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500 Words: Cook Your Potatoes

It’s a fallacy that deer don’t eat potatoes, or at least strip the plants naked. I guess I should be grateful for the stalks and tubers left behind, and hope that the deer get sick enough to discourage further nocturnal raids.

It’s another fallacy that talking about how we feel always results in connectedness, support, and understanding. Because sometimes sharing makes us, too, feel sick.

I’m speaking, specifically, about venting.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a friend. He was taking his beloved grade-school nieces out for lunch; I was checking the mail. Disturbed by the smoke and the heat and the government unwillingness to take the climate crisis seriously, he just couldn’t help ranting.

I know that my friend would never intentionally distress me, or his dear nieces. But I felt run over by his anger, while the girls, who tried to pretend they weren’t listening, were clearly frightened. I was so worried about the kids’ anxiety that I didn’t give my friend any feedback. I just kept trying to end the conversation. Of course, because he didn’t feel like he was being heard, he just kept talking.

It was a very unsatisfactory experience.

After I came home, I re-read an article exploring what happens when people rant. In multiple studies, social scientists found that expressing grief or anger without effective feedback doesn’t make people feel better. The only good time to vent, said the authors, is when we have a trusted person who can help us to identify what we’re feeling and who is willing to offer new perspectives and advice. Current folk wisdom says the listener should never offer advice, just support. Yet without some thoughtful feedback, verbal discharge simply greases the mental skids for a repeat rant and a second round of suffering.

It also causes others pain.

When my friend was so upset, I wanted to listen. But I wasn’t mentally prepared, and I was worried about the kids. So, I didn’t listen well. Nor did I take the risk of saying, “Can we talk about this another time without the girls?”.

Spiritual teachers tell us that when we don’t transform our own pain, we transmit it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t speak together about the seemingly endless distress of our planet. We must! There are ways, though, that will help to transform our suffering rather than simply pass it on. One way: ask if it’s a good time for the other person to hear us. If you’re the friend who listens, be gently truthful. Another way: consider those potatoes. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likened anger and distress to raw potatoes, indigestible until thoroughly processed. He recommended “putting the lid on the pot,” cooking our feelings by sitting with them consciously before we speak. Meditation or journaling help with this.

The payoff for these practices is well-cooked anger. Like well-cooked potatoes, well-cooked anger sustains life. Well-cooked anger fuels our effective action; it also compels us to love and tend the life in front of us—like those little girls.