by Jen Whinnen
One morning over winter break I found Jack with his head buried into his Dad’s chest, choking back tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he said “Jai said he wishes Z was his brother instead of me.”
These are harsh from any sibling, but it’s especially harsh coming from a little brother whose adoration has always been absolute. My boys have, for the most part, enjoyed a pretty close friendship. The bedrock of this friendship is Jai’s unwavering belief that Jack is the world’s greatest big brother. Jai identifies himself as “Jack’s Brother.” That’s how he introduces himself, how he knows himself. To Jai, Jack knows every good thing in the world, has shown him every good thing in the world, and always has his back. Because of this, Jai has always been happy to step back and bask in his brother’s glow.
That is, until recently. Lately they are like two little tributaries, diverging off in different directions. Jack sometimes just wants to be left alone. Jai never wants to be alone. Jack finds himself annoyed and frustrated by his little brother. Jai is constantly being hurt by the rejection. My hope is that some day they will merge back into the same river, that they will find the same flow, but right now they bicker. They pick on each other. They yell and fight a lot.
Over the break Jack’s best friend spent a few days visiting us. Jack didn’t want to share his friend. He was mean, telling Jai to go away, not including him. To someone who’s always been included in every activity, who sees Jack as his best friend, this hurt. It hurt a lot. So, Jai went for the jugular.
“I wish you weren’t my brother! I wish Z was my brother instead!”
Jack was crushed. And then, of course, he got mad back. “Jai is the worst brother in the world! I will never forgive him! Never!”
My older son is at a (highly dramatic) crossroads. He can choose to retaliate, to say something cruel, to punch his brother. He can go on excluding him, tell him he’s a terrible brother, that he never wants to see him again. All the anger options were on the table. And they all looked pretty good. Anger and Revenge always come ready to party. They bring the dishes with the best sauces and most delicious toppings. Dripping in buttery pools of contempt and sugary indignation, they are so very, very appealing.
That is why, when I pointed out the small, steamed, unadorned plate of empathy and forgiveness, Jack gagged. Where’s the sweet satisfaction of retribution in a small plate of humble pie? I want to carbo load on gooey piles of hot, steaming anger! Where is my righteous heartburn if I put myself in someone else’s shoes?
I tried to reason with him, “Try and understand where Jai is coming from. How would you feel if you were being excluded?”
As Jack railed against my logic and I continued to try and reason with him I thought “oh man, I sound just like my dad!” and I groaned a little inside. My dad had this “empathy and forgiveness” lecture/sermon that he usually delivered after I’d had a fight with one of my sisters. I would sit on my bed, staring at the bedspread patterns, twirling a loose thread around my finger, and meow out while he droned on and on and on about how important it was to let go of your anger, to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to forgive.
Of course he wasn’t wrong. To give in to rage, passionate anger and indignation is a kind of suffering. We are the ones who have to struggle through it and if we don’t let it go, it stays with us. It compromises our peace. It wears us down.
In my years of recovery after my dad died, I spent many a bitter thought lambasting my dad’s philosophy. I saw it as his manipulative way of not taking responsibility for his past, for forcing us into “forgiving” him and never taking responsibility. But, what I understand now is that he wasn’t telling me “just forgive me so I feel better about me,” but “forgive so you feel better.” He was trying to tell me that he couldn’t do it for me. I had to make that choice. I could hold tight to my anger forever, nurse it for as long as I wanted, or I could chose to forgive. Either choice is viable. But, either way I must choose.
My little pep talk with Jack yielded exactly zero empathy result. (I totally get why my dad held me hostage for so long – kids are stubborn!) I let him go and an hour later all the boys were playing together just fine. Such is the memory of a child!
However, I am still here thinking about anger. Anger is a force, a power. It’s not bad per say. There are times when it can be useful. But it is a powerful force. It can rule us or we can choose to master it. I know that I often use it to distraction. I get mad for petty reasons, I punish unnecessarily. I use it as a default in many ways for dealing with the day-to-day mundane things I don’t like.
And that’s an abuse of power.
With the inauguration less than 24 hours away many of us feel pretty angry. Understandably so. It’s important that we remember why we’re angry and remain vigilant in our support of those working for social justice and our public health.
It’s also important to remember how much that anger and frustration taxes us, how much it takes from us.
So what to do? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I need to lean into my practice more. Yoga teaches us to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. It shows us how to engage while disengaging from the ego. It helps us remain calm and practical. These practices are going to be vital in the years to come.
Since I can not control anyone other than myself, I will offer you my own personal “treatise” for the coming administration in hopes that it might help you too:
- I will continue to try and engage in political discourse with those who do not share my views respectfully and with an open mind.
- I will continue to resist social injustice and support those organizations that align with my morals and values.
- I will continue to teach my children the importance of empathy, sympathy and compassion (whether they like it or not).
- I will try to do all of this with as little anger as possible.
When I step up to the emotional table and take a look around at all of the offerings, I will try and remember to choose the healthier, lighter options. I will aim to take small portions of the gooey stuff and go easy on the gravy. Hopefully by the end of the meal I will be able to walk away from the table less bloated and a little lighter.
I hope the same for you.