It seems pretty clear that modern Americans are unable to deal with not getting their way. New styles of parenting blame institutions for children’s inadequacies and try hard to clear the path of any struggle. We’re increasingly perfectionistic, superficial, and angry. Suicide rates, divorce rates, and mental health rates are rising at a frightening pace.
Our society is becoming a hotbed for toxic individualism. Just last night, I saw a news report about a man who ran over a family of eight with his car. He killed the mother and injured the father and all six children. Why? Because the father asked him not to smoke in front of the kids.
The problem is that there are two kinds of not getting our way. The first is a violation – an attack. An affront to who we are that clearly endangers our wellbeing. The second is a disappointment. Someone does something we don’t like, disagrees with us, or makes a comment that offends us. We’ve merged these two kinds of not-getting-our-way into one. We are “bullied” anytime someone disagrees with us. We are attacked anytime someone says something we don’t like, and we are violated anytime we don’t get our way.
The Pendulum Swings
Of course, the danger in pointing this out is that some will use an argument like this to excuse oppressive behavior. We will blame true victims and violate one another with a sense of entitlement. This has been a prevalent reality in recent history. One for which we ought to be ashamed and held accountable.
How do we tell when someone is attacking us and when they are disappointing us?
Healthy living is about seeking the truth. As we become more and more emotionally charged, leaning on one aspect of the truth at the expense of others, we drift further and further from an ability to rightly discern what is happening to us, the motivations and hearts of those around us, and what we are to do in response. We have become reactive rather than responsive.
A victim is someone who has no choices. People do things all the time that limit our choices. But we are very rarely, if ever, in a situation where we have absolutely no choice. This whole idea is made famous in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, where he endures the tortures of a Nazi concentration camp while still taking responsibility for his own choices and his own character.The truth is there is no clear-cut boundary for when we are being assaulted and when we are being disappointed. It is a blurry line between attack and offense. So, what we tend to do is push things from the murky middle to the extremes.
There are, obviously, some instances where we are clearly being attacked. When violence meets our physical body at the hands of others. When we are imprisoned unjustly.
But the middles are murky. In the end, the main differentiator between violated and disappointed is our own perception. The power of each individual is to take emotions, reason, spirit, and community to discern the world around them. And, perhaps more importantly, determine a response. We have to own our conclusions and own our response. And our response is not about punishing others, it is about influencing our character, our community, and our culture toward a better tomorrow.
So much of our tendency is to lay blame at the foot of others. And justify our own reactions. Thus, we have a world of terrorism, a world where people break windows because a restaurant doesn’t have what they ordered, friendships break up because of a poorly thought out tweet, and people run down families because they are challenged about smoking.
We have to be better about discerning the difference between attack and disappointment. We don’t do any favors to ourselves as true victims and others who are truly victimized by taking on the posture of a victim unjustly. If we want, everything against us can be an assault. It certainly makes it easier to figure out how to respond. We fight everything and everyone. But not everyone who disagrees with us is an enemy. Not everyone with a different viewpoint or a challenging question is an assailant.
We will never be able to heal as a society unless we commit to seeking the truth together, forgiving one another for disappointments, and holding each other accountable for assaults. These three pursuits are not mutually exclusive. If we leave one for the other, all three will fail.