The Importance of Acceptance in the Face of Pain

So much violence near and far has been testing my faith in humanity. With the ongoing demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, on the heels of Michael Brown's death, I am reminded of James Baldwin's potent words about his experience at the age of 19, when he was one year older than Brown on the day he was shot dead: I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people...That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels...There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood--one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

Ferguson, Missouri. Credit to Getty Images.
Ferguson, Missouri. Credit to Getty Images.

This prose was published in 1955, but Baldwin was 19 years old in the early '40s. Seventy years later, that rage necessarily lives on.

I want to be clear. Baldwin's rage is not my rage. As a white person, I have experienced myriad racial privileges rather than the overt and subtle forms of racial oppression that African American individuals and additional people of color consistently face in this country. Instead of laying claim to such rage,  I can join the cause to challenge, over the long haul, the United States's pervasive, institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence. I also can write about something I have experienced directly, which is the violence and suffering that result when we do not choose to "live consciously" with our rage and additional difficult emotions that arise in troubled times--feelings like grief, alarm, disgust, and shame.

As a psychotherapist, I consistently work with the depression and anxiety that arise from trying to thwart the experiencing of hard emotions. Steven Hayes eloquently describes the direct relationship between accepting pain and living fully:

Life is about pain once in a while. And, when we step in the direction of something we care about, we often risk experiencing something that we'd rather not experience--hurt, regret, sadness, loss, anger, abandonment, anxiety, fear, remorse. If we operate from the perspective that our pain is something that mustn't be had, the trap is sprung. Pain transforms in that instant and becomes a problem to be solved just like other problems that must be solved. Yet, we cannot problem solve ourselves out of our own pain. All that effort to get a foothold on our anxiety can pull us out of our lives in a flash.

In the realm of rage, working with rather than from it presents a particularly trying challenge. Although anger is like rage in that anger is a surface emotion that often rests just above fear and sadness and is often expressed to protect oneself from experiencing those more vulnerable emotions, rage is born of powerlessness. To be with powerlessness--to let ourselves feel it without immediately reacting to it--is no small feat. AND when our lives are endangered, accepting a feeling of powerlessness is not wise. The fight, flight, freeze signal sent from the limbic system persists with good reason. Sometimes we have to defend ourselves to go on living.

We humans have inherited the gift of discernment and so, with practice, can differentiate perceived threat from actual threat. However, engaging in wise discrimination becomes exceedingly difficult when our environment is filled with menacing signposts--abuse, neglect, surveillance, profiling, hostility. When we feel chronically unsafe, it is hard to take a deep breath, let alone calm ourselves enough to clearly distinguish what feels real from what is actually true. In short, militarized zones do not foster the kind of mindfulness I am promoting. Still, as Baldwin reminds us, even in the face of grave injustice we have the choice to live consciously with rage or surrender to it. Steven Wineman poignantly narrates what surrendering to rage entails:

The expression of powerless rage is like the flailing of someone who is literally drowning. The survivor, who is reenacting the moment of trauma, is caught up in a desperate struggle for psychic survival. Someone in such a state cannot possibly gauge the impact of their actions on others. And to someone who is feeling powerless, acted upon, and profoundly victimized, it is typically inconceivable that we could be posing any threat or danger to others. Yet the flailing of a drowning person poses a very real danger to anyone who approaches, and so can the expressed rage of a survivor in a traumatic state. The irony is that someone acting from an internal state of sheer powerlessness can have an enormously powerful impact on anyone in their path.

What I know about rage does not come from living as a person of color in a racist society day after day. I am only the expert of my own experience, and the rage I have experienced most intimately comes from growing up as a woman in a man's world. For many years, I did not let myself feel the soft emotions below the hardened rage. I had been instructed to show a stiff upper lip--never let 'em see you sweat--and so did not touch the powerlessness, despair, and helplessness that rose up when facing shows of coercion, violation, and contempt. I grew to be wary of men in general, primed for a demonstration of disrespect shown toward me and often falsely detecting it when my own projections were stronger than my ability to see clearly the human being before me. I then engaged in my own dehumanizing acts--particularly mean-spirited speech--that left me feeling ashamed and more powerless. Looking in before acting out, to borrow from Ruth King, was necessary to transform the chronic rage that was eating me alive into a deeper understanding of the matrix of forces shaping each moment--forces that have deep histories and go well beyond the interpersonal interactions of our daily lives. It is an ongoing process of staying open enough to learn more about these forces and unlearning my conditioned reactions to feeling powerless. It is hard. It has been worth it.

I suppose my plea for humanity is to feel the pain within us. Really feel it. And to witness the pain of ourselves and others. That is compassion. We can then reenter the stream of life and consciously respond rather than automatically react to the pain. We do this to heal ourselves and the world. We do this to understand that awakening is a viable alternative to destruction. Thich Nhat Hanh has shown me the possibilities of awakening--of arriving in presence--so I share his poetry with you:

Don't say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.


Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.


I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.


I am a mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.


I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.


I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.


I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.


I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his "debt of blood" to my people,

dying slowly in a forced labor camp.


My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.


Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.


Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up

and the door of my heart

could be left open,

the door of compassion.