“And they were sore afraid” – when we aren’t feeling peace, love and joy

The Angel Gabriel Appearing to the Shepherds by Alfred Morgan

On the night Christ was born, a group of humble shepherds were blessed with a visitation from a heavenly messenger announcing the glorious news. What were they feeling as they experienced this miracle? Joy? Reverence? Awe?

No. The Bible reports that they were “sore afraid.”

I once gave a gift to someone who opened the present, frowned at it and set it aside. Her reaction clearly was not personal; she repeated it with every gift and every gift-giver. But it was demoralizing nonetheless to witness a response that was so far off from the delight I had expected.

As an activist, I frequently witness similarly disappointing reactions when a policy change I have worked for finally comes to fruition. While I expect supporters to be excited, relieved or grateful, they are just as likely to express anger that the previous policy ever existed in the first place, that it took so long to change or that the change wasn’t big enough. The outpouring of negativity in the wake of good news can be more demoralizing than seeing a gift set aside by an unthankful recipient. I worry about strategy; how will we get policymakers to do what we want when we behave this way when they do? And more personally, why doesn’t anyone appreciate our efforts to make this happen?

During the Christmas season, I often feel the peace, love and joy expressed by Christmas cards. But amidst the work and expense required by the festivities, I can feel tired, worried, or grumpy. In a vicious cycle, I compound the negativity when I berate myself for having the “wrong” feelings.

There is nothing strategic about feelings, and by definition, a gift freely given demands nothing in return, not even a smile or a “Thank you.” Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to honor others’ feelings, letting them sit with their feelings without our judgment, even if what they emote makes us uncomfortable. We can practice this kind of empathy with ourselves, allowing ourselves to be human and feel the way we feel.

May this holiday season bring peace, love and joy; and if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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9 Responses

  1. DB says:

    April, I’ve noticed this reaction as well and am always surprised and confused by it. Some who have riled against a certain policy or practice and have clamored for change then greet the change with distain, often with expressions of “too little, too late” or something similar. I understand how demoralizing that is to work so hard for something and then to have it met with indifference by those you were wanting to help. I also understand your concern about how these reactions affect policy makers. If the employees I supervise at my work wanted a certain practice changed, and I worked to get it changed only to have those same employees show disregard for the change I worked for, I would be disinclined to care about making any changes for them again. I often feel that those who are unhappy with the status quo and call for change but remain unhappy when the change occurs, were never really sincere about wanting change. I think you’re right, maybe they were just unhappy and blamed their unhappiness on the status quo. May this holiday season bring peace, love, and joy to you April; and if it doesn’t, I hope something else does.

    • I agree with many of your observations here, but just to clarify the intent of my OP, I was not saying that the negative reaction means they never wanted the change in the first place (although that is certainly a possibility). I was just saying that those of us who made the change as an act of goodwill can’t demand any certain reaction in return. Maybe people will be excited and grateful, or maybe they will have other feelings, and that is okay. It is not up to us to dictate how anyone feels.

  2. Another view says:

    Hmm, I feel like I want to defend the gift recipient who just quietly opened gifts with no show of gratitude and the employees who are still angry even after the changes. I want to prevent them from being misunderstood.

    Once my mother told me that my sister in law had come over with some of her adult children and they had repainted much of her home. She was angry. It wasn’t that the house had not needed painting, it was that the three days of absolute chaos while the work was being done that she had blown up at my sister in law and sent every body home, with the job only mostly finished. The chaos had her so exhausted that she spent three days in bed recovering, then had to remove all the drop cloths, and get the furniture back in order and return her home to living condition. Oh, my sister in law had offered to come back and clean up, but mom was just too exhausted to cope with another day of that many people in the home. She would rather take the time and do it quietly by herself. I am sure my sister in law was hurt and thought my mother ungrateful.

    So, when you talk of a gift recipient smiling vaguely and moving on to the next gift with no excitement or gratitude, I am imagining a little old lady overwhelmed by the large party of all the relatives, just wanting it all over with because it is just too exhausting.

