Julie Gillis writes that sometimes we learn from fear by embracing it with an open heart.
It was a sunny, crisp winter day in Austin, and I was filled with anxiety. My 11-year-old son and I were in the car driving home from a store where he had just spent his own money on an airsoft gun and safety goggles. I snapped at a driver in front of us, rolled my eyes, and made some noise—which he correctly interpreted as stress.
“Mom, why are you so grumpy?” he asked me, taking a break from gazing at his newest and now most prized possession in his hands.
I wanted to tell him I just had a headache, but I stopped and realized that the reason I was so stressed was because we had just bought a gun, albeit a non-lethal one—something I thought I would never do. I decided to be honest.
“Because I’m scared. And I don’t like the idea of you with guns.”
“Mom! I’m not going to shoot anyone or hurt myself. Besides, it has a safety.”
And as god as my witness I really said this next thing, more to myself than to him: “Not because of that, but because you are growing up into a man, and you like things that are really different than what I liked as a girl. You like war games and guns and clips and camo and sometimes that scares me.”
“I don’t want to go to a war and really kill people Mom, I just want to shoot a BB gun.”
I was reacting out of a complex, multi-layered fear. Of guns, war, and violence. Of eventually losing him as he grows up. Of the reality that some of his traditionally “masculine” interests (guns, war games, military fantasy) challenge my own worldview and values. These fears were getting in the way of seeing where he was emotionally.
The boy sitting in the car, with his gangly long legs, rumpled clothes, and hair in his eyes, just wanted to enjoy himself. He was proud of saving up enough money to buy the gun himself. He was bold in his assertion of what he wanted, even though he knew his parents didn’t like it. This child was complex: he could rally a gay rights event, play violin, and fret over his friends when they have drama, and also rock climb like a spider and want camo and sniper sights. He was innocent of all the anxiety I was carting around like a heavy sack of rocks.
He just wanted to shoot BB guns and be happy.
What does this have to do with Good Men Project and their series on fear? I believe there is often a fear in the challenge of being able to see someone as a complete “other” with their own experiences. There can be fear in seeing that someone is telling the truth of that experience, knowing that while it may not make sense to me, it makes real sense to them.
When you see someone is so different, how do you deal with it, honor it and have the courage to try to understand that experience even if you truly disagree?
How do we find courage to be open to the fear, to embrace it and learn from it?
I started writing for GMP because I was afraid to write for GMP. I’d been reading and commenting and found myself confounded by the articles. By the loud and often angry opinions of men and women at the site which showed me a world I didn’t recognize, a world of deep animosity towards feminism (and a version of feminism which seemed different than any version of feminism I’d heard of). I was fearful that by entering the space I’d fall flat on my tail, and I was most fearful that I’d not be able to learn and understand the position of “men” in a space that was quite different than the feminist spaces I’d been frequenting.
So I wrote. And I commented. And I read and watched and listened. And boy howdy have I learned things. Because I don’t think anything gets healed or solved if one isn’t willing to put down the sword, offer some vulnerability, and experience (or attempt to experience) empathy.
I think for many of us, that is the scariest thing—to hear and bear witness in the face of differences, trying to act with compassion and courage at the same time.
Thwarting fear is hard to do, but fear itself is easy! Anger is easy and even pleasurable at times, burning like a fire that gets hotter the more you stoke it. It burns us out, though. Compassion is much harder to sustain in the face of passionate wild emotions, tending to get smothered by them.
The last couple weeks or so at GMP has seen it’s share of passionate, wild, intense emotions. I’ve felt sad (and yes, angry and yes, fearful) a great deal of the time reading comments. Not because the comments are in disagreement, but because so many of them are just mean. Accusations abound. Sniping and drive-bys are common. The Twitter Battle, the subsequent comments and articles and references to articles about The Twitter Battle … All displayed such anxiety, anger, and yeah, fear.
I’ve seen (and felt) defensiveness, offensiveness, assumptions. I’ve watched comments build from people clinging to past experiences as if to define an entire gender. There has been victim blaming, victim rewarding, an entire reworking of what it means to be a victim, to the point that I think all of humanity is the victim and all of humanity is the bully.
The monsters were coming out of the closet and frightening all of us. Rape. Assault. Rights. Eugenics. You hate us. You hate me. You don’t understand me.
You don’t understand me.
So much pain. I admit that sometimes I am afraid of how much pain and anger I see. And feel. To not be understood, seen, or heard—isn’t that the greatest fear? Annihilation? That breaks our hearts.
And with everything that has transpired since I wrote this piece (Twitter fights, blog posts on the Twitter fights, resignations), the theme continues. But after watching, reading, listening, talking, and thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to be afraid of the work. I don’t want to focus on fear. I want to focus on what seems to be in our hearts, to be understood.
Where do we find our heart again? How do we heal it? Where do find our courage if not our heart? The very root of courage is the Latin cor, meaning heart. Where do we find the strength to say, “Tell me more, I might be wrong?” Or even, “I’ve heard you and I still don’t agree, but you’ve got the right to that opinion and I’ll still be civil to you. I still see you even though I do not agree.” And that statement’s opposite: “I believe you see me even though you disagree.” Just as hard, yes?
I suspect such courage comes in little steps such as trying to find ways to connect that aren’t diametrically opposed. I for one like to use humor. In real life, I also love to have people discuss things over food. It’s hard to hate on each other when there is so much pleasure at the table. I enjoy sharing experiences through art.
I’m not an agitator, not at all. Since childhood, I’ve been a peace-seeker and conflict resolver. It’s who I am. This doesn’t mean I don’t stand for fighting for what one believes in; fighting can come from a desire to join and understand. But if the only thing that’s happening in a fight is adding fuel to a burning fire, well, I can admit to being afraid of that.
I’m a lover, not a fighter.
As for how to get to that love, that compassion? I’m a big fan of Carl Rogers and I shared a few of his key findings on another post during Wrath-Gate. The Wikipedia entry on Carl Rogers is long, but I encourage everyone to read about his positions on learning and change. According to Rogers, threat to self is the number one limitation in opening up to change.
I’m especially, passionately fond of his theory of Unconditional Positive Regard, which focuses on humanistic educational models and accepting, listening, and mirroring back positivity and trust. As David G. Myers describes it in Psychology, Eighth Edition, in Modules:
People also nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.
I’d add that if we could find ways of creating space to be spontaneous here, at Good Men Project, if we are allowed to try and fail, to apologize and learn, to argue and embrace each other even in our conflicts, it would be a great, grand thing.
My son and I pulled into the driveway and he bounded out of the car. He saw his brother in the back yard and raced in to show his brother his new purchase. “Oh my god is that an airsoft gun?!” And then I heard joyous pealing squeals of laughter and cheer.
After a lengthy lecture by both parents about the responsibility this purchase required, he and I set to loading it. The fear I felt about the gun itself disappeared into frustration at our inability to figure out how to unload the clip. I held it this way and that, examining it, my hands getting to know this object of fear. I asked it questions and listened to what it had to say. Also, I resorted to reading the directions.
Finally we discovered the lever, shouted with glee, and he loaded the neon blue plastic pellets. He carefully pointed the gun at a soda can and hit it on the first shot.
“Here, Mom, put on the glasses and I’ll show you how to shoot.”
And he did. I hit the can square on. I left my bag of rocks on the ground for another day and enjoyed his happiness. I even found a little happiness of my own.
photo: mayiguy / flickr