Did you watch the first presidential debate? Wow! Okay, I’ll stay away from explicitly picking sides here, but it seems that there is a LOT of mudslinging going on. Some of the attacks are quite vicious. One can sense real animosity, even hatred. Despite the promise of the Internet bringing people together more, we seem more divided than ever. Every election cycle, just when we think it can’t get any worse, it does! Even though many disagree about politics, sometimes these struggles can be of a more personal nature. It might be with a neighbor, boss, co-worker, or family member. Sometimes these attacks take the form of racism, harassment, cyberbullying, or trolling. For instance, while Twitter holds promise to open up free thought and speech, it often becomes a platform for hate speech. Regardless, and this blog is just as much to myself as it is for you. We must remember that hate is the Dark Side of the Force. Yes, I’m a geek who is borrowing from the wisdom of Yoda in the Star Wars mythology, but there is truth in Yoda’s teachings that we should all keep in mind.
The Wisdom of Yoda
Let’s look at the wisdom of Master Yoda. As I said, I’m a geek, and I’m proud to admit it. I’m not ashamed this…anymore! 🙂 I can say that my favorite Star Wars movie is The Empire Strikes Back. As Master Yoda trains Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, he warns him, “But beware the Dark Side. Anger, fear, aggression – The Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” And in The Phantom Menace, my least favorite Star Wars film, Yoda teaches, “…anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” We are seeing a lot of anger and hatred in our politics, our world, and even ourselves. We must be careful because we are all in peril of being consumed by the Dark Side of the Force!
Who Is Suffering?
Now, just how does all of this anger and hatred lead to suffering and who, exactly, is suffering anyway? I like the quote from Augustine of Hippo who said, “Resentment is like taking poison hoping the other person dies.” We can just as easily replace “resentment” with “hatred” or “person-focused anger.” Anger and hate not only affects people around us, it affects ourselves. Basically, when we are angry, it triggers the fight/flight/freeze response within our sympathetic nervous and limbic systems. When we are angry, we are on alert for a perceived threat. In nature, the fight/flight/freeze reflex is important because it is an adaptive response that has survival value. However, the amazing creatures that we are, we can just think or imagine threats and BAM! This primitive survival system is triggered.
If we keep thinking about these objects of anger or hatred, we hold down the flight/fight/freeze button. This floods the body with adrenal and cortisol (the stress hormone). Sometimes it can feel good to be anger because of this rush, but the long-term effects of sustained anger and hatred are profound. Some of the negative health effects of anger include:
- Increases the risk of heart attack
- Increases the risk of stroke
- Decreases the immune system
- Increases anxiety
- Increase depression
- Harms the lungs
- Shortens our life span
Adding Hot Water to Cold Water
Arguably, our main purpose in life is to be happy. This isn’t the stimulating our nerve endings kind of happiness, which is more properly defined as pleasure. The kind of happiness that I’m talking about, and that we all seek, is more like a sense of peace and contentment. If we think about it, just about everything we do is because, in some way, we believe that it will either increase our happiness or decrease our suffering. Looking at it from this perspective, sustaining anger and hatred undermines our own happiness.
I believe it is in The Art of Happiness that the Dalai Lama likens our emotional state to cool water when we are at peace. He discusses how we cannot add boiling water (symbolizing anger) to this cool water and have the water remain cool. In this way, our own peace of mind, and thus our happiness, is compromised when we sustain feelings of anger and hatred. On the other hand, if we add thoughts and feelings of love and compassion to our lives, symbolized by cool water, it counters the boiling water of anger.
We Are Connected
I don’t know that I believe in a strict definition of karma, but I do believe, in a general sense, what we put out in the world can often circle back to us – for good or for ill. In Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, both professors, show through research how our happiness not only affects our friends’ happiness, but our friends’ friends’ happiness (wow!), AND our friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness (AMAZING!).
Drs. Christakis and Fowler show that happiness has a contagion quality that spreads within our social network, much like a cold or flu. So, when our emotional state is dominated by feelings of anger and hatred, it affects others around us negatively. Conversely, when our feelings are of warmth, joy, and compassion, it affects others around us positively. It is critically important to internalize and act upon this reality. Our happiness is highly dependent upon having positive relationships and interactions with others.
To What Do We Attend?
William James is often considered to be the “godfather” of Western psychology. One of my favorites quotes by him is, “Our experience is what we choose to attend to.” Thus, when the focus of our attention becomes consumed by hatred, anger, and resentment, this comes to define our daily lives. When we are focused on thoughts and feelings of hate then, as discussed, it has a negative effect on our own well-being as well as those around us. Moreover, while we are focused on feelings of anger and hate, what is the opportunity cost? That is, when we are focused on those thoughts/feelings of hate and anger, what are we missing out on? Quality time with our spouse, kids, friends, work, hobbies, or personal growth? How else could we be spending our time and energy?
The Takeaway on Hate
There is so much anger, hatred, and vitriol in the world, it’s important that we don’t become part of it. We need to strive to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem So, don’t give in to hatred. The Dark Side of the Force is seductive, and it can lure us in. But we need to avoid this temptation. Remember that hate is the Dark Side of the Force. We need to rise above these negative feelings and instead focus our attention and energy on things like love, empathy, and compassion. Our own happiness, as well as that of others, depends upon it.