Anger and fear are closely related emotions. For instance, they both travel through the amygdala in the brain. They need to be closely connected in our brain because people often have to decide quickly between standing their ground or running away in the face of immediate danger. That’s the classic fight-or-flight choice. However, kids growing up in impoverished, urban settings seem to have a strong fight and flight reaction when they perceive a threat.
Imagine you are one of a small group of soldiers conducting a search for enemy troops. You’re expecting to run into a few of the enemy at a time. Instead, though, you stumble across a much larger unit. The enemy greatly outnumbers you. So now, what do you do? You must shoot and run at the same time. That’s the only way to survive. And what are you feeling? Both anger and fear. Your anger helps you fire at the enemy. Your fear helps you escape.
It’s easy to see that for urban youth survival or defensive behaviors are usually triggered by mixed (and very strong) feelings of fear and anger. It’s the combination of these two emotions that overwhelms reason. True, when someone is raging, all you can see is the anger. But remember the core message: “I’ve got to kill you before you kill me.” That’s very different than “I want to kill you and get what I want” or “I want to kill you to get you out of my way.” It’s the fear of death that directs the attack.
Why is this so important? It means that when helping urban youth we are likely going to have to equip them to deal with their his or her fear as well as his or her anger. It means that feeling safe is key to overcoming such a reflexive response. We’re talking about helping youth change how they relate to the world.
Now here’s the dilemma. Traumatized people (many urban youth have been traumatized) see danger everywhere, anywhere, with everyone. There is no safe place. There are no safe people. Most importantly, they often see danger where there is no danger. So how can youth quit experiencing survival rage? The answer, obviously, is complex. He or she must experience places in their lives that they are safe enough, so he or she can stop running and stop shooting. Note the words “safe enough” – not perfectly safe. None of us live in a perfectly safe world. A safe enough world is one in which you feel no immediate danger to your life and well-being. A safe enough place is one in which you believe that most people, especially those closest to you, are on your side and want to protect rather than harm you.
That is a beautiful picture of the body of Christ coming alive in these forgotten places. Providing refuge and sanctuary for weary urban youth simply looking for a place safe enough to stop running.