by Dr. Ronald Higdon, author of In Changing Times: A Guide for Reflection and Contemplation and Surviving a Son’s Suicide
It immediately caught my attention because I felt it spoke so clearly to the predicament many feel has taken over their lives. It was the account of a conference for pastors that was being held in New York City; a number of pastors from Africa were in attendance. One group arrived early enough to make a walking tour of the city. When they started back to the conference center they realized they had no idea how to find it. One of them called the center announcing that they were lost. He was told to go the nearest corner and relay the two street names he found there. After a brief pause, the African pastor announced, “We’re at the corner of ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk.’
My immediate response to the story was, “I know how that feels.” There are more graphic ways to express the idea but this certainly provides a visualization of the idea of being between a rock and a hard place with inactivity appearing to be the only present alternative. I don’t believe that is ever the case. There is always something I can do and most of the time it is some simple thing.
As a consultant, I worked with conflicted congregations where my challenging role was to be a “non-anxious presence.” My first responsibility was to “turn down the heat” that differences and misunderstandings had generated. My second task was to listen and encourage people to listen to one another. I don’t want you to think I’m saying I was ever one-hundred percent successful in my endeavor. Occasionally, I found the challenge a little overwhelming: I had to battle my own anxiety and the anger that was churning in me. There are always a few persons in every congregation who seem to have a monkey wrench handy. And they know how to use it. The motto in all my interims: “Perfection is not possible but perseverance is.”
In our present culture of anxiety, I find my role in retirement as an “ordinary citizen” has not changed. The responsibility to turn down the heat is now entirely focused on my daily personal relationships on all levels. A bumper sticker once proclaimed: “Change is good. You go first.” I know who ought to go first. Since it is impossible to change others and I can only change myself, it is obvious where to begin. The kind of change I’m talking about begins with common courtesy and civility in the small things in my small world. Most of us don’t have a big stage but we all have a stage on which we are living out our lives. That is where I’m called to play my part to the best of my ability.
Inflammatory rhetoric has literally set the atmosphere ablaze. I don’t know where it all began, but it seems many took the 1976 movie Network literally and have thrown open the windows to shout out to all the world their anger and frustration. I thought it was a joke when one writer mentioned a website – justrage.com. I checked it out and discovered it is no joke (in every sense of that word.) It ought to come with a Iabel: “Warning: This site may be hazardous to whatever level of civility you may have left.” It is termed an “internet anger sponge,” but it appears to me to be more like a venom scattergun.
Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness discusses the concept of “emotional hydraulics” that maintains we need to ventilate negative emotions, otherwise their repression will cause mental problems. Seligman states what I have found to be true: just the reverse is correct. I have read from multiple sources that the most recent studies reveal this venting is not nearly as therapeutic as once thought. The toxic pollution it has created has reached alarming saturation.
Many researchers believe the tag “Angry American” can be placed on more than half of the population. My goal as a consultant was to bring people to the place where they could sit across from those with whom they differed, listen in order to understand where the other person was coming from, calmly and non-judgmentally share their own ideas and then begin genuine dialogue and negotiation. This did not come easily or happen quickly.
My disappointment with the current political and cultural confrontations is how little real conversation is taking place. Loaded adjectives with their demonizing and dehumanizing implications make calm discourse almost unthinkable. I have no quick fix slogan or bumper sticker campaign to offer for a sound-bite resolution. I only know that I have a daily calling not to fight fire with fire and to determine to be “on the listen” to everyone with whom I come into contact – no exceptions. That much I owe to my community, my nation, and my responsibility as one who hopes to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.
I’m not at the corner of “Walk” and “Don’t Walk.” This is something I can do.