When I talked to my mom yesterday (our usual Saturday phone conversation to unpack the week) we spent quite a bit of the conversation talking about a recent fight she’d had with a family member. My mom grew up in a household where domestic violence was common, and her reaction to that violence was to shut down and hide. She hid in the woods behind the house or under the sink or in a closet, but the point is, she hid. She didn’t do battle with her father — who had joined the army at the age of sixteen by forging his enlistment papers so he could fight in WWI — because his ire terrified her. She saw him throw her pregnant mother down the stairs. She’d seen him eviscerate her older sister, shame her for being car sick, or too sensitive, or for getting a bad grade in school. She was scared. And his behavior set her (and all of her siblings) up for a life that was stained by fear and in some ways, post traumatic stress disorder. She was the only one who walked out of the burning wreckage of her childhood with most of her spirit intact. However, she could not deal with anger. She rarely expressed anger. But that didn’t mean that anger didn’t reside as a shadow in our home. It did. It permeated the air. It crept up from the floor boards. It was always there. But no one said a word about it.
What I learned during that time was that anger was a bad emotion that should be avoided at all costs.
So, each of my family members, in our own ways, swallowed the slights and violations and upsets that we should have dealt with directly. And in a healthy dynamic, anger is simply an emotion — a human emotion — needed at times to express hurt or upset. It doesn’t have all the baggage that my family associates with it. So, when my mother recently expressed her anger, to me (and to her) it indicated that a profound breakthrough has happened for her. Her ability to state her upset is a healthy sign. She is delineating her boundaries and taking care of herself. For the first time in her life, at the age of 78, she is speaking her mind.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ~ Carl Gustav Jung
I told her how proud I was of her for doing what she did, even though it has caused a rift in the family. Even though there’s a frozen silence emanating from the person she spoke to.
Like me, she’s realizing that peace at any price, isn’t peace. She had swallowed so much anger over the past few years, that over Christmas she nearly died from an obstruction in her intestines. If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate no longer being able to “stomach” her life, what does?
I also realized that Granddaddy was likely damaged by his experiences in the war. He came home to a society that pretended that shell shock (what PTSD used to be called) was something that you could get over if you simply pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and forgot about the war. Knowing that war destroyed my own father’s innocence and creativity, I am relatively certain that Granddaddy’s rage had roots in the trenches of that terrible war in France. He was sixteen years old when he shipped out. I had a crush on Elton John at sixteen. I was making my own clothes and going to high school at that age. I cannot image the carnage he saw. I cannot imagine what that did to him. That doesn’t excuse his behavior, but I feel compassion for his suffering. Surely, he had dreams for his life. Certainly raging at his wife to the point that she left him while he was at work one day, wasn’t one of them.
Yet, who could blame her? She stayed with him — soaking in that abusive life — until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 46.
Be who you are.
The lesson for me this week is to honor my feelings and to express them appropriately. Our family is in the midst of a crisis now because for decades we’ve walked on eggshells and never expressed anger when we had every right to express anger. So, the emotion hid. The emotion pulled me into a decade of deep depression. Not expressing it didn’t make it go away.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my very flawed, very dysfunctional, very beautiful family of origin. We are creative and messy and giving and gifted. We are artists and musicians and quilters and writers. The authenticity that we bring to those things, also needs to be fed in our emotional family life.
So, at the age of 53, I am learning that anger — that burning fire in the belly — contains profound gifts. It is the alchemical process that allows us to deepen our connection to one another by peeling away artifice, hurt, pain, and slights. Anger contains a tangy power. It gives us our voices. It is exists to set boundaries and to protect us when we are hurt. Anger is not meant to be a weapon. It is a means to be heard and acknowledged.
Anger unexpressed burns.
Anger that is channeled into expression as a means to state our position and defend our feelings, can be a positive catalyst for change.
The point is, we contain all of the various emotions that life gives us. We cannot deny all our “selves” a spot at the table of life. Whatever we repress, will show up as rage or sickness or strife. I’ve decided that speaking my truth, no matter how painful, is infinitely better than swallowing the rage I feel or numbing myself to the outside world. Perhaps our world would be less volatile and violent if more people knew how to live authentically and express themselves in ways that would allow them to be heard. By this, I do not mean screaming and shouting and acting like a two-year-old having a tantrum (although that might happen sometimes, and that’s OK). By this I mean, being able to raise our voices just enough to be heard over the clamor of life. It also means we must be willing to listen to those whose feelings don’t match our own. In other words, we must be willing to grow into a bigger, more open version of ourselves.
If we can open our hearts to each other and be real, everything can change.
© 2013 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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