    A little while back, the church made some big changes to the temple ceremony. It was everything we feminists had been demanding and it was met by “heck, it is high time the church drug itself out of the 1950s” and demands for an explanation and apology for all the years it was hurtful, and dozens of “too little too late.” But we feminists had fought for so long, so hard, and were slapped down so many times, that all we could do was lash out in more anger. Yes, some of the younger women were excited and happy, but many of us were just fed up and disgusted that it took so long and was so hard and so painful, and succeeding was just anti climatic. Personally, it was too little too late. The temple ceremony had told me that Mormon God didn’t care about me as a woman, and I only inherited through my husband who was the real child of God and I was just a wife of a beloved son. So, after years and years and years of trying to understand, trying to explain how God could love me and still allow such crap in the temple ceremony, and being slapped down for asking questions about it, I had decided that the temple ceremony was not from a God I wanted to worship and if the temple ceremony was THAT wrong, this church was not the church of Jesus Christ as claimed. And I left. The change was really too little too late and just made me angry. I was past the point of hurt, past trying to get the men to understand, past asking for change, I was exhausted with caring. So, yeah, the change just made me angry because in the church of Jesus Christ, it should have never been that hurtful. It should have never made me feel that God only loved his sons. It was just too hard and too painful to get the change through.

    If a company made changes after that much employee pain, I can’t blame them for finding another job even after the changes are made. Because change is just too hard, too painful, too slow, and my loyalty to the organization is dead. I had a job like that once. They were very slow to listen to needed changes, and it took too much effort and too much pain to get any changes to happen. I quit. I loved the job deeply, I loved my clients, I loved what the agency did. But my loyalty to it died.

    So, maybe instead of feeling like these people are just ungrateful, you should have listened sooner to what they were feeling. You know, like the angel did with the shepherds. And then explained that they had nothing to be afraid of, for the angel was bringing good news, just that he looked kind of freaky standing in the air like that.

    And many people, especially mothers, are so exhausted by all the expectations put on them around Christmas, that they cannot enjoy the season. People cannot be all excited and happy (and grateful) when they are exhausted or overwhelmed.

    • Here is the second comment in a row misinterpreting the intent of my article. If no one understands what I wrote, I must have written it very poorly! That is my bad. My intent was not to call out people who don’t smile and say thank you. This article is not intended to scold people for being ungrateful. You have a right to your feelings, and no one else has a right to tell you how to feel.

      What I was actually trying to say, is that those of us who are disappointed by people’s reactions to our offerings, whether those offerings are gifts or policy change work or something else, should not try to dictate the feelings of other people. They have a right to their feelings, and we should let them feel how they feel. We don’t have a right to demand a positive reaction just because that is what we would like to see.

      • Another view says:

        April, thanks for the clarification. I wii have to reread your article to see if I miss read it, was thrown off because of the first comment or if your actual article wasn’t clear, because yes, I have exhausted myself working for change and people interpret my exhaustion as ingratitude. The recent thing with the temple changes is one example of the criticism about not being happy about the changes the church is finally making. My husband half expected me to start going back to church, because all the things that bothered me were gone. Um, nope. When men get something that wrong to start out with, they are not guided by Christ. When they punish people for pointing out that it hurt, they are not guided by Christ. So, yeah, I think maybe I was being touchy.

        So, let me try again. A gift freely given is a gift, even if the recipient isn’t grateful. If we are working for gratitude and appreciation, our motives are wrong. Gratitude is the praise of men. As Christ would tell us, if we do something for the praise of men we have our reward. Our reward is the gratitude and our acts are not motivated by kindness, but motivated by seeking the praise of men.

        Maybe one reason why parents keep the Santa myth alive. When Santa brings the big gifts, then the gratitude doesn’t go to the parents, but to the distant Santa and magic. So parents are not expecting a big show of gratitude. When I was a teenager I babysat for a strange family. They explained to me that their children were not taught to believe in Santa, because the parents felt that then the child would not show the parents the proper gratitude. My first thought that I was wise enough not to say, was “how selfish of the parents to want the big show of gratitude.” Kids are kids and things they want should just appear by magic and the kids should not have to pay the parent back with gratitude. You don’t expect a newborn to be grateful for being fed, but you feed them anyway. Not because they are a grateful child, but because you are a good parent. That is how God is after all.

      • Another view says:

        Yeah, I needed to read your final couple of paragraphs twice before reacting.

  3. Tirza says:

    Thanks April for this reminder of the complexity of emotions and need to show empathy to ourselves and others. I loved this line, “Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to honor others’ feelings, letting them sit with their feelings without our judgment, even if what they emote makes us uncomfortable.”

    People don’t choose how they are feeling. What comes up often has a lot of history behind it. That doesn’t mean people can’t examine their feelings and explore why something is coming up. But like you said, the last thing someone needs is judgement.

  1. December 23, 2020

    […] bring peace, love and joy; and if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.” April Young Bennett in an Exponent II blog post. Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe […]

  2. December 26, 2020

    […] peace, love and joy; and if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.”April Young Bennett in an Exponent II blog post.Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe […]

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