It is often the people and communities that are the most dismissive of things like therapy and vulnerability that need those things the most. The tragedy is that instead of embracing and working through tough emotions such as fear and pain, people all too often numb them away with substances, or hide them behind fake toughness and authoritarianism.
“Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self,” writes Eric Hoffer in his classic book, The True Believer, a concise examination of how dangerous mass movements take rise. “The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others.”
Instead of doing the work—because that’s what it is, work—of feeling and processing challenging emotions, some people are quick to mask them, project them onto others, or connect their identity to someone else. This someone else is almost always a leader who is boasting what appears to be strength and machismo; in essence, sending a message of: Don’t worry, you are safe with me. An extreme example is the average Nazi—an ordinary person who was insecure about himself and his country after losing a war and suffering economic hardship—finding solace and purpose in Hitler. Perhaps you can come up with other more recent examples on your own.
In order to push against the force of “fake toughness,” and all the damage it leaves in its wake, we need to teach people, starting a young age, that it is okay to feel all kinds of strong feelings, that there are tools to work through strong feelings, and that it is okay to ask for help when those feelings become overwhelming. Chanting some kind of clan-like nonsense and hating an out-group is a pathetic band-aid on real problems. Cultivating love is a much better, albeit harder, solution. These lessons are often what kindergarten is all about, but history (and modern times) shows we shouldn’t stop there.
“If the individual has not developed his capacity for love,” writes the mid 1900’s philosopher Erich Fromm, “he tries to escape into artificial ties which give him a sense of belonging or rootedness.”
Make no mistake, this isn’t about trigger warnings for everything, coddling, or encouraging a mindset where everything in life becomes an offense. The point isn’t to avoid pain but rather to accept it, work with it in productive ways, and support each other along the way. There is a vast ocean between being fragile and being (or being willfully blind in following) a bully. This vast ocean can be scary, but it is the place we have got to learn to swim.
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