Late life development is riddled with paradox: We grow more comfortable with who we are (Authenticity) and at the same time become less concerned with ourselves (Self-Transcending Generosity). We are generally kinder and more understanding of others (Contentment and Compassion), but are also more willing to be ferocious when something important is at stake, and subtler methods have proven ineffective (Necessary Fierceness).
Being raised in the late forties and fifties to be a “good girl,” it took me a long time to recognize ferociousness as a gift or grace of later life. And in today’s volatile world, it is important to emphasize that Necessary Fierceness is not raw rage, violence, or vengeance. And it does not involve the destruction of innocent people for a cause, no matter how holy. It is a blend of anger’s heat and discerning restraint that is sometimes necessary to stop a bully in his tracks, to restore justice, or set an important limit.
Humankind has long looked to its elders to provide the fierceness that is necessary to protect the innocent, initiate the young into adulthood, address injustice, or offer correction when needed. These are not easy roles, nor popular ones, and they require qualities of character that typically flower in the winter of life, such as compassion, wise discernment, and the courageous willingness to do what must be done for the greater good, despite the cost to oneself. In many Native American tribes, for example, if the Grandmothers determine that a chief is not serving the tribe well, they give the word and he steps aside. Saying no to the status quo is one form of Necessary Fierceness.
Another way to think about Necessary Fierceness is to liken it to being a wise warrior. In its most primitive form, the warrior archetype epitomizes the underbelly of power and aggression: it is self-serving, ruthless, and obsessed with winning. However, wise warriors, says Jungian analyst Carol Pearson, are respected “for their toughness and for their intelligent assessment of people and situations, so they can fight when fighting is called for and seek compromise when that is possible.” (Awakening the Heroes Within, p. 104)
If anger is the fire that fuels fierceness, restraint is the virtue that refines it into a force that brings healing rather than more suffering. Restraint means being thoughtful and disciplined about our speech and actions, rather than giving into the heat of the moment and striking out at those who are causing others to suffer. In Refuge, author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams tells a story of rage and restraint that occurred when she discovered that a nearby bird sanctuary had been completely and deliberately destroyed. “I knew rage,” she writes. “It was fire in my stomach with no place to go.” At the same time she recognized the importance of restraint—“the steel partition between a rational mind and a violent one.”
Witnessing injustice and the suffering it causes can ignite fury and rage in our bodies that could easily lead to violent retaliation, were it not for that steel partition and our willingness to honor it. Restraint is the willingness to pause—to not lash out — to see the situation in all its complexity and to discover a life-serving way to address it.
Taking a stand on behalf of a just cause can easily degrade into a hard-hearted stance against those on the other side of the aisle, the street, or the border. Without compassion for everyone involved, advocates quickly turn into adversaries. It is very easy to slide into blaming, taking sides against some as we defend others, or becoming attached to being right and winning, all of which inflame rather than alleviate conflict. Hard as it is in the face of suffering, remaining respectful and openhearted toward everyone involved, especially those with whom we disagree, is vital if fierceness is to be effective and healing.
Nonviolent activist Barbara Deming emphasizes the importance of meeting those we oppose with a combination of powerful assertiveness and respect because “we can put more pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern.” (We Cannot Live Without our Lives, p. 51) In addition to its non-harming effectiveness, nonviolence has another obvious advantage: unlike violent speech and action, which add fuel to fire, peaceful resistance breaks the cycle of violence and retaliation so prevalent in the world right now.