Do the darker emotions we fail to recognize and work with in some active way have the potential to sneak up on us unawares and do more damage?
And… if that’s true, what does it mean for what we should do with these emotions when they surface?
Here are some of this thoughts in follow-up:
This winter I saw Director Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked revenge fest, Django Unchained, with a group of buddies. If you haven’t seen it, to give you just a flavour, one of my cohort wryly commented after the opening scene: “The budget for ketchup was obviously high for this one…” (yes, pun intended).
While reviews among my crew varied from absolutely glowing to more mixed (I was in the latter camp), the film ultimately did get us all talking and thinking. Late into the night. And on a Tuesday! Among other things, it got me wondering what the place of all that gore is in the life of someone like me – i.e. a person who makes his living as a mediator; trying to help create the conditions for peace between people? Isn’t it kind of hypocritical for someone like me to even partake of, much less enjoy such fare?
For while there are many controversial aspects to all of Tarantino’s films, an enduring question for a good number of his critics over the years seems to be “Why all the blood and guts, Quentin? Why the obsession with revenge?”
It’s in all of us.
Meaning, I think, we gotta work with it. Got to deal with the Shadow, as Jung said, or it will deal with us. For others, like Kerry Washington, the African-American actress who plays the female lead in the film, Django represents nothing less than an opportunity to confront history. The historic injustices of slavery in America, to be sure, but just as much the historic wrongs of a Hollywood that provided very few, if any, black figures of power.
“So many of the narratives we’ve told in film about slavery are about powerlessness,” she comments.
“And this is not a film about that. This is a film about a black man who finds his freedom…he is an agent of his own power, he is a liberator, he is a hero…My father grew up in a world where there were no black superheroes. And that’s what this movie is.”
Hard to argue with any of that.
But let’s try anyway, from the perspective of those interested in the non-violent resolution of disputes. For what of the conflict-resolution techniques this superhero demonstrates? Just what type of role-modeling for boys (and girls, for that matter) does this avenging angel present? Is this really how best, even from an artistic standpoint, to explore gross historic injustice, especially between groups that need to continue to co-exist? Yeah, it might be fun, even highly cathartic, for some, but isn’t it possibly also dangerous?
The Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, might think so. He argues persuasively that it is dangerous to rehearse anger and counsels against what he calls “training in aggression.” He thinks it dangerous, for example, to shout curses at imagined enemies, even in private, because it is habit forming and ultimately what we practice in our minds and in private (and in our movie theatres?) we end up practicing in our lives.
Rather than enflaming our feelings of aggression with imagined revenge, he suggests simply recognizing the feelings and embracing them with “a lot of tenderness.” (see Thich Nhat Hanh’s article in the Shambhala Sun for more.)
After all, where do plans for revenge lead in real life, whether they are hatched at home, in the workplace, at the community centre, or on the national or international stage? The Chinese have a proverb that summarizes this rather succinctly: “Before you plot revenge, dig two graves.”
But what if that’s not what it’s about at all?
What if Django isn’t a how-to so much as a poem. A prayer, even. A psalm that simply expresses and therefore works with the completely natural human emotion of rage in the face of injustice and its often close companion, the desire for a vengeful vindication.
What if it’s more like one of those Hebrew passages of scripture that my Mennonite pastor was pretty eager to avoid? And what if avoiding such poetry, such expression, actually means it is more likely, not less, to go underground and ultimately affect us unawares? Makes it more likely that we find ourselves metaphorically spearing our colleague, our family member, our friend, our client, our boss in the proverbial gut (or worse) and then wonder how it happened?
Because we didn’t think we had it in us.
So I guess I have to conclude, albeit somewhat reluctantly, that I agree with Quentin. It is in all of us. And it’s the job of the mediator (and workplace leader, for that matter) to create the conditions where it’s safe for people to go there and work with it, even if it’s unseemly.
Especially if it’s unseemly.
Maybe this is not the same as rehearsing rage. Even Thich Nhat Hanh allows a place for anger, he just doesn’t want us to get stuck there. We don’t encourage endless wallowing in rage and seek to enflame passions for revenge, but we certainly accept them; that it’s part of being human. And that – yes – it’s part of the process of healing, change, and resolution too.
And since we can’t go there in them if we can’t go there in us, it’s also the job of the mediator to explore – thoroughly – all those shadowy nooks and crannys in ourselves that we would rather avoid.