Is anger a primary emotion? Or is it secondary, layered over a primary feeling like sadness or fear? And what’s the difference anyway? I started exploring these questions when I read K’s latest post, “True Emotions.” Here’s what I learned: primary emotions arise in response to events in our lives. When our primary response makes us anxious, we turn to other feelings. Men who feel sad or fearful may show anger instead. Women rarely do. We’re taught that our anger is dangerous. What do we call an angry woman, after all? Shrew. Harridan. Bitch. So what happens to the anger that women don’t express? We turn it inward. We cut ourselves, starve ourselves or poison ourselves with drug or drink rather than lashing out at the ones who really deserve it.
I discovered this truth two years ago, just before Christmas. Nearly two years into recovery from the horrible events at my former church, I was feeling hopeful and confident again. Then out of the blue, I found myself thinking of suicide. When these thoughts intensified, I went to see my doctor. He listened to my story, then he told me: “Suicide can be murder in disguise.”
I thought about this for a minute. “Do you mean instead of mentally jumping off a bridge, I should imagine pushing someone off it?” I asked him. The doctor grinned his agreement. So for the rest of the season of Advent, whenever I felt sad or hopeless, I imagined shoving “Pastor Kevin” off the tallest bridge in our city and watching him take that long drop into the bay. By Christmas, I felt as peaceful as if I had spent weeks in prayer and good works.
I’m still angry with Kevin, and I’m still disgusted with the church leaders who seemed deliberately blind to Kevin’s behavior toward women. But what about the bystanders? Specifically, what about “Melinda”? The bishop appointed Melinda to be my chaplain while he investigated my complaint. What a relief! I wouldn’t have to educate anyone from scratch. Melinda was our regional trainer for clergy abuse prevention, and she already knew me well. I sent her a copy of my complaint, and I asked her to confirm the time for our Friday meeting. Meeting day came and went with no response. A week later, I still hadn’t heard from her. I began to worry: was this about Eileen? My complaint was primarily against Kevin, but my associate pastor Eileen was also in the hot seat. Her response had made church even more dangerous for me. I still remember exactly what she wore and where she sat when she spoke the harsh words: “You should have known better.” I can still see the anger in her face. Worse, she tried to dissuade me from reporting. She told me that if I did, I would “lose control” of the information.
Melinda admired and adored Eileen, as did most of the clergy in our diocese. I sent Melinda another note, telling her how hard it was for me to hold disloyal feelings toward her friend, and hoping she could still serve as my chaplain. Melinda’s words confirmed my worst fear: “I don’t know if I think I’m your best choice as chaplain.” It wasn’t that she didn’t believe what I had written about Eileen; she wrote: “I do, actually.” But that knowledge made her “a bit uncomfortable.” She was “at a personal loss” about how she could help me now. She wrote, “I’m sorry I’m not the right choice, but I hope we can continue to be friendly.” She suggested having “a cup of coffee now and then.”
Coffee was not what I needed. Abandonment by my chaplain was definitely not what I needed, but at that point I was too traumatized to engage in conflict. I let Melinda off the hook and went through the process alone. My bishop offered to find a replacement, but I knew Melinda had been my best hope.
So how do I feel toward Melinda today? Do I feel angry? Hurt? Betrayed? Yes, of course. I had a right to expect Chaplain Melinda to set aside her personal discomfort for a greater duty to the church, so of course I feel betrayed. But when I think about Melinda as a person, I only feel disappointment and pity. I’m disappointed that she wasn’t the person I thought, and I pity the weakness that cost her an opportunity to make a difference.
And this is where the writing gets hard. The truth is, I feel something more dangerous than pity or disappointment. I feel contempt for Melinda. I despise the choice she made. Instead of compassion and hope, she offered me “a cup of coffee now and then.” She had a chance to make a lifesaving difference and possibly a safe place in the church where I had taken my earliest steps in faith, but she chose to retreat to her gal-pal relationship with Eileen. Did I make Melinda’s retreat too easy? Of course I did. I’m sure I felt anger, disgust, and contempt right away, but I couldn’t afford to burn one of the few bridges I had left in that church. And yet what a useless bridge she was! Last year, I ran into her at a public event. She feigned warm concern; I feigned friendly gratitude. She didn’t deserve the truth, and I doubt she could have handled it.
In healing, and in my writing, I try to focus on the positive. When I interact with the people who hurt me or failed to protect me, I try to take the high road. But if this blog is to be useful at all, I need to be transparent even with dangerous feelings. Even at the risk of burning bridges.