Taking Offense: Part II
This is Part 2 of this post. You can read Part 1 here.
“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” ~ Socrates
One of the more negative ways Mars expresses itself in Libra is through emotional manipulation and bullying, and taking offense is a classic move towards conflict in the repertoire of the manipulator and the bully. As any military mind knows, the best defense is a good offense, and Mars, if he’s not taking orders from the Sun, easily goes on red alert, and plans human interactions as a type of battle, where people are used strategically towards the goal of victory, or eliminated from the battlefield in one way or another. A planet in its detriment offers a challenge to manifest that planet positively through a full range of possibility, to expand and grow that planet’s expression into an unfamiliar realm — in this case, Mars needs to learn to function effectively in the realm of diplomacy, empathy, concern for others. But if we don’t live up to the test, if the bull isn’t tamed enough to walk carefully through the china shop, then the results can be quite messy, and the damage left behind by an uncontrolled Mars in Libra can be epic.
(And speaking of epics: As I’m sure you know, the planets are currently named from Roman and Greek gods and goddesses — and the myths and stories of those beings fit the planets’ way of manifesting energy rather well. But when I personalize a planet and refer to it as “he” or “she”, keep in mind that I am invoking a convenient mythology to help explain the way the planet is working. The fact that we all have all these planets in our charts is a good reminder that gender does not have a dividing line, but flows on a continuum through the human psyche, and misogyny or misandry is simply hating on a denied and projected part of yourself. But I digress.)
Mars, however, is not just about fighting and battles — in fact, I would say that the whole concept of war is laid on Mars simply because he can carry it, and that war is not natural, but is a wound on the human psyche which may take a full Great Age to heal. But that’s another post. The point here is that Mars, underneath all the saber-rattling, helps us use and direct energy in the physical realm. I think of Mars as an electrical transformer that takes pure energy and feeds it to us, modulating it both through our natal Mars, and also through the signs and aspects as it transits through the Zodiac every two years. Given that we are beings of pure energy living in a world of pure energy, that’s saying a lot. We can’t help but use and direct energy in the physical realm if we are in a living body, and when Mars spends an extra-long time in a sign through retrogradation, as he is now doing in Libra, then we have a lot to learn about how to modulate energy in a particular way. In Libra, the lessons are about relationship and justice.
“You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” ~ Swami Vivekananda
If we let our Sun step into its role as Mars’ Commander-in-Chief, how do you think it might strategically handle this raw power? If we are living our lives from our center, from that place where we connect with Spirit and Soul, then we will actively invite all the different parts of our Self to share information and offer their viewpoints and opinions. Mars will report in, but so will Venus, who gives us our ability to develop values, relate to others, assemble resources, and to enjoy the beauty of life; Mercury, our reasoning mind, information-gatherer and chief communicator; and the Moon, our connection with the fertile cauldron of the Unconscious, with our Ancestors, and the ability to feed, nurture and nourish ourselves and others. All of these planets have something to contribute to a “life well-lived”.
So when that red flag of offense is raised, how can we connect with our greater Self, and direct this combined Martian and Venusian energy of offense in a way that is positive and transformative? How can we work to defuse a situation so that justice is served and relationships are healed? The first step, of course, is to get control of our own Mars, to hold back on any aggressive reactions until we have had time to evaluate the situation — and that may take a few seconds, a few minutes, or a few days. The red flag is a warning, an alert, not a call to immediate action. We can take the time to let Mercury, our rational mind, and Venus and the Moon, our values and emotional understanding, assess the situation and contribute their advice. Then, the decisions about how to react can be made in the light of our Sun and our Soul’s purpose.
But, of course, it doesn’t always work that way, because almost all of us are, to one degree or another, fragmented and dealing with pain. More often than not what we see is that, Mars, the ego, is juiced up and suffering from PTSD, in defensive mode all the time, and easily triggered into rage. Mercury is convinced that the rational answer is the only right one, and we should be afraid of any information from our unconscious, and only trust the information he gathers through his rational means. Mercury tells us to just ignore the Moon, weeping into her apron over there because we have rejected our Ancestors and their wisdom, and refused to take nourishment from the great cauldron of the Unconscious which she guards. Venus, meanwhile, is desperately trying to gather resources to help us by manipulating and making promises she can’t always keep, instead of doing her job, which is establishing our baseline values of justice, caring and empathy.
