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On the importance of nurturing the strategic, thoughtful part of ourselves

The holiday weekend began quietly. An early morning walk with the dogs in cool sunshine, admiring gardens, lilies in bloom and birds I cannot identify were chattering away happily. It was peaceful. The dogs sniffed every blade of grass, but I didn’t mind the leisurely pace.

Suzanne Koepplinger

At a neighborhood park, spray-painted on the sidewalk was, “Justice for Philando – F*** Officer Yanez.”

Beneath that tranquil morning – just as our country celebrated its independence – there was anger. Widespread, pervasive, cumulative anger. 

Sustained injustice will do that. Based on the work I do, I know that anger can be a poison in our bodies. If not dealt with in productive and healthy ways, anger can fester and infect our worldviews until all we see are enemies. For some, holding that anger in when necessary becomes an art, a highly honed skill that can be a survival mechanism. But it must find its way out, and usually it is unleashed around either those we are nearest to, or those with whom the consequences of expression are less punishing.

The other day I learned that my cousin shot himself to end his suffering. The disease that gripped him had a foregone conclusion, and he made the choice to leave when he did and I do not blame him. But suicide leaves a heavy emotional toll on those left behind – anger gets mixed in with grief and becomes unrecognizable. Right now my anger is directed at a system that does not allow this decision to be made with dignity and humanity, but left him to his despair and a readily available handgun.

But who is the “system” and to whom do I direct my ire? Is it a person, a set of policies, or values? Not knowing where to vent, there is a danger of holding on to this feeling.

How do we know when the residue of toxic anger is building up within us, drives our decision-making process and establishes a “fight/flight/freeze” response that diminishes our ability to think clearly? This fight/flight/freeze response is a survival mechanism driven by our reptile brains, our amygdala. It is the part of our brains that tells us we are in danger and prepares us to react, and is vital to our survival as a species. But when anger or frustration is pervasive and sustained, the reptile leads our actions. We fight. We flee. We freeze. We do not think clearly or strategically.

Executive functioning is when rational, strategic, thoughtful processes take place. When the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex is in control, executive functioning is at its highest. This allows us to select appropriate actions – to respond rather than react. The prefrontal cortex is engaged and the amygdala is quieted when we calm our minds, bodies and spirits using meaningful practices. 

So as I walked that morning, appreciating the beauty of the gardens and cool sunshine, I was aware of my own anger intermingled with grief. I know full well the importance of recognizing the emotion and allowing myself to tap into the healing practices that serve me well — breathing deeply and practicing gratitude for all that is good in my life, while vowing to continue to strategically work for justice and human dignity. 

It feels full of possibility to do this work, to nurture the strategic, thoughtful part of me. 

It is independence.

Suzanne Koepplinger is the director of the George Family Foundation’s Catalyst Initiative, which supports culturally grounded integrative health and healing (IHH) practices throughout the Twin Cities. 

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