“Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is. There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” -Ai-jen Poo
I’ve been reading Dr. Laura Markham’s Aha! Parenting updates. She signs off each of her columns with “choose love.” I of course want to choose love. And, I’ve been reconciling what has felt like a dichotomy between the traditional expressions of loving-kindness and anger as a parent. You see, the truth is: I get angry with my son. Some of his antics infuriate me. I’ve been practicing with how I respond, meandering clumsily on a journey towards integration. I’m riding along that border of choosing love and I want to know: what place does anger take? How can I express the energy of anger from a place of union, connection and integration?
The Hindu goddess Kali comes to mind. She is the fierce consort to Shiva (upon whose body she often stands). She is black in honor of being the first creation before light. She is often said to be “beyond time.” She often has blood dripping from her mouth and wields a sword for lopping off heads. Her fierce, forceful energy isn’t relegated to shadows. Instead, she points to the dynamic aspect of creation: the consort to “being-bliss-consciousness.” For me, she points towards a creative integration of seemingly conflicting energies. She is a protector. She can still be fierce. If something needs destroying, or if a boundary needs to be set, she’ll likely wield her sword while dancing.
I too do a daily dance with my son. My anger with him is rooted in the energy required to set boundaries. Sometimes, when I look carefully, there is a deep sadness beneath it. There is also sometimes a texture of indignation: the interpretation of my son’s actions as a personal affront. How can he be doing these things? Why does he keep pushing boundaries? How can he keep hurting his brother? There is also confusion. How should I respond? What does he need? How on earth can I keep ‘choosing love,’ even when I’m being kicked, scratched or spit on?
One thing I’ve landed upon is that choosing love doesn’t mean rejecting anger and all the accompanying subterranean emotions. Choosing love does mean prioritizing equanimity as often as possible and holding a space for all emotions arising. Choosing love also means staying intimate. It means staying connected, even when setting a fierce boundary. Choosing love does not mean altogether rejecting forceful energy (although beware: force is too often misplaced and misused). As the images of Kali conjures, dynamism is an appropriate response to certain tensions. The key is to be in a dance of integration of opposing energies – the primordial dance of creation and destruction. This is the ultimate ground of union. (Which is likely why some gravitate towards fighting in order to be “close”).
When I pay attention with the above insights in mind, the dance with my son reveals a different narrative. Through his constant testing of boundaries I hear him asking for reassurance. Will you love me even when I am anxious and confused? Will you join with me even in these sticky places? Will you stay with me even when I push you away? Do you still love me even when I am a horror to myself? The answer must be yes – even when coupled necessarily with the energy of a forceful self-protection or protection of my other children. (By this I mean a firm holding back of kicks or hits, or firm words of redirection). Some things do require the energy of destruction. We can always begin with a peaceful and patient joining, rooted in our equanimity – as well as be prepared to dance into the more tricky realm of fierceness – holding the proverbial sword that slices though ignorance: not to harm, but to stop the rise of nonsense and needless suffering.
The “low road” of parenthood shows up when we succumb to isolation and punishment. It is when the path of union has been lost (even momentarily). “You don’t love me!” my son says at times. I realize in these moments he points me to the places in my heart that have yet to relax into my infinite capacity to love. He shines light on the places within me not yet residing in ultimate union and intimacy with everything that is arising (particularly the messy, miserable, frustrating moments of parenting). I believe he will mirror this place to me again and again until I meet him from a place of no-separation, from a place of ultimate and unconditional acceptance, free of conditions.
And so, I dance my way into expressing the energy of anger from a place of union and integration. The only “space” taken must still be together in spirit – where time slows and response can be masterful. The only pain results from how close we want to be but haven’t yet grown into yet. As Ai-jen Poo says, “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” Aha! Indeed.