Almost all of us do this, to one degree or another. Very few of us can claim to be living fully in the Light of our Sun. But we can choose to examine our lives, our selves, and those around us and attempt to harmonize the discord. And learning to let offense be a simple red flag instead of a way of life is a good place to start harmonizing.
“The last great freedom of man is the freedom to choose his attitude under any given set of circumstances.” ~ Victor Frankl
At its root, offense, given or taken, is about a difference in values or principles — one person is disparaging what another holds dear in some way. A request to Google for a definition of “offense” returns two:
- annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one's standards or principles.
- a breach of a law or rule; an illegal act.
The word “perceived” is a key one — there must be a perception of insult on the part of the offended person. If a parrot looks directly at someone and says “Squawk! Yer an ugly old pirate!” everyone laughs. If a three-year old points and says “Look, Mommy, that person is really ugly!” Mommy will likely be embarrassed, and the person in question might be embarrassed too, or hurt, but is unlikely to be offended. After all, the source of the statement is only three years old. But if a drunken man in a bar comments loudly that one of the women at the bar is ugly, then that woman may be offended. Or she may perceive the source as a drunk frat boy whose opinion means less to her than that of a parrot, and laugh it off. So offense, intended or not, does not offend until it is taken as offensive.
Taking offense is a not-very-effective response to a perceived threat to one’s sense of self. It is a learned response, because it has been rewarded repeatedly by giving us power over others (demanding, and getting, someone’s silence or an apology), by getting us sympathy and attention from others, and by allowing us to avoid criticism by identifying as a victim. The choice to stand in a place of being offended, instead of simply noting the intent of the offense and processing it, may be subconscious, but it is a choice, nonetheless, and a clue that we, or the person who is offended, have some work to do around developing a healthy ego, and learning more effective ways to respond to a clash of values. A strong but flexible ego is essential for psychological and spiritual well-being. An ego inflated by a lot of hot air is so busy trying to defend itself against pinpricks that it can’t focus on doing its proper job of assessing and manipulating our interactions with physical reality.
Let’s look a little more closely at some of the results of taking offense in an effort to understand others better, as well as identify the tendency when it surfaces in (gasp!) our own psyches. For instance, it’s fairly clear that when someone says something deliberately offensive, they are trying to emotionally-manipulate their target, but taking offense is also manipulative.
Yep. Anyone who holds on to being offended is being manipulative. When someone spends a lot of time and energy expressing their offended-ness, they are sending negative energy towards the person they feel offended them. It could be anger (how dare you!), hurt (ooh, ouch, what you said/did really hurt me!) or contempt (you idiot!). The (often un- or barely-conscious) reason they are sending this energy is because they want to elicit a certain response from the other person, or from friends or other bystanders, a response that strokes their ego, or soothes the pain of self-doubt, or expresses the unhealed anger of a rejection that, though it happened years ago, was triggered by the recent offense. A response that makes them feel cared for, or important. Somebody needs to “make it right” for them, and they are going to make sure that happens. That’s manipulation.
Expressing your feelings or opinions on something (“Hey, back off!” or “That’s just wrong”) is not the same as demanding a response that you alone can deem sufficient or appropriate (“How dare you?! I demand an apology! You can’t speak about this subject, you are a hurtful idiot! Just shut up!”). So if you think you are being manipulated or manipulating, look at what is being demanded of or by you. Is a response expected? A change of opinion demanded? Is someone being silenced (“you can’t say that!”)? If so, you’re looking at manipulation. (And if you’re thinking right now that there’s a whole lot of manipulation going on in the world, and not just through being offended, you’d be right — a problem which really interferes with the creation of authentic relationships. But, once again, that’s another post)
Someone who is perpetually offended is taking a victim stance, as in “It’s your fault that I feel this way”. Which is not to say that people aren’t genuinely victimized, but that someone who chooses to stand in that place emotionally is manipulating and angling for power by trying to elicit empathy and guilt in others, so the victim can get attention, appreciation, nurturing, whatever. Given the tendencies of humans to feel empathy and guilt, this is a more powerful stance than it may appear at first glance. But, to use Starhawk’s terminology, it is a type of power-over rather than power-from-within.
