Complexity, Emotion, and Activism: Getting Comfortable with Complex Emotions through Spiritual Reflection

“I can’t have a conversation with someone who denies my right to exist.”

I get it. That shit is haaaard. And furthermore, I think it would be immoral for anyone to insist on it. I’ve certainly walked away from conversations in which I felt that my conversational partner was opposed to my very way of being. But something I’ve been thinking about lately (and which I think has no real concrete or final answer) is to what extent we hide behind our pride in order to avoid the possibility of transformation.

In our culture (by which I mean North American though mostly the culture of my home country, the US) we are used to thinking of getting our way as a right. We can customize everything from car paint to fetuses. In many ways, choice is awesome. It makes us feel free, liberated, in control. But what happens when our customized lives and selves come in contact with the customized lives and selves of others?

One of the problems we experience in an individualist society is the loss of complexity. We are the center of our universe, the lens through which we view life is the only lens unclouded and unscratched. It’s the obvious choice. And when we meet people whose lenses are different from our own, it can raise all kinds of anxieties and uncomfortable emotions and I believe that what we choose to do with those emotional reactions says everything about the kind of world we hope for. When we turn away we are saying we believe in one orthodox way of being, we believe in one source of truth and reality (our own, of course). If we decide to take a chance on this person with the different lenses, maybe asking them to clarify a point or offering an area of agreement, we are saying that we believe in the innate goodness of humanity, we are saying that making ourselves vulnerable in pursuit of transformation is a worthy cause and that a less contentious existence is possible.

Again, I’d like to offer a caveat. I don’t believe anyone owes it to someone else to educate them or have a conversation with them. I would never insist that the only morally acceptable choice is for a black person to be in conversation with a neo Nazi. There certainly are people who decide to do this but for them it tends to be a choice made while considering other goals and values as well as physical, mental, and emotional safety. But not every hard conversation is between a neo Nazi and a black person. Sometimes we imagine an assault on our personal dignity in assuming that someone who voted a certain way or who belongs to a certain religion must not believe in the humanity of another person. And sometimes, sometimes, we even return the favor, deciding that the neo Nazi or even just the person who has a different lens is less than human themselves.

I was talking with a theologian this week with experience in providing spiritual care. She mentioned a situation in which a therapist told her about her work with a sex offender. The therapist was disturbed by the conflicting emotions she felt. She felt both disgust at this man but also sympathy for the issues he had faced in his life. She wasn’t sure what to do with these feelings – or rather, she wasn’t sure how to make a choice between them.

This was so interesting to me and yet so not shocking. In our dualistic culture, we’re used to believing that we can’t experience a multiplicity of emotions or viewpoints because to do so is to be ideologically impure. If we have multiple and conflicting feelings, the idea is that we need to pick whichever is strongest or whichever best fits our ideological viewpoint. This is something I see all the time in the activist community in which I belong and it is also the quickest way to squash coalition building and personal spiritual growth. It, in fact, stunts us in small ways every time we refuse to honor and live in the paradox of our conflicting feelings.

So, all well and good, Autumn, but what’s your point? If we decide to reject dualities as dangerous for both communities and individuals, what do we do? How do we honor ourselves and our feelings when in conflict with someone with a different lens when and if we choose to engage?

What I’d like to suggest we do, both as individuals and as groups or activist organizations is engage in what we in TheologyWorld call Theological Reflection but which you might choose to call something else – maybe spiritual reflection or simply, reflection. It’s a process that allows us to name and honor our feelings but also to draw insight from imagery associated with those feelings. We can then take our insights out into the world with us to use in our activism.

The process I’m going to share with you is taken from  The Art of Theological Reflection by Patricia O’Connell Killen and John DeBeer. The process is entirely theirs but I am changing the language to reflect that not everyone has a religious tradition and to generally make it accessible to everyone. I’ve also adapted it specifically for activists. So, the next time you’re feeling the tug of conflicting feelings or you’re feeling the need to go deeper, give this exercise a try.


Spiritual/Philosophical Reflection for Activists

Step One

Grab a piece of paper and write out the challenging experience you’re having. But here’s the thing…do it without ANY judgments. Killen and DeBeer suggest sticking to the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where, Why.

My own reflection may be that I am talking to a male friend who has some sympathies for the Men’s Rights Movement and I’m wondering how to be a friend while also honoring my own experience as a woman.

Step Two

Remembering this situation as you read it through, focus on the bodily sensations it produced or is still producing. If you need help naming those sensations, have a look at this awesome and quite extensive list of bodily sensations and see what feels right for you. Identify where in your body you feel that sensation. Identify the emotions you associate with the situation. Again, here’s a huge-ass list of emotions to help you out.

I am feeling rage to such a degree that my body and brain feel like they’re vibrating. The feeling encompasses my whole body.

Step Three

Sit with those feelings for awhile and let them evoke images. Settle on an image that most resonates with you. Don’t worry about interpreting it just yet. Just find an image that reflects how and what you’re feeling.

The image that keeps coming to mind is that of a fish on a hook.

Step Four

Now begin to explore that image. What is it saying? What feels sorrowful in the image? What in the image might offer hope? Say anything else that you want to say about this image.

I feel my body almost writhing in anger but feel helpless against what seems to be an overwhelming misogyny, one that is so pervasive that my friend feels it is okay to talk negatively about women with a woman. Honestly, I find nothing redeeming in this image.

Step 5

Thinking of your particular spirituality, faith tradition, or philosophy, where does the image take you within your tradition? Are there similar images in your tradition? Don’t worry if you randomly seem to want to connect a seemingly disconnected bit of your tradition to the image. Killen and DeBeer say that if it is coming up in your head, trust that there is likely a connection.

I find a similar image in the Christian scriptures when Jesus says to Peter and James that if they follow him, he will make them fishers of men.

Step 6

Ask how your first image and your spiritual/faith tradition/philosophical image relate. Are there similarities? Differences? Tensions?

Both are images of fish. The first image is of a captive fish, the other of a captivated fish. In one image, the fish is me, thrashing desperately. The other fish is a man who is open to being led into the experience of others.

Step 7

What is this image from my tradition saying to me? It doesn’t have to be the same thing it says to anyone else or be the “orthodox” or scholarly meaning of that image or part of the text.

I am reminded by this image that if I am a follower of Jesus, I can be a fisher of men – I can invite my male friends, with compassion, to walk with me as part of a voyage of discovery, but the choice is ultimately theirs.

Step 8

What emerges for you as a result of this exercise? What insights and questions arise? Were you challenged? How do you feel about the initial experience now? Do you feel called to some action? The next time you’re in a similar situation, how do you want to act differently? Or would you act the same way?

My initial response to the situation was to shut down. I recognize that as a valid response. But when I reflect more, I realize that for me personally, I feel called to help this person see that this movement will not give him what he’s looking for (he is coming out of a bad divorce and vulnerable to anti-woman rhetoric). I feel called to walk with him in vulnerability and honesty as we navigate his questions together.

So, the above exercise was difficult (and way more detailed in my responses, but I’ll spare you). But the result was that clarifying my own feelings, including those held in my body, allowed me to know my truth and speak and act from it. I was able to make a conscious choice and not simply react. The result was that I did journey with this male friend and I’m happy to say that my allowing him space to both explore as well as hear my own experience helped him to eventually repudiate the movement.

So, give it a try and let me know how it worked for you!






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