Adjusting to Unwelcome Changes
March 9, 2009 -- After Gas Line Explosion
It was a tough week in Bozeman, Montana. Start with a worsening financial picture and then add a major gas line explosion on downtown Main Street Thursday morning. Five historic buildings burned to the ground, two others sustained major fire damage and dozens of windows were shattered in the surrounding blocks. All of the five-block downtown bore scars from the blast.
By Sunday, one casualty was officially reported, although the town grapevine could have told you within hours that Tara Bowman, the director of Montana Trails Gallery had gone to work early that day. Given the extent of the discharge and the damage, the town is still in awe that there was no other loss of life or injuries. Up to a mile away, friends reported thinking a truck had plowed into their house. Others watched debris propelled 300 feet in the air from their offices. In a federal building four blocks away, the force had Forest Service employees convinced that an elevator cable had broken and sent a car crashing four floors.
Though impossible to surmise how a town feels, let alone a single individual, I keep running into confusion, sadness and frustration at the grocery store and the coffee shop. Yesterday, a friend returning from a non-profit board meeting exclaimed, “Folks are really worn out. The stress is getting to them. I haven’t seen so many people biting one another’s heads off.” Attempting to answer, “How did this happen?” “What does this mean?” and “How do I process loss and relief at the same time?” is a draining process. The past weeks have tapped internal reserves, which helps me understand why reactions of anger or even rage naturally accompany any major adjustment.
Shortly before she passed away in 2004, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross brought together three decades of pioneering death and dying work in On Grief and Grieving, “Anger is a necessary stage of grief. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.”
The destructive power anger can emit scares us. People kill each other out of anger. They beat their loved ones. They say terrible things that they should later regret. The heartless torture and murders in civil wars around the globe are much too similar to ancient descriptions of grief’s rage to interpret them as simply demonic. For example, in The Iliad Achilles is overcome when Hector kills his beloved friend Patroclus in the battle of Troy. Achilles refuses to eat or sleep before returning to battle to avenge the death, “You talk of food? I have no taste for food – what I really crave is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!”
Yet, feeling anger is a whole lot different than using that passion to hurt another. I really appreciate the Biblical character Job’s authenticity as he grieved. Frustrated at God, he tells three friends why it is highly unfair that he has been treated so poorly. Translator Stephen Mitchell notes in The Book of Job that it appears Biblical scribes over the centuries tried to mitigate what seemed like blasphemy by tweaking Job’s words. Regardless, Job’s rage still shines through; he’s livid and he doesn’t care if he knows it. Yet, Job doesn’t strike his wife, insult his friends or kick his dog, he simply externalizes his anger.
How can we surface and safely release fury? Many cultures ritualize externalization of anger to move the grief process along. For example, in the Dagara tribe of Berkana Fasu communal water rituals are used to transform anger, rage, frustration and sadness. An angry person is seen simply as someone “on the road to tears.” In the Nyakyusa tribe of South Africa, the burial ceremonies include a war dance. An elderly tribesman explained, “We dance because there is war in our hearts. A passion of grief and fear exasperates us…Death is a fearful and grievous event that exasperates those men nearly concerned and makes them want to fight.” In America, Kubler-Ross ritualized the expression of anger by having grief workshop participants beat on mattresses and pillows until they felt relief.
The Buddhist tradition consistently counsels to just allow tough emotions instead of taking them out on others. Teacher Phillip Moffitt suggests in Dancing with Life that we see tough emotion as a waterfall. By allowing anger, we stand underneath the torrent and let it wash over us. We allow ourselves to “be” in the struggle for a bit. Moffitt explains that in accepting the emotions of grief, we are better able to bear them and they can pass through us. During tough times, I try to schedule “waterfall time” where I give myself to being with the emotion and instead of trying to fix the problem. “Waterfall days” beat out “fixing days” in actually moving me through my struggles, but they aren’t easy. Facing emotional pain, can be well, painful!
Like others around the world who have experienced similar events, sometimes weekly, I expect we will adjust. Meanwhile, my thoughts go out to the friends and family of Ms. Bowman and to those who lost their livelihoods or residences last Thursday. I hope this finds you adjusting and fairing well wherever you call home.