Taking offense also gives an opportunity to build up one’s ego by taking a stand on what is perceived as the moral high ground (which is where our opinions, values and principles live) and looking down on the ignorant, benighted fools who have offended us (down there, where the other folks’ opinions, values and principles are.) Many people are easily offended because they can’t differentiate between their opinions and their inner sense of self. When identities are too closely tied to one’s opinions and values, and those opinions are then disagreed with, many feel like they, themselves, have been rejected, the core of who they are has been shoved away, pushed to a corner and crushed.
So taking offense is defensive, manipulative, an outlet for anger, a sop to the ego, a victim stance, and, I would argue, a complete waste of energy. This is where Mars comes in. Mars is about how we handle our personal energy, and more often than not, the energy expended on being offended would be much more profitably used in other ways. Which is not to say we should ignore offensive remarks or actions. If your boss or a co-worker repeatedly makes offensive, sexist jokes, you are well-advised to take steps to stop that behavior. But those steps should not involve talking to everyone in the office about what an offensive, sexist idiot the person is, or bursting into tears, or raging at your spouse about how awful your job is because of your boss, or blogging about how offended you are. All of those things will wear you down, sap your energy and twist your mind, your emotions, and your subtle bodies into states of stress and ill-health — and it won’t be much fun for anyone who has to listen to you, either.
If someone offends you, recognize if for what it is, decide if it’s important enough to do something about, then take action. Document the harassment, talk to someone in the HR department, or start looking for another job. Alternatively, you could realize that what this person thinks or says is of little or no consequence to your life, and maybe even make a joke of it to your office mates. (“Hey, doesn’t Chris sound just like a parrot that once belonged to Rush Limbaugh? Squawk!”). You could also try talking calmly and quietly to the person, explain your point of view, and see if you can negotiate a change in behavior by reaching out to another human being in a spirit of healing. There are always more empowering options in a situation than being offended.
The psychological complexes that underlie the reactions of the perpetually offended are usually some combination of long-term anger, a lack of self-worth, shame, and a sense of powerlessness. There is very real pain underneath the offended stance, but taking offense does nothing to ease this pain. The work of healing, the work of expanding and strengthening our sense of Self, brings us fully into the power of our Sun. This is the work of the Magician — to bring a strong will, a clear set of values, a honed mind and a balanced, positive emotional state into the world, every day. This is how change is created. Like “Perfect love and perfect trust” it is an evolving goal, and we will all occasionally stumble and fall. So when you find yourself confronted with someone who is offended and squawking loudly (and that person may be yourself) instead of getting angry or offended in return, here are some things you can do to try to heal the situation:
- Look at what hurts. Why do you think that you, or these other people, are really in pain? What’s the long-term, underlying cause?
- Empathize. If you consider that this person who is lambasting you for, say, an unintentionally racist remark, has been dealing with the wounding effects of outright racism her whole life, and you think about what it might feel like to live with that, it will be easier to apologize and work on healing rather than going into self-defense mode and reacting with anger and even more offense.
- Clarify what they want from you, or you want from them. Are the demands reasonable, or simply manipulative?
- Identify the underlying ideas and beliefs at work in this situation. Are any of them simply incorrect? (e.g. “You made what I think is a racist remark, therefore you are a racist”). Sometimes, identifying and clarifying the beliefs involved can go a long way towards healing a situation.
- Think about how you could interpret this event differently.
Make all the voices in your mind sit down and pay attention to the leader, the Sun. What is the meaning of this event when looked at in line with your personal spiritual truths? Have each voice state its case clearly — the angry Mars, determined to defend…what? The anxious, scattered Mercury, trying desperately to organize and make sense of all the incoming information, all by itself, refusing the help of the Moon, who, like the High Priestess of the Tarot, guards the gates to the resources and instinctive understanding of the unconscious, and could help Mercury determine what information has depth, meaning and validity, and what is just noise. And perhaps Venus is still trying to find the balance, to manipulate everyone into getting along instead of determining what is right and just in this situation. Let them all state their cases (journaling can be very helpful here), and consider everything in the light of your Soul’s purpose, then determine how you can effect change in accordance with your higher Will.
The Sun is the artist that decides what we choose to create in this lifetime. Work on adjusting your inner experience to reflect your Sun’s directives. You may not be able to do this in a given moment before you have to decide how to react in a situation, but consistent work of self-reflection, and magical work to change and heal wounds that were energetically-imprinted in your childhood (particularly wounds to your sense of self-worth, and wounds that truncated your ability to empathize) will lead to healing, expanded understanding, and empowerment. Under the light of the Sun, the energy of Mars can be directed toward positive change.
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