Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cycles of Anger

I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness these days, for many reasons. That part of me that believes in astrology thinks the recent Cardinal Cross may have something to do with sudden outbursts of crazy behavior in people, and maybe it's as good an explanation as any. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there has been a sharp increase in my sense of feeling manipulated, used, neglected, and just plain disrespected these days.

My usual strategy in such cases it to simply shrug and say, "Life is like that, suck it up and deal with it." Then I got a call from a friend last night, who has been going through a horrible month at work. She was tired of being disrespected. When one works with the public in a non-profit capacity, the sense of entitlement that people have is often staggering. People are astonished that they might have to follow rules in a public place, or God forbid, consider someone else's needs. We talked about the latest customer service model of society. What kind of limits should be set by the person providing the service? Usually, angry customers can be placated simply by having someone listen to them sympathetically. That is because they're looking for validation--which is another way of saying they would like to be treated with respect, as a subject, not an object. But some people don't treat anyone with respect at all--they don't even pretend. And when that someone has to be told they can't do something, or that they are breaking rules, what is a legitimate response if they jump up and start cursing you out? One might excuse the mentally ill for not having the faculties to handle social interaction. However, these are often people who are not mentally ill; they are merely self-centered.

In discussing this set of episodes, I've thought about the way in which social attitudes have changed. One thing I find scary is the "customer service" model of higher education. Many students feel that professors need to serve them, the way a waiter or concierge might serve them, because they are paying for education. And some schools are actually backing this model. This is a huge mistake. University classes are challenging. Sometimes students have to take classes they don't want to take. But the requirements are in place for a reason--they are there to teach you basic research, writing, and critical thinking skills. I see more and more articles on ROI (return on investment) in education, and you have to wonder what exactly is being quantified. Is it about how big of a salary you make when you graduate? That seems to be the measure these days, and it's totally off the mark. I read an article at work recently about student evaluations, and the weight placed on them by administrators. I've never had bad evaluations, but I still think it's a bad idea to use them as a measurement of a professor's work. If a lot of students complain, a department can investigate, but it should not be the only yardstick in measuring performance. Now they ask students if they think that their class "is going to be valuable to them in the future." How the heck would they know? Often students will write back 5 or 10 years later, saying how they disliked your class at the time, but now realize that what they learned is helpful to them. In our drive to objectively quantify everything for outcomes assessment, we forget that some aspects cannot be meaningfully quantified.
This recent graduation speech by valedictorian Erica Goldson has hit a national nerve, and it's not difficult to see why.

Returning to my original topic--another friend of mine spent time with our guru this summer. She told me a story about three girls working together on the tour. Two of the girls disliked the other girl, considering her to be rude and aggressive. One of those two girls left her station, and sat down to pray near the guru, thinking about how much she couldn't stand the other girl. The guru looked straight at her, and beckoned her to come. She then said, "go, and bring back the two girls you work with." The girl did as she was told--and the guru told the three of them--"if you don't like one person--if you think they're rude and aggressive--then you think of that person as Amma (i.e., the guru) and you serve them. And stop thinking negative thoughts about them."

I thought a lot about this story. It goes back to the notion that it's easy to love your friends, but not your enemies. It did occur to me that I have a problem with this story. Angry people are hurting people--they have been trampled, invalidated, disrespected, or at least feel like they have. When someone repeatedly injures you, it's very hard not to be angry. Even if one agrees that you should be detached and not be concerned about how others treat you, this is much easier said than done. To say that one should simply serve the offending party turns the anger back on the person who was wronged. Now you are not only angry, you feel like a bad person for getting angry--and this makes you angrier. There is a word for anger turned inwards. It's called depression.

I have a very long fuse with people, but when they blow it, the fireworks usually aren't pretty. It takes a LOT--I shrug off a lot of disrespectful behaviors, but I do get fed up after awhile. Even knowing that I should forgive and move on, it's very hard to do--it's hard to rebuild your house when the fire is still raging. It has to die down first. To say that I shouldn't get angry in the first place--if someone stabs you repeatedly, you're not just going to smile and take it--a survival instinct kicks in. Perhaps the guru is noting that the only thing being destroyed is the ego, which--on the path to liberation--is a good thing. However, we have egos for a reason--it's our game piece in life. We need to focus more on playing the game fairly than on throwing the game piece away, unless that is our greatest desire. And like all games--sometimes you move ahead to the next round, sometimes you go back seven spaces. I think a lot of people on spiritual paths are often angry, frustrated, and ill-behaved because they forget this very basic thing. While we strive to rid ourselves of such attachments, they don't go away overnight. And they shouldn't.

So, while the guru is certainly pointing to the ideal, the reality is that we struggle with vicious cycle of respect--disrespect-validation--anger--forgiveness. And like most processes, it takes time.

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