Wednesday, October 24, 2018

When Sad Feels Like Mad

I am in the middle of a big life transition. There are many, many, many feelings associated with any
kind transition. Change is hard. The change- a big move- also affects my children and my spouse (and the dog, though he doesn't know it yet). It also affects many other people- adults and children.

Most people experience a variety of feelings in the midst of change. While a change can have many positive aspects, it is also a kind of death. What was is passing away and what will be is being birthed.

In reflecting on Western, white culture, my experience is that we do not give either much space or much credence to feelings. Since they cannot be seen or proven, they are treated as suspect. Additionally, as our cultural language has tried to make space for people to identify their experiences and associated feelings, we have perpetuated a value system wherein the validity of one's feelings are ranked depending on one's level of cultural power.

While it is possible to prove the exceptions to the rule, it still holds. For example, resources for addiction and for families of addicts are significantly on the rise in the past three years in concert with the growing opioid epidemic. The present crisis is real and horrifying. Nevertheless, it is also true that there have been other addiction crises in the past thirty years. For the most part, however, Americans were happily willing to criminalize addiction when it affected black communities or other people of color. It has only been when the pain (feelings are) is acute and broad in white America that we have chosen to view the problem of addiction as a crisis, not (only) a crime.

Since we tend not have the vocabulary or the willingness to talk about our feelings, we often cannot identify them. In a hyper-individualized society, with very few community spaces, we don't talk openly about grief, about physical pain, about mental health, about familial hurt, and a whole host of other issues. In some circles, the five stages of death from Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross have been made into grief totems- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We rarely note, however, that there is no guaranteed order of the stages, no universal experience, and some of the stages may never come.

All of this is to say that we don't always know or have the skill to express what SAD feels like. Sadness, in its myriad colors and shapes, gets shoved into space we have made for other feelings and emotions. We try to force happiness or a muted acceptance. We reach for ignoring (denial) or go straight to future-tripping, pretending the present messiness does not exist.

Then there is one expression of sadness that I am beginning to realize has a broad cultural shape and effect. Sometimes sad looks and feels like mad. If we are ill-equipped to deal with the griefs of change and the little deaths that happen culturally and communally, we will resist them. The shape of resistance often looks like anger. Anger is activating, assertive, and makes change feel possible. In the midst of mad, we often don't care about who or what we hurt.

In pain, we howl, lash out, seek to reorder the status quo (which likely benefitted us), and deny the feelings of others. Anger expands and takes up space where patience, gentleness, and self-control might live. The wake of anger, additional pain, loss, and sadness are created. Anger, if it is not broken down into its component fellow travelers, self-perpetuates and wounds without end.

We can only come to grips with our feelings when we give them their true identities. We have to have the maturity, the will, and the social vocabulary to say, "I am sad", "This hurts", "I don't like this", "I don't know what to do or think", "I feel uncertain", and "I am tired" (among other realities).

In Western, white America, we are dealing with significant cultural shifting. There is much anger as power dynamics have moved. Societally, because we are ill-equipped for a life of grief, we are not able to understand and process when sad feels like mad. Thus, we see many activated people- moving out of a place of anger and denying what their anger masks.

You cannot tell an angry person, in the midst of their rage, that they are sad or afraid or frustrated. Most of us have seen a person, in the midst of anger, continue to seek ideas and encounters that will feed the rage. The complete exhaustion, and real sadness, that is present when the tide of anger has left is too much to bear for some. Therefore, the furnace of anger must be continually stoked to avoid an internal hearth of spent coals and cool stillness in which everything is clearly outlined and defined.

What we need, societally, in an understanding that grief and sadness are not bad. Furthermore, it is possible to live with pain. It is even more possible to live with pain if we carry it together. A shared grief brings some release to all involved. Most griefs do not go away, but they become less acute and then they are our scars, with flare-ups and reminders.

It would be easy for me to type this out as a way of intellectualizing my own grief at a time of change. I can't. I feel it deeply and it hurts. My spouse has received my two blow-ups of mad that were really about sad. They likely will not be the only two, no matter how I wish otherwise.

That being said, I believe we are at a social moment where we have to really reflect. We will only regress as long as our sad is displayed as mad. Those who choose that path will only continue to act more and more infantile until their tantrums destroy all that we hold dear. And what will happen to those who remain, standing in the middle of a broken society?

I am not totally clear on how we can change this. I only know that I have been using the vocabulary of "sometimes sad feels like mad" with my children and with others around me. Until we move to a large scale understanding of this, I don't know if anything will change.

And that makes me sad.

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