, but yeah.  I lived with my mom, but she and the rest of my family don't want anything to do with me."
"Why not?"
"'Cause of the drugs.  I've been clean for a long time.  Haven't used crystal for a while."
"Great.  That's good."
"I mean, I used it three days ago, but that was just to try it.  I've been clean for a while."
"So you used it three days ago?"
"Yeah, and I shouldn't have, because it messes me up."
"It messes you up?"
"Yeah, man.  And I can't get my stupid bike tire changed.  I have this new tire, and I don't know how to change them, and it's too hard, so I'm going to throw myself off of the bridge."
"Can I help you change the tire, man?"
"You can try.  It won't work.  And I'm so done with trying to fix it that I'm going to kill myself."

I spent the next hour or so talking with him and changing a bike tire.  ("An hour changing a bike tire?"  Yeah, an hour.  It takes me a while.)  He began by telling me why everybody in his life was terrible.  Individually.  He told me about each individual person that he was connected with, and the reasons why he hated them.  I learned about his family and the problems they've had with him.  I learned about his life on the street, the fights he'd been in, and the trouble he had simply surviving.  Each day was an incredible amount of stress.  He didn't know where he would sleep, he didn't know how people would react to him, he didn't know if he would have anything to eat, or if he would have anyplace to use the bathroom.  These fears seemed to lead him to the outbursts that I encountered when I met him.

Over the course of the hour, the suicide threats became considerably less, until they disappeared entirely.  I asked if I could get him some help.  He wouldn't talk to the suicide hotline with me, but he did take a couple of phone numbers of people who could help him.  Throughout, I reminded him that I loved him, that his family loved him, and that there was hope beyond this moment.
The initial response, the anger, was brought on by his fear of not knowing what each day would bring.  As he was allowed to talk, his fight-or-flight instinct turned into a more manageable conversation.

Had I gone outside and reacted harshly with him, this young man would not have worked through any of these thoughts; he would not have received phone numbers; he would not have heard that he was loved.  Had I gone outside and reacted harshly, I would not have learned from him how difficult it is to live on the street.  This conversation benefitted both of us, and it began with a willingness to listen.

Anger tends to breed more anger.  Perhaps one of the things that this world desperately needs is people who will listen to an angry person, and allow them to move from a place of fight-or-flight thinking to the place where they can think critically.  Perhaps instead of reacting harshly or explosively when a friend lashes out at us, we can allow them the space to work through their emotions.

Listening is powerful.
Listening mends relationships.
Listening opens doors to further conversations.

For a better (though not perfect) explanation of the fight-or-flight instinct:

No comments:

Post a Comment