By Martin Elfert
I’m not sure how to react to anger.
I have long had a fondness for bumper stickers. I guess that I like them for the same reason that I like images and sayings on T-shirts: they offer a quick bit of whimsy and, occasionally, a quick bit of wisdom. Indeed, some of them almost read like Zen kōans: “Don’t believe everything that you think” and “No matter where you go, there you are” are classics that I count among my favorites.
Maybe it’s my fondness for these stickers that sets me up to be so disconcerted when they are neither whimsical nor wise. During the years of the George W. Bush presidency, for instance, I remember a bumper sticker with his picture on it and the words, “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.” These days, I regularly pass a sticker featuring the upper-case word “EXIST”; closer inspection reveals that the letters of that word are built out of assault rifles. And just a couple of days back, I glanced at a car that sported the twin stickers “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings” and, below an image of Jesus with a big red “X” drawn through it, “Grown-ups shouldn’t have imaginary friends.”
I admit to having a visceral reaction to these stickers. Their derision and their contempt startle me. I admit to wondering: if someone is capable of broadcasting this kind of hostility, what else is he or she capable of? I admit to responding to the anger displayed on the tail-ends of these cars with anger of my own.
Just this past week, however, I was introduced to another way of responding.
I spent the week hanging out with Kent Hoffman and learning about Circle of Security. Circle of Security is a science-based method for teaching parents to craft strong, loving, and lasting connections with their children. And one of its strategies particularly caught my attention: Kent suggests to us that, when we encounter a child who is acting out or is in a rage or is deeply sorrowful, we refrain from saying, “Why is he acting like that?” or “She’s just looking for attention.” He invites us to say instead: “Of course.” Of course he is behaving that way. This is how she expresses her hurt. This is how he asks for us to listen to him. This is how she asks for soothing.
Hoffman tells us that, when he and his colleagues teach this strategy to teachers, the teachers will come back to them after a few weeks and say, “What did you do to my students? They have totally changed!” And he will gently introduce the possibility that the change is actually in the teacher.
I predict, Oliver, that should you test-drive Hoffman’s suggestion with the people in your life who are broadcasting their hurt in the form of anger (be those people children or be they well into adulthood) you will have a similar experience. I predict that Kent’s strategy – or, perhaps we could say, Hoffman’s practice – will change your interactions with these folks entirely.
Try it out. The next time that you are confronted by aggressive and inflexible opinions over Thanksgiving Dinner, the next time that someone on the street or the internet hurls accusations or abuse at you, see what happens if, instead of saying, “What a jerk!” you say, “Of course.”
Two days ago, as I looked at that pair of bumper stickers with their intense hostility towards faith – with their intense hostility towards something that I hold so close to my heart – I said, “of course.” And that “of course” changed everything. My anger was gone. My inclination to judge was gone. And suddenly, via that car, I saw someone who was holding out his or her deep wounds for the world to see. I saw someone who was looking for healing.
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