Despite a generation of sensitivity trainings and multicultural studies, an astonishing number of people still feel emboldened to express their misbegotten bigotry in very public arenas. Cops and vigilantes alike are caught on tape throwing down racial slurs before they kill, Rush Limbaugh has no compunction about “slut-shaming” for a national audience, and classroom bullies drive a steady stream of gay youth to suicide. In the face such madness we may be tempted to question the wisdom of the old nursery rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.
That’s what we were taught as children, but as adults we’ve learned a more nuanced understanding of the power of words. We recognize that to call an African-American a nigger, a woman a cunt, or a gay man a faggot is not only insulting and bigoted, it wounds the psyche of the person who’s been verbally accosted.
Need this be so?
I have no interest in defending those who spew epithets. But I am deeply interested in becoming a person who is not at the effect of the cruel words of others—not only because I aspire to psychological mastery, but for the sake of my physical health. However righteous our anger, absent a healthy outlet it has a corrosive effect on the functioning of our bodies. I don’t want my peace of mind and the equanimity of my nervous system to be dependent on everyone I encounter behaving in a way that feels reasonable to me. Ain’t gonna happen! So it behooves me to develop the capacity to not take things personally, and to remember that someone else’s bad behavior reflects their dysfunction not mine. Besides, why would I allow the ravings of a fool to occupy my mind?
This is not to suggest that we stop building a world in which we all treat each other with kindness and respect. That is a separate, though completely related, endeavor. Indeed, the less reactive we are in our interpersonal exchanges, the more effective we will be in our larger struggles to change the world.
That said, in the vast energetic scheme of things some harm may be inescapable. Given the interconnectedness of all that is, everything we do, say or think affects everyone else whether we are conscious of it or not. So even if I am able to achieve a state of non-reactivity, I live in a world where people routinely do violence to one another. I swim in the same sea, so no matter how well I bathe or how often, like bad perfume there may always linger some residue of the hatred and fear in which my culture is steeped. But though I am affected, I need not be taken down by it.
Now let’s back up for a moment.
The human nervous system, and that of all creatures, has evolved to accommodate all manner of insult—and recover rapidly from it. When the gazelle is being chased by the cheetah her body surges with hormones and neurochemicals designed to maximize her odds of escaping death. If she manages to outrun the cheetah she stops, catches her breath, and shakes for awhile to discharge the adrenaline that would be toxic if it remained churning in her body. A parallel phenomenon was described recently by a friend who found herself in a room full of people wielding energy so malevolent that she had to leave the room and “shake it off.” Having traded the veldt for the conference room, we are now subject to this more subtle form of assault: pummeled by thought-forms rather than fists.
The difference between mammals in their natural environment and humans in the modern world is that when the chase is over for the gazelle, and she has reached safety, the incident is history; it no longer lives in her body. There is no gnashing of teeth, no self recrimination about wandering into a dicey area of the savanna alone, no judgment about the inherent cruelty of cheetahs, and no plan to band together with other gazelles for a nonviolent protest march. No, the gazelle simply goes on about her life unconflicted. Her nervous system and hormones are rapidly restored to a healthy equilibrium. Meaning that her body did what it has evolved to do, and what it will continue to do time and again over the course of her life until, finally, she is dinner for some lucky cheetah.
Modern humans, on the other hand, no longer shake off physical assaults the way our ancestors did in the Saber-tooth tiger era. When we fall down we leap to our feet as quickly as possible out of sheer embarrassment, assuring everyone nearby that we are okay. In the event of serious injury we may be given painkilling drugs or rushed to the hospital—short-circuiting our innate responses. And, yes, in countless instances saving lives.
Ironically, even as the occasion for fight-or-flight behavior has steadily diminished, many of our physiological reactions have been transposed onto the emotional realm. Thus, we often respond to verbal slings and arrows as if they were psyche-threatening—which feels life threatening to the brain. We know this because social rejection activates the same parts of the brain as does physical pain.
Perhaps the point at which we began to perceive emotional assaults—and take umbrage—was when the power of our clever neocortical mind superseded the instinctual wisdom of our so-called reptilian brain. This shift introduced the double-edged sword of self-awareness—a psychological analog to original sin, the fall from Grace.
Imagine a scene untold millennia ago, a tribe of hunter-gatherers feasting around a bonfire after a successful mastodon hunt. The leader gets distracted by the growl of an unseen animal in the night and inadvertently skips Og when he’s doling out succulent portions of liver. Og just happens to possess the most advanced neocortex of this up-and-coming species, homo sapiens. The neocortex has an unparalleled capacity to recognize and track patterns, to create meaning from random bits of information, and thence to make stories—which is what our protagonist is about to do. Then, as now, our stories don’t always accurately reflect the truth, but make them we do.
Og slinks back into the cave to ponder why he was slighted by the leader. He might feel hurt or angry, maybe confused. But he is among the first of Earth’s creatures who’s cooked up a story to explain to himself what happened, a story that will in turn help him formulate a plan about how to respond. Will he plot revenge, a takeover of the tribe? Or work harder to make himself more valuable to the leader? Might he instead nurse a grudge through the whole long winter, making himself and those around him miserable? Hmmmm, he’s gotta think on it, and think he will.
This bit of playful fantasy speaks to the fact that humans evolved from animals guided solely by instinct and the yearnings of the limbic system into creatures of enormous intellectual and emotional complexity. For all the seemingly infinite benefits that have accrued to us as a result, in terms of our equally infinite capacity to brood and ruminate, make mountains out of mole hills and drive ourselves crazy with our thoughts, it’s been all downhill since then.
Unless we are in extremis, we do have choices about how to handle any situation. Once we become conscious of that and take responsibility for it, we begin to come into the fullness of our agency. Whether I’m sulking in response to a perceived slight, fulminating over the misogynist legislation proposed by some right-wing congressman, or raging over the phone at an indifferent bureaucrat, indulging those unbounded states is my choice, regardless of the provocation. Nobody ever “made me” behave the way I did. When I understand that at a core level, I’m on the path to emotional liberation.
The great American writer and social critic James Balwin gave us a potent example of this principle at work in his life:
What you say about somebody else—anybody else—reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you – I’m describing me… I have always known that I am not a nigger… I am not the victim here… But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well he’s unnecessary to me – so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.”
Few among us possess the Baldwin’s combination of insight and courage, but we can work towards it. I want very much to embody that level of equanimity on a consistent basis. So I hold in my consciousness the knowledge that in every moment of every day I have the opportunity to respond mindfully to life instead of reacting on autopilot. And then, as often as I can, I seize those moments. With equanimity, of course.
In our efforts to create deep and lasting social change, we need not be derailed by the cruel words of others. Make like a gazelle and shake it off. Then get out there and occupy your world.