Recently I was privy to the temper tantrum of an ordinarily mature friend who temporarily regressed to the level of his three year old son. His wife had shared with me that this kind of acting out happened fairly occasionally but enough to disturb their family life. Now I understood what she was describing. My first reaction was one of anger and judgment. How could my friend justify his own acting out behavior? My reaction soon turned to compassion when I looked in his eyes and saw his pain. He had temporarily become lost to himself. A part of him, unconsciously detecting danger, had jumped in to protect him. Within a day his greater sensibilities returned and he was able to look at what caused such an extreme reaction.
Many people live in extreme reaction mode, sensing threat everywhere. It may not be threat to their lives, but rather to a sense of inner value or self esteem, a sense of lovability. We attribute value and self esteem to many things; our special capacities, what we own, how we look, the attributes we have, how others see us. It never occurs to us that value is intrinsic. It is not a function of what we do, what we own, how we are seen. It is intrinsic to who we are, but when we lose touch with that, our self esteem is shaky. We constantly need to protect it, bolster it, prove it, protect it. Because if we don’t we might feel shame, deficiency, humiliation and those are hard feelings to tolerate.
The more we are in touch with intrinsic value, the more secure we feel in the world. The less we need to protect ourselves from others, either by hiding or inflating ourselves. Some people hide or cringe in shame. Other people inflate, put themselves above others, put other people down, boast, retaliate, get punitive toward the other, bully or threaten.
This is clearly a phenomenon that happens between people and between people who lead nations. The more a person feels shaky in themselves the more they need the world to prop them up, the more they fear the world delivering them a blow.
Tolerating shame or humiliation without hiding or attacking allows us to discriminate what is actually happening. Does the behavior of someone else actually change who I am? Why am I giving another person the power to affect me? What if I really understood that nobody can hurt me except physically, unless I forget my own intrinsic value, unless I doubt myself and believe what they are saying or I think they are saying about me?
This is different than passivity. It is not allowing another person or situation to control me. It is not giving myself over to another person or situation. In actuality when we react out of hurt, we lose ourselves, and we lose our dignity.
My friend was able to see that his over reaction had nothing to do with what anybody else had done. He was able to express remorse for hurting other people who didn’t deserve his anger and he was able to understand what had triggered his reactivity. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, but his willingness to accept responsibility goes a long way toward repairing the damage such reactivity can bring to relationships.
We are human and we have lost contact with a fundamental sense of value and preciousness. When we experience our intrinsic preciousness it feels like a blessing, a liberation, a homecoming.
We all long for peace, for a safer world. There are real weapons out there and people who in their delusion are all too eager to use them. Until the world is more healed we clearly must defend ourselves against their delusions and their resulting fear and hatred.
But may we all move closer to understanding that as we experience one taste of our own intrinsic preciousness, we experience the indestructible, inviolable nature of who we are, and who everybody else is.
May this year bring us that gift so that when we lose touch, we have a memory of the possible.