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Emerging Difference

November 7, 2020

I ran into a neighbour yesterday, and when I enquired after their niece, the reply was that she is coming home from school hungry, as she doesn’t seem to be getting enough to eat at the meals the school provides. I said I often pack a little snack-box in my daughter’s nursery bag, in case she gets peckish, and the response was that’s against the school policy. Why don’t the girl’s parents feed this experience back to the school? The response was that they- first generation immigrants from a country with a long history of government oppression- were afraid to criticise the school for fear of alienating their child, and instigating some sort of backlash reaction towards her. They did not want to risk their daughter’s safety. My neighbour then shared a little of their own fear of police officers, and other forms of authority, which stems from direct experiences in their country of origin. 

I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude in approaching conflict, and how I manage my need to take action. I’ve recently been criticised at being indirect in my approach, particularly in confronting differences of opinion. Instead of openly meeting a challenge head on, allowing anger to be openly expressed, I tiptoe around direct action, in an attempt to find a way to appease, to quell, to make the situation safe, before tackling the issue at hand. I am aware that I’m not easily roused into anger, which is of immense value in being responsive and not reactive; and also lacking as the implication is a disconnect, an inauthentic response to a given situation.

There is value in meeting difference here-and-now, taking action in-the-moment, which can mark a line between a healthy response from an unhealthy one. A neurotic pattern is for someone to freeze in the moment, only to think back on what he should have said or could have done. This can imply something unresolved, unprocessed trauma somewhere in their lifetime, or even, generational trauma from decades of suppressing anger and avoiding confrontation- until it is repressed out-of-awareness- for fear that it would lead to persecution and danger. So I keep myself safe, small and quiet, and get what I need to get done without ruffling any metaphorical feathers. Equally, another pattern is for someone to be easily triggered into reacting with anger, then be left to deal with the damage, which leaves ‘anger’ with a dangerous reputation. Healthy expression, for me, is spontaneous yet contained with awareness, articulated simply and directly, it’s hot enough to take action and change the situation, but not so hot as to burn the house down. This takes practice and trust, and I believe, a lot of unpacking of the generational elements at play, not simply the personal, individual ones.

I recognise the anger I feel when I hear cases of child abuse or when I’ve worked with people in hideously disadvantaged situations, like a refugee camp in a banana field in south Lebanon or working children in a refuse site in Basra, Iraq. The anger at the injustice sits in the pit of my stomach, like a lead weight. However, this ‘anger’ is contained and productive, where I can articulate myself, hold my self aside from the people and situation I am working in, in order to meet them. I still need to vent (boxing works wonders!), which often reveals the kernel of my intense emotion as deep sadness. I learned to recognise my anger in my first therapy training in 2013, and in group process, had a few opportunities to practise expressing myself with others. I found that the majority were able to take me, and that I often wasn’t received quite as strongly as imagined I would be. I wasn’t the raging hulk figure my anger represented for me. Still, my instinct, my deeply ingrained habit, is to avoid real head-to-head confrontation, and in that moment, to step away from my anger, until it’s safely contained and productively packaged. The problem arises when I confront someone who has a very different relationship with their anger, and I struggle to meet them in that place. Some people’s anger clears their thinking, drives them forward, helps them resolve relational issues whilst all is open and in the air. Left to cool, like oil in a baking tray, it can turn to a stale and congealed mess.

Being part of a diversity student group at my therapy training school, I notice my difference in response to others in the group, and I wonder if/ and how a generational impact of authoritarian abuse of power has impacted my experience of meeting challenges associated with differences. If I’m unaware of quietly redirecting someone’s anger or consistently quelling a call for action, then I can impede growth, whether personally for me and others, or/ and for a group as a whole. A group that is, ironically, exploring difference. Difference is often pathologised, in the context of institutional marginalisation, where tokenism and the lighter/ more fun forms of multiculturalism is paraded to distract from meeting at the boundary. I don’t have answers. I do believe that differences in ways-of-being in-the-world need to be held, side-by-side, and honoured, in order for something unique and spontaneously to emerge.

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