Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life . . . Therefore do not be anxious . . .Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself
- Jesus (Matthew 6:25, 31, 34)
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Tommy Jarrett, big rig driver, began his bid for the victimhood Olympics on June 8th, 2004. During a vicious morning downpour outside Columbia, Missouri, his truck hit Michael and Amanda Jones’ car and their 3-year old daughter Mikayla was killed. The Jones’ car had lost control in the rain and slid into the opposing lane of Tommy’s truck.
These lines from Invisibilia Season Two Episode One sum it up well:
ROSIN: Their daughter Makayla had died. And yet, they were the ones who got sued. A year after the accident, Tommy Jarrett sued the Joneses for emotional distress. I'm going to repeat that. Tommy Jarrett, the truck driver who walked away from the accident without a scratch, not a single Band-Aid, sued the family that had lost a child because he suffered emotional pain. The case made it all the way up to the Missouri Supreme Court, and it's an important case because it helped transform the way the law thinks about emotions. You see, Tommy Jarrett won.
Here is the language of emotional victimhood: When you didn’t respond to my hello, you made me mad. When you told me you went out last Friday without me, you made me feel lonely. When you asked how my interview went, you made me feel anxious. When you told me about your new boyfriend, you made me feel inferior.
Early in our marriage, Judy and I hosted a Bible study for young adults in our home. At times when I led the discussion, Judy would interrupt me to correct something I said. I recall feelings of anger and humiliation in those moments. I would later tell Judy something like: “You made me feel inferior. You disrespected me.” I exaggerated her harshness in order to hide my insecurity. I couldn’t own up my shame and blamed her instead. I could have asked her to be gentle in order to meet my need for sensitivity but instead I condemned her as a criminal and played the victim.
Notice the language of coercion in the above examples - you made. The principle is unmistakable. The other person caused me emotional distress. The other person caused relationship breakdown. I do not have influence over my emotions. I am not responsible for them. They can be taken and manipulated against my will.
Even the language of romance is imbued with victimhood: Can’t help falling in love. You drive me insane with desire. You make me feel like a love song baby, like I am home again, like a natural woman, like <fill in the blank>.
And when the emotions fade, we try not to blame our partner but everyone implicitly knows he/she is the reason: It’s not you, it’s me. But in the victimhood Olympics, it is you and not me, and I will find someone else who can erupt my feelings volcano since I am not responsible for its activity. Judy was fearful when we first got married that I would eventually get bored of her. I was afraid of that too. She knew how much I enjoyed novelty. What would happen when I found someone more interesting? After all, I can’t help it if I feel chemistry with another woman and feelings erupt.
How often do we hold others responsible for erupting our feelings volcano? How often do we compete in the victimhood Olympics? Like any other high-stakes competition, cash, prizes, and fame await the winner. So if you’re from an oppressed or marginalized group, you have some built-in advantages vis-a-vis the privileged. But even the privileged, like Jarret, who is a white male, can win victimhood gold if he can demonstrate he’s been oppressed by his own emotions.
More from the podcast transcript:
ROSIN: Tommy had PTSD, the doctor explained. The sight of Makayla's arm had triggered it in him, and it was no more under his control than cancer or diabetes. What Tommy needed to do was recognize that and deal with it. He was a victim. [bold mine]
ROSIN: Tommy wanted some of those lost wages back. But more important, he'd had his revelation, and he wanted the courts to validate it. The car accident had broken his mind just like a car accident can break a spine.
JARRETT: It became a principle. That emotional distress is the same thing as physical damage. It can wreak havoc on somebody's life, and it can destroy them.
ROSIN: And isn't that in a way how our culture increasingly thinks about emotions? That they're triggered by events in the world, that we often don't have control over them in the way that they affect us, and that we should take them really seriously. I mean, isn't that where the idea of safe spaces come from, the idea that triggers can happen at any time so people need a place where they're sure they won't be touched?
And if anyone was going to convince the legal system to embrace this idea in the culture, it was Tommy, a trucker in a leather Harley jacket. Nothing off him suggested he was anxious to play the victim but according to his doctor, he was a victim.
I’m not sure how our society got here. There are a number of factors at work: the immediacy and prevalence of information, evolution of the civil rights movement, baby boomers overcompensating for the emotional paucity of their upbringing, the subsequent rise of positive psychology and child-centered parenting, and lastly, smartphone-enabled FOMO. Stir these ingredients up and you have an environment today where books, lectures, and articles have trigger warnings and people are increasingly alienated from each other because they’ve experienced negative emotions while perusing social media.
Millennials suffer disproportionately and at an unprecedented rate from depression and anxiety. And yet, depression and anxiety have been around for millennia. The problem with these mood patterns is they start as negative emotions, which give rise to negative thinking, and the whole thing spirals downward. There’s a cyclical momentum to these negative emotions. Given myriad influences driving us towards depression and anxiety, it is practically a superpower to manage one’s emotions.
When Jesus addresses anxiety in Matthew 6, he recognizes this. People in the Ancient Near East had real concerns over food and shelter. These thoughts could be consuming. But Jesus says you are not a victim of anxiety. If you change the pattern of your thinking to be oriented around the reality of God’s care and concern for you, as evidenced by his care and concern for lesser creatures, your emotional reality will change. Jesus is saying you are not a victim of your emotions. Even when you are hungry and cold, you can choose not to be anxious. Mark Manson has re-packaged Jesus’ teaching thousands of years later. You don’t have to give into anxiety as a thought pattern that dominates your emotional life.
I gave a talk on anxiety two years ago on a college campus, sharing from this passage. After the talk, a young woman came up to me and questioned the idea that we can always control our emotions. She talked about how she suffered from anxiety attacks. I think I could have been more sensitive in how I addressed anxiety but I never meant to imply we can control our emotions, just that we are ultimately responsible for them. We cannot hope to influence what we are not responsible for.
Should we hold people responsible for they're emotions even when they’re in a significantly disadvantaged position? After all, Jarret is a white adult male. He has full agency and power dynamics will tend to favor him. So let’s take the opposite end of the spectrum - my daughter, Abby. Four years ago when she was eight years old, I came home enraged and slammed my hands against the hallway wall. The sound reverberated throughout the house. I remember turning around and seeing a look of horror and confusion on Abby’s face. I hadn’t noticed she was right next to me. I asked her about it later and she started crying. My temper tantrum triggered shock and fear. Years from now, she may lie on her therapist’s couch and talk about the present depression and anxiety she experiences because of that incident. She can (and should) blame me for triggering those emotions. But here’s the thing: I can do very little to change how she feels. I am responsible for being the catalyst and I can own the consequences by making amends (apologizing, being gentler, controlling my anger) but ultimately, Abby has to decide how to heal and move forward from the trauma. Responsibility does not mean immediate resolution. I was responsible for losing my temper but I can’t make her pain go away. Only she can.
Towards the end of the Invisibilia podcast, the hosts conclude:
SPIEGEL: Like, essentially you're saying we have way more control over and therefore responsibility for our emotions.
ROSIN: And you know what? If we make these concepts, we can unmake them. But even if we don't choose to do that, even if we decide to build the world just exactly as we've built it down to the very last brick, there in the back of our heads when we experience something that disturbs us can hover a liberating thought - this feeling I have, it doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing inevitable about the world that is.
My seminary professor once told me “Feelings don’t authenticate truth, feelings authenticate our understanding of the truth”. The truth, in the context of this statement, is the unconditional love of God. That’s the ultimate reality. Depression and anxiety will trigger thoughts contradicting that reality. And yet we can choose, in those moments, to orient our lives according to the reality of God’s love and not the immediacy of our emotions. It’s not complete control but it is responsibility. It doesn’t negate or minimize the abuse we may have experienced but it does mean we are on the hook for addressing its consequences.
If I win at victimhood, I get to evade responsibility and shift blame. Unfortunately, playing the victim didn’t help my marriage. Both Judy and I lost. When Judy was down, I would get depressed. When she stayed down, I would get impatient and frustrated. I would tell her to snap out of it and move on. On the other side, when Judy said something that hurt my feelings, it was her fault I suffered.
With the help of a therapist, I began to practice viewing moments of anger and humiliation as invitations to believe the gospel and recognize my inherent worth as a saint. My emotions indicated how I actually saw God, saw myself, and saw my circumstances (like Judy correcting me during a Bible study). What I perceived as negative situations were simply moments where the curtains were pulled back to reveal what was really going on in my heart.
The Bible says husband and wife are one flesh and it’s true in that I empathize with my wife in her highs and lows. I feel anger and anxiety with her. One of the hardest lessons I learned in marriage was to stop making my wife’s emotions my responsibility and making my emotions her responsibility. God does not do that with us. He certainly empathized with Job’s suffering but he did not fix his grief nor rescue him from his anguish and doubts. Even though God allowed his suffering, Job was ultimately responsible for his feelings. And though he questions God, he does not blame him.
We are responsible for our own emotions. Someone else's actions may have triggered anger, anxiety, or depression but we own the present consequences. And ultimately, how we choose to handle your emotions not only helps us deal with reality, taking responsibility for our emotions affects our view of reality. We are not victims of how we feel.