Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
– Carl Jung
Don’t you just hate Michael Richards for his racist tirade in a California comedy club? And Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitic venom?
Certainly, I hate racists and racism. Incidents like these also bring to mind an encounter I had with my daughter Ali over 20 years ago. Ali was having a difficult time in elementary school – almost every day after school, it seemed she hated someone else. Usually she hated the kids, but she also hated her teacher, the neighbor down the street and the woman who drove her school bus. And, of course, she hated her sister.
I decided we should go out for breakfast and a talk. I knew she was unhappy. She had just endured all the trauma and loss of her father becoming a quadriplegic. But I was especially concerned that her unhappiness was being expressed as hatred. So when we went to eat, I blustered into the conversation by saying: “Ali, I hate your hatred!”
Now if that’s not a crazy statement, nothing is. I felt hatred about the fact that my child was expressing hatred! Yet at a certain level it makes sense. Most of us like to think we are above hatred, especially when we see how ugly it looks when it’s expressed by others. But none of us are above it. Hatred is part of the package of being human.
Typically, it is a response to fear, anger or a sense of injury. When we are confronted with our own vulnerability, first we feel raw and exposed. Then we look for someone to blame. If blame isn’t enough, it progresses to hate. In a crisis, the tendency is to protect oneself and one’s clan by finding others to blame or attack.
Think back to the sequence of emotions right after 9/11. The attack exposed our vulnerability, and we felt protective of our brothers and sisters. Over the first 48 hours, in fact, our sense of clan expanded to take in the whole nation. Our vulnerability enabled us to care for and about one another. It didn’t matter if we were red or blue. And then our hearts, briefly open, closed tighter than before. When we found out who committed the act, our vulnerability turned to hatred. The hatred grew to include not just al-Qaeda, but fundamentalist Muslims.
I am generalizing, of course, but hatred always feels better than vulnerability. It is pretty easy, too. That might be why we love to hate.
With Michael Richards and Mel Gibson, I initially hated them because in that moment, I convinced myself that they were racist and I was not. And righteous indignation feels so good. Yet it solves nothing.
The truth is, I hated what Michael Richards said because I hated his racism and I hated my own. Mel Gibson confronted me with my own vulnerability as a Jew. I hated him (and still do) because he became the human face of what I fear.
My vulnerability to attack from an intoxicated movie star is nothing compared to what I experienced after my accident. Had I been able to tolerate my own vulnerability better, I would not have stumbled into that conversation with my daughter, and I would have been able to listen to her better. Ali hated all those people because she felt vulnerable and insecure. Because of her vulnerability, her heart closed and she felt hatred.
Our conversation that morning moved beyond its awkward beginning. Ali ended the meeting by making an important observation. “Daddy,” she said, “when I talk about ‘hating,’ I don’t really hate. I’m just a kid. I hate like kids hate. I don’t hate like adults.”
At that tender age, she reminded me of something most of us have long since forgotten. That emotions are just emotions. They come and go and do not need to be reacted to. Oh, to be a kid again.