By Matt Gordon
I read an article this week about a group of people who were offended about something. That is a vague sentence because by the article’s finale, I was no clearer on why there was offense or what solutions were being offered to bring a reconciliation than I was at the onset. The whole spat was senseless.
This experience stood out to me because it happens in our world all the time, but also because it happens within me with great regularity. I’ll be angry at my spouse and when she asks what I am feeling—a person doing the right thing and meeting me where I am—I give a nonsensical soliloquy of scattershot points. It is like a plane that took off without a flight plan looking for a place to land, and then being mad about the lack of provisions at whatever makeshift runway it happens upon.
I think there are two parts to this offense-taking phenomenon.
The first is that there is an offense-taking phenomenon at all. The zeitgeist of the moment is frustration. We feel a thing needs to be said but then get upset at who said it or how it was said. Which hints to me that maybe the whole uproar was less about a thing that needed to be said, but a deeper need in those demanding the thing be said. What I mean is that we all have this lunatic sense of control. We want to play god—be God—and so we want to control every part of every narrative, whether it is in our control or expertise or not. Cowardice and jealousy fuel these engines—we are often too scared to be the one to take initiative but then are jealous of the person who does. But rather than admit to jealousy—a petty admission if ever there was one—we justify our angst by taking aim at the way the message was delivered or the messenger himself. We get offended because that has become a measure of value and concern. It is how we prove we care and show we are right. It is how we convince ourselves of a control we don’t actually have: something like becoming a critic of all movies due to our own inability to write good scripts. We are increasingly a people of angst. About everything. Offense is our currency, and we spend liberally and lavishly.
And while we have become really adept at thinking critically toward everything else in our world and the people all around us, we have become impoverished when it comes to thinking about our own thinking. This is the second part of the offense phenomenon. So first there is this feeling that finding and voicing offense is the proper way to live, but second is the notion that our feelings are good guides. All the time. When I am mad, it has nothing to do with complexity, with nuance, with some lack of something in my being, with some peripheral issue, with my childhood or emotional/spiritual need or hunger. No, it has to do with someone else and whatever it is they are doing in the moment. Instead of trying to get to the heart of my heart, I just hunt scapegoats. Anything will do—my wife’s tone, perceived optics, the way my favorite baseball team is managed, news coverage, the President, economic policies, decisions at my company, the way a TV show is edited. If something rubs me the wrong way, it is always the rub that is wrong and never me. My offense-taking is quick-triggered; and my aim, like my virtue, is can’t-miss. Except that it’s not. I fire and miss, but worse, I fire and hit at many of the wrong things and people.
The truth is the world is a complex place, and a microcosm of that complexity resides in every single human being. Right motives and wrong ones are intermingled. Intentions, phrasing, problems and solutions—there are variables stacked upon variables all being held up by tremendously flawed (and gifted) people that fail not only to understand the precarious tower which they hold, but also have very little grasp on who they actual are or are becoming at that precise moment. There is a lot going on within and without. I need to be certain I’m not forgetting the former as I seek to navigate the complexity of the latter.
A solution to this quandary? Well, for me, if I can’t express my angst in a single sentence then there is a good chance I’m not actually acquainted enough with my feelings to have arrived at a discernable cause or need for offense. Perhaps, I’m proximate to the cause. Maybe I’m close to determining what is just and what is just-my-opinion, but if it takes a paragraph or more to unload, it is indicative that my offense has run way out in front of my awareness. I’m dancing in the ever-shifting terrain of perception. I’m arguing my case, almost willing myself into it and pleading the world to come with me rather than simply stating a discovered truth.
When this occurs, I need time to think. To delve a bit deeper. To write or read. It is also great to process with someone close to me but disengaged from the possible issue at hand. However I go about it, I need to go about it. I need to do the hard work on the front end of anger and possible offense to avoid the messiness of the backend—repairing a relationship I chose to sever or losing one that I’ve rendered beyond repair. In simpler words: get it right over being right. And realize always that just because I’m mad and loud does not mean I’m right and true. Often, it seems, it works the other way around.
There is something profound about that old saying about being slow to anger (Proverbs 14:29). A parallel thought is often forgotten in that adage which says, “The person who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Basically when we throw a fit about nothing we lose the ability to throw a fit about something. We become like the boy who cries wolf—our voice made meaningless on meaningful things because we’ve raised it so often at made-up monsters. No, being slow to anger is much wiser. To know thyself and question thyself before lambasting another is not the path much traveled, but it is the better way for us, those around us, and our complicated world.