A Contempt-Free Zone
LIKE AN UMBRELLA AGAINST A STORM, this holiday season I wish my home to be a contempt-free zone. Over the feasting, covering evenings with friends and a glass of wine, shielding family Zoom conversations… I’d like us out of the acid fall of biting, caustic words about “others.” Any “others,” no matter their politics, religion, wealth, or influence. The ones we just don’t understand. The ones whose choices have hurt us, scared us, and seem to be tearing our communities and maybe our nation apart.
As rain or hail plunking then sliding off colorful, impervious fabric, contempt would make some noise over our heads, but not soak our thoughts, or hinder our ability to maneuver through the storm of our cultural divides.
A Contempt-free Zone. Please.
“Contempt” is a potent word, not one I use often. Here’s to hoping I don’t express it often either, but I’ve not reflected before on why not. A contemporary podcast guest defined contempt as “a nasty cocktail of anger and disgust.” That’s what’s got me going.
Anger I’ve recognized; there’s plenty to be angry about in our social, economic, environmental, political churn. It’s easy to feel powerless, even to get cynical. But “disgust”? A friend and I brainstormed related words. We recognized disgust in terms like revulsion, recoiling, nausea, or even hatred. There’s an emotional punch to disgust that pushes us farther away from something.
“Disgust” I generally save for rotten food, pungent outhouses, and maybe cooked spinach. Imagine a scrunched up cartoon face, a pulling back of the neck. Disgust is not for people. That would dismiss and fundamentally disrespect other human beings, or groups. And all of us are made in the image of the Divine, reflecting something of that of God within us. Disgust for others is not in a compatible operating system.
Here’s what I notice about contempt as a nasty mix of anger and disgust: Contempt can happen in blurts, quickie one-liners that almost spit, “Those stupid people…” Contempt throws emotional grenades at big complicated problems rather than exploring the intricate layers of situations, influences, and temperaments involved. Like a bulldozing debate tactic, contempt stops conversation beyond agreement or argument. It sets us up as judge and jury, with quick verdict: Guilty! Contempt can be loud or whispered, but it usually takes up a lot of space in a room.
Who wants to express contempt for others? Not my friends and family, surely. We’re all “good” and caring people. But I notice contempt usually erupts thoughtlessly. I’m guessing there’s no calculation or even awareness. Maybe it lets off steam, or releases pent up frustration.
So, here’s to paying attention and uprooting contempt from the hidden corners of our being.
This is my plea for noticing our own contempt, forgiving ourselves, “them”, and even Reality, then turning another direction. Let’s turn toward Goodness instead. Because contempt will not help Peace, Love or Joy grow inside us or between us and others. The weight and tangles of our contempt bind us. We can’t move or turn or stand clear in loving kindness toward anyone.
What do you notice about contempt and how do you stop it?
Like the rest of us, I do harbor contempt. I was horrified at myself recently, when I recognized an inner eruption of disgust for a group of people very different from me. Thankfully, I didn’t verbalize anything, but it was a strong inner recoil. If I’d acted it out, it would have looked like a grimace of revulsion and partial turn of my head away: Don’t wanna see that. Don’t wanna hear about that. Ewww. Then I felt instant guilty disbelief, which spun into shame. How could I think or feel like that? Not my best self, for sure!
Several days later, I was still stewing and praying about it. It helped to separate a healthy sense of responsibility for my reaction from self-shaming paralysis. When I was ready, an important question rose: What kind of Love could heal or replace contempt? A friend once offered a lovely prayer to the Source of Love about her woefully limited capacity: “My love isn’t big enough. Please lend me Yours.” So I reflected on God’s love.
I experience a Divine Love as a forgiving love, spacious, gracious, welcoming me and others as we are, warts and all. It took me a while to be willing to forgive myself for that burst of contempt. Then I could finally accept and release my culpability into the Mercy of God. That’s the beginning of healing any contempt brewing in my gut. An inner experience of forgiveness can fuel my ability to forgive “others” their errors, misjudgments, and harms committed.
An umbrella against the storm will be my prayer image. This holiday season I pray that my home and yours will be a contempt-free zone.
Both Colossians [3:12-15] and Ephesians [4:25-27, 29] tell us we are to forgive because God has forgiven us. They conjure an image in which the Spirit flows into us as the forgiveness with which we have been forgiven and through us as the forgiveness with which we forgive… it is all a work of grace to which we are invited, in which we may participate, with which we may cooperate in co-creating a new order of being. The cost is opening ourselves to the forgiveness that heals us and enables us to give over our strongly held views. The cost is to give over that pride which is our pernicious need to be right, or superior, or in control—everything that alienates us from one another and from God.
—Patricia Loring, Listening spirituality vol II: corporate spiritual practice among Friends [Quakers]. S.l.: Openings Press, 2009,