- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Anger can "ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain."
Good relationships require a constant process of reconciliation. Most of our "four deadly sins," selfishness, anger, hate, and resentment, are acted out in relationships. To be close, it is necessary to feel safe. Feeling safe means having trust--trust that no matter how angry, incensed or frustrated a loved one feels, he or she will not react with hurtful retaliation. It means that conflict will be avoided in the heat of strong feeling, and will be resolved thoughtfully and carefully once the flames of emotion have abated. Human attachment is the essence of our life experience. Having a confidant--feeling connected--actually changes our biochemistry. The sense of existential aloneness is lifted with the joy of camaraderie and intimacy.
People do terrible things when they are enraged. If we bring up children to hate, they will be enraged by the very presence of those whom they have been taught to designate as "the other." Indeed, on a personal and international level, "anger spreads misery." Interestingly, a recent study of peaceful cities in India found that their different ethnic groups had frequent interaction and collaboration within subgroups of the culture such as business, religious and civic organizations. Recent research by brain scientists reveals that our reward center is activated when we act with kindness and tolerance, and when we perform good deeds. Tolerance and compassion can positively oppose hate and vengeance even in our "wiring." Mutually beneficial collaboration of different people can sooth hostility and increase our awareness of the humanity of others, even those whom we may dislike.
Unkindness often comes easily and in many forms while reconciliation almost always begins with honest reckoning. In the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings, tyrants were confronted by their victims, who told their horrible tales in graphic detail. Like Milosevic in Yugoslavia, victimizers were humiliated with their own misdeeds, and their power dissipated as a result. Indeed, we are struggling personally and as a world of nations and groups to tame the emotional states of hate, rage, resentment and selfishness into some kind of deliberate evolution that may lead to reconciliation.
Like most feelings, anger must be guided thoughtfully, especially in human relationship. It can be used as the energy to stand up against hurtfulness, but it must be used constructively and carefully. How we speak and behave to one another is of critical importance. For example, clever ridicule and social slights, so common in our culture, likely cause injury on a daily basis. Anger can be used to control and to foreclose confrontation and negotiated tolerance. Avoidance and the use of alcohol and drugs to anesthetize feelings are other forms of betrayal. Reconciliation moves away from rage, irritability, double talk (bad in the name of good-a common media spin today), omissions of decency, and dehumanization to a happier, healthier path of tolerance, compassion and collaboration.
Scott Peck said some time ago that we must pray to God that we have someone who loves us enough to kindly tell us when we are off the mark. Accepting correction is challenging. It takes a strong ego to acknowledge our errors and to correct them. It is easier to express anger or defend ourselves with counter attack. A more positive interaction usually unfolds when we hold our tongues, perhaps separate so as to sort out feelings, before speaking our minds more kindly with an effort to take the other person's view into account.
The person who has been hurtful may forget the incident with little or no effort, but the one who is the recipient of unkindness usually recalls it vividly. Remember that stress hormones play a strong role in memory, i.e., the more upset one is, the more salient the memory. In addition, hurtful experiences are coded with all the negative emotional associations. It is easy to see how frequent angry words in a relationship are so poisonous.
Most of the world's people don't understand the nature of emotion and cognition enough to recognize the importance of guiding feelings with thoughtfulness. Even highly educated executives excuse poor integrity and selfish raiding with the spin of denial and minimization of their wrongs. If the perpetrator gets away with these "escape responsibility," behaviors the victim almost inevitably turns away in disgust. The intended self-excusing results are not effective and leave gaping holes in relationships.
Reconciliation has three basic steps: (1) acknowledgement of the wrong without excuse; (2) request of forgiveness; and (3) implementation of a program of change. When these steps are openly taken with pure intention, the process of reconciliation and renewed trust can begin. None of this is done in one fell swoop. Forgiveness and recaptured trust is a process, like working on maintaining a good barrel of apples, something which must be attended to as a daily habit. When someone blithely excuses himself or herself with an "I'm sorry-but-" it is difficult to feel a sense of resolution and renewed attachment.
Once cordiality is reestablished then it becomes the responsibility of the forgiver to "let go" of the hurt. That doesn't mean that it will not come up again, for painful memories are quite easily triggered and coded with all the upset of the original experience. It takes joint effort for the offender to be willing to understand the nature of the memory of hurtfulness and be willing to reassure and reconcile again and again. On the other hand, the one forgiving must act a bit like Abraham Lincoln when he once said, "I distinctly remember forgetting that." One must actively remember to forget distressing experiences that are coded in indelible memory with all the negative feelings attached. One must consciously remember not to dwell on past hurts that have been resolved -even when they get triggered. Of course if there is continued offense then the commitment to the process of change has not been kept and the dynamic efforts to reach a renewed stated of harmony must begin again.
Resolving differences most often brings about an increased sense of mutual understanding and communication. We can truly move away from our own narcissistic point of view and learn to enjoy the existence of differences and embrace them as an added dimension of ourselves. How many times do we visit another culture and incorporate something new and wonderful? It means moving away from endogeny, something difficult for us as we are genetically wired to identify with folks like ourselves. In the process, we may benefit by becoming more aware of distinctions between others and ourselves; for example males and females. A less egocentric posture makes it easier not to "take to heart" someone's behavior that may have nothing to do with us. For example women have extra genes on the XX chromosome that men are lacking on the Y chromosome; these genes relate social skills and nurturing. It is easy to see why women may sometimes feel slighted by male behaviors that seem insensitive and detached. Sensitivity in relationship may be second nature to women but less natural for men.
Finally, remember that a relationship is a composite of memories that are being updated with each interaction. Perhaps the most important factor is just making happy memories. Creating positively "etched memories" is a significant life enterprise. [We could speculate that the peaceful cities recently studied were doing just this in their multiethnic organizations.] When these efforts go astray, it is essential to relationships, and indeed to human survival, that we commit ourselves to the habit of reconciliation.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist