U is for Umbrage
[My middle daughter, Kyra, and I are continuing our commitment to blog all the way through the alphabet. Rather than lasting 26 days, we're going on almost a year now, but we're gonna get it done.]
In the religious environment in which I grew up, being offended was a sign of spiritual zeal. The more offended you were, the closer to God you were. Back then we were offended about all kinds of things:
rock and roll music (surely from the devil); smoking and drinking; going to, being seen around, or talking about bars; dancing; earrings in any place except the female earlobe; most of what was on television (which was terrible either because it was sexual and smutty — Dynasty — or because it was believed to be on some level occultic — Fantasy Island); most movies (either the language was too bad, there was too much sex, too much talk of sex, too much sexual innuendo, too many people WANTING to have sex, or — okay, it was almost always about sex — violence was fine); and a huge list of nots — not going to church, not praying, not understanding God the same way as us, etc., etc.
I don’t want this to reflect badly on my parents. They were never this way. They were not overly permissive either, for which I am grateful, but I think I am even more grateful that they were never fanatics. Despite getting some distinct fanatic vibes growing up in my church (and most definitely around people from other churches), my parents and most of their friends were reasonable and good people.
I am so grateful the church is changing: relaxing, seeing God in all places and not just our small corner of the world, etc. And yet I think being offended still feels spiritual to too many people. There is nothing spiritual about being offended or offendable. In fact it is in many ways the opposite. Being easily offended is actually a sign that a person is quite small, quite provincial, perhaps a great deal lacking in grace. There is, after all, no reason at all why I must feel angry at a person simply because he/she disagrees with me — likes different political candidates, different movies, different ways of living in the world, different expressions of God, etc. Even when a disagreement is substantial there is still no inherent reason for anger.
The Triune Brain
But it isn’t about reason at all. Anger and offense come from our lizard brain, which functions always to protect us and keep us safe, and has no capacity for reasoning. The lizard brain that defends and runs, and the limbic brain that gets angry (also cannot reason), work faster than the cerebral cortex, which processes and makes rational decisions. Hearing ideas with which we disagree feels threatening and so anger is a defensive response to feeling threatened. Very religious people often confuse this reaction with “godliness” or “holiness,” but make no mistake about it — it is equally as reptilian in religious people as in anybody else. To act continually in a spirit of offense, constantly taking umbrage, is to actually confuse the lowest part of your nature (your reptilian brain) with the highest (your capacity for reasoning and compassion). This would be bad enough, but when this process is at work in Person A, he gets offended and angry at Person B for not acting/believing the way she “should,” but Person B may actually be acting from a place of far deeper compassion, love, and reason than the person judging her. To move to higher and higher spiritual states is to move further and further away from responding to things around us from the reptilian and limbic brains, and learn how to respond from that uniquely human part of us (the cerebral cortex) that contains reason and ideals about goodness. To live in this state one must learn to define love not as emotion (limbic brain) but as decisive action for good in the life of another person (cerebral cortex).
To be mature spiritually and emotionally is to be able to acknowledge the things with which one agrees and disagrees, without umbrage — without feelings of fear, anger, or needing to set others straight. After all, one cannot be angry and joyful at the same time. Offense and anger steal our joy and it is by this that we can know that umbrage is not from God. It violates the gentle spirit of Jesus, often much more than whatever gave rise to it in the first place. If you are highly offendable, often taking umbrage, there is nothing you can do about the behavior of the rest of the world. But you can get relief and be a happier person by working to become less offendable!