I work in a school community where, together with a group of other dedicated adults, I am responsible for the safety of more than 200 children. I’ve lost a lot of sleep since the most recent school massacre.
Thirty years ago, when I became a Montessori teacher working with three-to-six-year olds, we regularly practiced what we called “Exit Drills”-- we taught the children to stop what they were doing anytime the bell or alarm sounded, to listen for direction from the adults, to make a calm line and follow silently to a designated space outside of the school building, where we would take attendance to be sure no one had been left behind. Some children, no matter how calmly we discussed it, would scream or cry at the sound of the bell or alarm. In that case, I might pick up the scared child and carry him outside. Always, I was holding at least two little hands who needed that extra bit of comfort during an unsettling situation.
Nowadays, we are also tasked with teaching children what to do in the event of an earthquake, and in case of something now known as a lockdown. Whether running from an inside threat or hiding from an outside threat, the adults job is to keep the children calm and help them to believe that they are safe.
But the truth is, they aren’t safe. None of us are safe. Living here in the United States of America, the so-called ‘land of the free,’ no one of us is safe. Because United States citizens are regularly gunned down at schools, in places of worship, at malls and in movie theaters. Not to mention the increasing violence that occurs behind closed doors in the form of domestic abuse.
So, as adults who work with children, we focus on the steps over which we do have some control. Our grounds are secure. Check. Our classrooms are equipped with doors that allow for a quick lockdown. Check. Our staff regularly revisit all the steps required of us, should a threat occur. Check.
And we do our best to feign confidence in our ability to protect the children, so that they have safe places to air their concerns, despite what we all secretly know is just a show. None among us possess actual confidence in our ability to protect them, for the reasons already stated.
And despite the myriad intense opinions expressed on social media and in the news - fake and otherwise - I haven’t heard anybody offering compelling reasons why the incidence of gun violence at the hands of white men has reached epidemic rates, or why nothing is being done about it.
A recent news headline (on Slate, I think) resonated deeply and I’ve been pondering it: Violence is not a result of mental illness. Violence is a result of anger. I agree, and I disagree. I would say, instead, that violence is the result of anger that has turned into aggression.
When we work with children, boys and girls alike, empowering them to express all their feelings, those feelings include anger. Anger, like all feelings, needs to flow in order to move through and out. Feeling and expressing anger in appropriate ways lets children learn how to set and hold healthy boundaries.
Suppression of anger is where things get problematic. When anger isn’t allowed to flow and be expressed in appropriate ways, it can lead to aggression. Aggression is the result of suppressed anger, and violence is an act of aggression.
And, it would appear, based upon rates of violent crime among white American men, that they are the group most susceptible to acting out aggressively in response to suppressed anger.
So, on Sunday, when I read my friend Jen’s Facebook post expressing the exact questions I’d been mulling, with a genuine sense of curiosity and deep respect for men who would be brave enough to respond, I asked her if I could share it with my own online community. I then re-posted her request to the white men I know and love, to answer any or all of these questions: What is one helpful insight you've had about the anger and violence within you? What is one productive way you've found, on your own or with others, to work with, heal, or transform the anger and violence within you? What's one thing you commit to doing this week, on your own or with others, to work with, heal your relationship with, or learn about the anger and violence within you?
These questions resonate as a meaningful starting place for dialogue because they are open-ended; they do not assume that all white men act violently or express anger in the same way, nor do they assume that violence does not also exist in women or in men of other races. They do, however, invite deep and introspective exploration of a particular concern about the unchecked, unexamined anger in white men which so often leads to aggression and violence.
Men were asked to focus on their own lived, embodied experience and intentions. I wrote that links to or sharing of analysis-based “solutions,” or comments denying male anger or framed around the “not all white men” argument would deleted, and they were. The first few responses from men who came across as defensive and, well, angry, took me by surprise. One directed me to look at my own anger as the root of my misguided generalizations about men; another accused me of gaslighting with the questions I posed.
At the same time, I was completely humbled and moved by the deep and thoughtful insights from many of the other men who responded.
They bravely acknowledged having carried or carrying anger caused by biology or something akin to an automatic response, early influences of family or conditioning, a perceived lack of control of their circumstances, fear.
With such authenticity they shared the ways in which they have learned to manage or work with or overcome their anger: through awakening to the anger and their relationship to it, to the choices they face; through movement, spiritualism, time in nature and experiencing the cycles of life; through releasing attachment to perceived needs and desires; through experiencing true love from others and of self.
With clarity and compassion, they shared the commitments they make on a daily basis to everything from conscious movement to the care and tending of others; to expressing their feelings with courage and truth.
I want to share in its entirety the response of one young man who I am honored to have first met when he was seven and who is now aged 22--one whose clarity and authenticity is perhaps reflective of the new generation of visionary young people who are leading us through this dark time of violence and into a brighter future:
“Anger is constricting but when you bring awareness to it, it can provide lots of energy that can be used to uplift and empower. It also teaches me what I need to take action on because it shows me what I have difficulty in accepting. (I) take time to be still and use meditation and exercise to be able to look at my anger without judgement. Anger stirs lots of thoughts and mental noise so when it's quieted it's easier to see it for what it is. Then I can take needed action with a clearer mind. I commit to facing it and using it to make decisions that don't create mental debris. This is timely because I was angry very recently and finally accepted it with the help of awareness to it and body movement, and I felt very happy and light with most of the anger transformed. Now I can make a clear decision and I'm not put off by the initial discomfort it takes to face this issue. It's nice to write all this down too!” (DF)
If you’re connected with me on Facebook, you can read the whole thread in a post on Sunday, February 18th. And, if you are so moved, your own responses to the questions are most welcome and encouraged.
That we live in a culture that broadly fails to acknowledge white men as the most common perpetrators of gun violence is a problem. That there are mature, thoughtful men in the world, like these men, who are willing to acknowledge some of the reasons for anger among men and offer some ways of working with it, is indeed hopeful. My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of knowing these men and, in particular, for the insight and wisdom they so generously share with me and with the world.
Let’s keep the dialogue going — that we may do better, as we know better.
photo credit: Annie Spratt on UnSplash