September 7, 2021
Growing beyond rage into hope and collective healing
The tragedies of the world provoke understandable rage. But focusing on existential gratitude and connection creates space for transformation, writes the director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
My dominant emotional experience in this moment is intractable rage. Complex, stubborn, difficult-to-control rage.
I tell myself that this is a very human response to the sheer quantity of preventable suffering I’m seeing in the world.
If you are alive and awake to the existence of others, you see it, too: a preventable wave of the pandemic; a rapidly escalating climate crisis; the abandonment of vulnerable Afghan people by the United States after two decades of a meaningless war on terror; decades of widespread economic instability; leaders at every level who won’t experience the consequences of their bad leadership and decision making because of their wealth or age.
The texture and conditions of your rage may be shaped by your social and geographic locations and your life experiences. Race and ethnicity, gender identity, veteran status, history of abuse and harm, and exposure to toxic theology and ideology all influence our responses to the crises we face.
Your rage with all its particularities is welcome here. It will not be silenced with well-worn platitudes like “… but God …” Its stink will not be masked with incense or potpourri. It will not be meditated away or soothed into submission with drops of essential oils.
The rage we are experiencing is the cumulative human response to generations of exploitation of land, animals and persons for the benefit of a powerful few. Being anything less than honest will only increase what we feel and enable it to further isolate us from one another. It will exhaust us.
What do I do with my rage? What do we do with our rage?
Psychologists researching the mental health impact of the climate crisis point to the importance of social cohesion in preparing for, responding to and healing from environmental disaster. Through connecting with others, we are empowered to act upon our concerns, build the relationships necessary to respond quickly when need arises, and learn to believe again that there is good in the world.
In the Thriving in Ministry initiative, we are learning that when pastors connect with a group of peers — others who understand the particular hardships and joys of pastoral ministry — they are able to more quickly loosen the bonds of isolation and create a path forward to confront their challenges.
I cannot heal from my intractable rage in isolation.
When we talk about rage and the mental health toll of all that we face, we rarely discuss communal connection and action. We discuss self-care — personalized care plans that send us out to run a lap, eat kale or purchase something that promises to soothe our central nervous system. These things might help our mood regulation, but intractable rage needs livelier, more existential solutions than a new meditation app.
The problem with most self-care “solutions” is that they reiterate our individualized notions of self-sustenance and our capitalist ideas that we can buy our way out of a problem. They rarely address the systemic forces that cause our suffering or point us to the community that surrounds us and can support us in our collective healing.
As a sometime theologian, I see the core of Christian belief — that God is Triune and always relational — to be a critical message for my rage-filled heart. The very being of the Trinitarian God tells us that even God does not go this road alone. God is always offering presence and community to God’s own self and to all of creation, including all of me.
My rage is welcome into the community and presence of the Triune God, who is not frightened by my rage or sorrow. God is with me, pointing me to others, to the presence and being they offer, and pointing me to the presence and being I have and can offer.
I am not alone. You are not alone. We are not alone.
In a recent essay about tragic optimism as an antidote to toxic positivity, Scott Barry Kaufman highlights the importance of existential gratitude — a gratitude that points us beyond our painful circumstances and toward our capacity to love and care for ourselves and others even in the face of suffering. Cultivating existential gratitude is not about self-indulgent help; it’s about looking beyond the self toward the collective care of the community.
The most transformative practice of existential gratitude I have come to know is gardening. I have spent years converting a weedy lawn into a flamboyantly messy kitchen garden with herbs, vegetables, pollinator flowers and spectacular 14-foot-tall sunflowers.
Every morning, I check the irrigation system and harvest the day’s ripening bounty. I chat with the longtime Black anchors of the neighborhood, with Sudanese grandmas, moms from Mexico, newly transplanted neighbors.
I cook and preserve and share the abundance. I chase out cute bunnies and learn to accept their gnawing contributions as part of the experience. I learn about plant diseases and nurse my ailing stems and vines. I delight in the visiting hummingbirds and research their favorite flowers for future plantings.
This tiny patch of land puts me in connection with plants, creatures and people more than any other element of my life. Weeding and hauling mulch are excellent mood regulators. The garden is giving me skills that will come in handy if food systems fail or meet disaster, helping me manage my climate grief.
It gently teaches me to accept what is and learn from it. It prompts me to advocate for healthier food systems. It connects me with the saints and my ancestors — both my biological ancestors who farmed and those who inhabited this land before me. A germinating seed always stirs the excitement and hope of resurrection within me.
But most of all, the garden teaches me that I am not alone here. In my garden, I’ve learned that my neighbors are just as scared as I am of neighborhood violence, the pandemic, the rising housing costs. My neighbors have deep wisdom about things I can only feign to understand. My neighbors are good people. By connecting with them every morning, I am better. We are better.
My intractable rage doesn’t go away in the garden. Rather, my garden creates a space for the rage to be transformed. In the garden, I find that God is making new things of my intractable rage. In the garden, God is pointing me to the possibilities for collective healing already among us. In the garden, I am not alone.