Pain without Suffering

this week's UPI - several days late

So There I was...

Inviting attack.

Before me were a group of teenagers. Kids who had been expelled or dropped out from the local high school. Tough boys, a few pregnant girls. I was the guest speaker at a mandatory lecture at the alternative school.

My job was to leave them some tools to deal with abusive relationships. I have done this a hundred times in the last dozen years. It was a topic these kids knew as well as I did – probably better. They just hadn’t found any solutions yet.

I always start with prediction and choices. If you can see what is coming next, you can sometimes step out of the way. This works, and it is usually where they are at. Victims or perps - and I always have both in the room - know what happens, but they lack models for dealing with it. They think victim and perp are the only two choices. So I give them other choices.

However, making new choices is still often a form of reaction not pro-action, or prevention, so that is why, if I have time, I always do a little exercise that spins their heads. I demonstrate, and so expose them, to the virus of invincibility.

It goes like this.

I start at the place in the talk where I explain that one of the predictors of an abuser is that they blame other people for their feelings and behaviors. And then I appear to take a little tangent.

“You know kids, nobody can ‘make you’ feel anything. – You do know that right?” (they look confused)

“No, seriously,” I say, “ You can be, if you choose, in control of your feelings. Nobody can make you angry, nobody can make you sad, unless you want to be.”

They scoff, and without fail, one of them says, “My parents make me angry” – or even better - “I can make people angry” Oh, how I love that one.

“Really, son? You have that power – you can make people angry – just with your words?”


“OK,” I say, acting surprised. “Let’s try a little experiment.”

“ First we need the blessings of the teachers.” Then I make an amnesty deal where the young man will be allowed to use any words he likes, even the ones that get you detention, even the ones that get you expelled, for the length of the experiment.”

The room fills with tension – I have their undivided attention now – and they are rooting for their peer.

“OK, son. The feeling is ‘angry’. You have one minute to say anything you like to me – ANYTHING – and try to make me feel the feeling ‘angry.’ I promise to be entirely truthful about what I feel. Go.”

Now we find out how much nerve the young man really has. Some just bail right there. But many make a valiant effort. This boy did. He took a moment for observation and then went for what he thought was the weak spot of every female – looks. He detailed my physical imperfections. Not as brutally as he might, because I was standing as he sat, and slowly moving in closer, and staring him straight in the eyes with a smile on my face and this was starting to unnerve him. But oh, how he tried.

“One minute up” calls the teacher.

I report on my feelings.

“I am feeling slightly amused, and proud of you, young man, you showed courage, you gave it a good try. You didn’t flinch. I respect that. I like you. – I am not, however, in the least bit angry.”

Then I ask the class if they can figure out why he failed. They are smart. They say things like “You had time to get ready.” “You knew what was coming.” “You set the thing up.” but they come around to “You didn’t want to be angry. You made up your mind that you weren’t going to get angry.”

“BINGO Kids” – it is one of the things that separates you and I from the critters. Kick the dog and he is going to snarl, or cower – perp or victim. But you and I have other choices. And I have been practicing, and I have gotten pretty good at picking what I am going to feel. At least when I am ready for it.

And at that point about two out of ten think an entirely new thought – and the virus has taken.

I call this problem the Myth of emotional cause and effect. It is the mistaken idea that there is a mechanical linkage between other people’s words and behaviors and our feelings and then our words and behaviors.

The tyranny of this myth is all around us. It is the thinking behind the notion of a ‘crime of passion.’ It ends relationships. It enslaves people. It starts wars.

The applications are legion:I cannot control my lust, so you madam, need to cover up better.
I was afraid, so of course I had to lie.
He hurt me, so I had to hurt him back, I had no choice.
He cheated - I was so devastated, I just had to drink.
He/She/They were asking for it.
It is impact not intent that counts.

The Lie is that there is a hard connection between the external world and your feelings. The truth is that there are default settings, and something like emotional cruise control, but that we can take our emotions off cruise anytime we want. This set up is necessary, it is smart, and it is God-designed. I mean really, it would be too much work to have to think it out every time “Now, hmmm, what feeling shall I use here? – I have so many to choose from.” It is efficient to have some default settings where certain feelings pop up in certain settings.

But default settings are set in childhood, and so many of our childhoods were severely faulty. The people who raised us didn’t have much range, so we fall back on some pretty simple, often reptilian responses. Or they had all their wires crossed and then so do we. Or they had no governors on their motors and every little thing was HUGE. So we over-react.

If we are lucky, as adults we get the chance to learn how to reset our buttons. This is called healthy detachment. Buddhists tend to be much better at it than most Christians. We really should invite those folks over more often. They have the notion that you can do pain without suffering. The idea being that you can notice your pain, be honest about it, treat it if need be, but not make a federal case out of it. Spare the angst. Disengage the drama clutch, and leave it in neutral for a minute while you decide what to do.

Just because people are offensive does not mean that I have to be offended. What a time-saver – that one is.

Booker T. Washington got it; he said “I permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”

It is Yoda, not the Three Stooges.

It works. It is efficient. It is anything but boring.

I recommend it to your attention.

That was an excellent posting. Thank you, I enjoyed it immensely.
Thank you for your beautifully way of saying what I think I'm starting to come around after a year of roughly daily meditation. Doing Bhuddist meditation actually got me to come around to seeing that what Christ was saying is the same thing.
I'm learning this slowly and I know it is true. With time and practice I believe it can become automatic the same way my knee jerk reactions have been. Thank you for putting this in words.
Thank you for that reminder. I've worked on this in the past, but recent events threw my lizard-brain back into control and let the bad feelings and impulses control my actions and feelings. A friend linked to this in her blog and it couldn't have come at a better time for me.
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