Two unrelated experiences reinforce what a friend of mine in social work told me: Anger is a secondary emotion.
Over the holidays I watched an incredibly powerful and moving foreign film, “A Man Called Ove.” Without spoiling key parts, the overall story is this: An old man is angry, isolated, and believes his life is not worth living. As the film progresses the viewer begins to understand why Ove is as he is. The unfolding backstory reveals what is under the surface. This allows one to see Ove with new eyes—to see his goodness and his pain and therefore to empathize with him. It also allows one to see what we all need for human flourishing—connection.
At one of my presentations on abortion an audience member spoke with me afterwards. She shared that she was in favor of abortion, particularly in the case of rape. I had addressed the point already in my talk. I also shared with her the story of my friend Lianna who got pregnant from rape at age 12 and who kept her child. She was unconvinced and unfortunately our conversation was interrupted.
I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that my message was impenetrable to her heart because of some deep pain. I was very concerned that she had been raped and/or had an abortion. She didn’t disclose either to me, but a lifetime of interacting with people and intuition was telling me something bigger was below the surface. Because I knew she was part of a larger group I approached one of her team leaders with my concern. The team leader remarked that that young woman had been behaving in a difficult and defiant way. “That type of behavior is a secondary emotion,” I responded. “Something is triggering her, and I’m concerned it’s a huge trauma. I really think she was raped or had an abortion.” We then identified another team leader who had gone through a trauma of her own and approached her with our concern, asking her to find an opportunity to connect with the young woman. We prayed and it became a waiting game for the opportune moment.
Sure enough an encounter between the two women happened and sadly the audience member revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, but she expressed how meaningful it was to have someone listen to her and share in her pain. It became the start of a journey to healing. Like Ove, her attitude and behavior were a cover for a deep emotional wound. Like Ove, connection with another soul is what would free her from isolation and give her spirit new life.
Whether discussing abortion—or any issue in which people respond with anger or an illogical unreasonableness—our approach should not be to dig in our heals and write the person off as stupid or not worth our time, but rather to go gently and seek to understand the root of the person’s passion. It is worth remembering that of all the words used to describe love in the famous passage of 1 Corinthians 13, the first two are “patient” and “kind.”
When you’re next in conversation with someone and if you find yourself struggling to be patient or kind, it can be helpful to step back and say the “Prayer of St. Francis,” which, in the middle, goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”
It is truly eye-opening what seeking to understand can lead to.