Last month I wrote about a recent confrontation between New Jersey acting Gov. Codey and radio shock jock Craig Carton.
Carton had demeaned the governor’s wife and her history of mental illness. Codey responded that under different circumstances, he would like to take Carton “outside.” The column addressed the stigma of mental illness. And at the end, I told the governor that if he wanted to take Carton outside, I would hold his coat and take him out to dinner when it was done.
The column prompted many responses, mostly positive. But some, like Kelly, a mental-health professional from Delaware, were pretty upset about my condoning violence.
“I sometimes wonder if mental-health professionals should hold ourselves to a ‘higher standard’ when it comes to violence-related issues,” Kelly wrote. “In truth, I was rather appalled – though, at the same time, very sympathetic – that acting Gov. Codey made such a public statement that was clearly promoting violence. Your comment about holding his coat made me react similarly.”
Well, Kelly, maybe it’s the testosterone, but I didn’t feel appalled. If someone hurts someone I love, I want to hurt them back. Last year, my adult daughter’s surgeon botched a procedure and then blamed her. When he left her hospital room, she was crying because of what he said.
When I heard this, I wanted to perform surgery on him! I wasn’t thinking about being a role model or trying to understand the difficulties of practicing surgery in today’s medical climate. I just wanted to hurt him.
And yes, I do hold myself up to a higher standard, not as a mental-health professional, but as a human being. Every day I try to be more compassionate and less judgmental than I was yesterday. But that also means being less judgmental of myself.
We all have aggressive impulses. I’m sure you have wanted to give an obscene gesture to the person who cut you off on the road, or slap the person ahead of you in the express line who had 20 items. Or worse.
We have been trying to manage these impulses for thousands of years. We have created laws, social norms and even religions, some would say, to protect us from, well, ourselves. Then we invented weapons and created armies to protect us from violent impulses in other people.
So we haven’t done a very good job dealing with the emotions that fuel our aggression. We are quick to judge aggression and condemn violence, yet the most popular movies and television shows tend to be the most violent.
If we could just feel the aggression and not try to suppress it or act on it, we could build up some tolerance for these feelings. We would realize that pain inevitably lies behind these impulses. Underneath my anger, I hurt terribly for my daughter and felt powerless to help her. I would imagine Gov. Codey had similar feelings about what happened to his wife.
The Codey experience brings to mind a story about a samurai swordsman who went to visit a Zen master, wondering whether there was truly a heaven and hell. The Zen master responded: “How could they let anyone so stupid become a samurai swordsman?” To which the samurai took out his sword, held it over the Zen master’s head and raged “I will kill you for that!” The Zen master replied, “Right now, you are in hell.”
The swordsman thought for a minute, put his sword away and dropped to his knees, asking for forgiveness. “And that is heaven,” the Zen master replied.
As humans, we all visit heaven and hell. Quite often.