Everyone is angry right now. Rage saturates our media, from raving misogynists on Twitter to hate-spewing anti-Semites on the Livestream feed of the GOP convention to the red-faced contortions of the Republican nominee and his allies. Rage burns in our blood, in the grim faces of Americans taking to the streets to protest the deep roots of racism that contaminate our so-called justice system, in the eyes of innocent Muslims and Jews who stand accused of treason and worse by the country that claims freedom of worship as a citizen’s right, in the hearts and minds of queer couples and their families told that their love and commitment are sinful and corrupt compared to those of straight people.
The path from anger to hate is short, wide and downhill. We see hate in action all around us, and our wiring encourages us to join in, to take refuge in the crowd where reason gives way to mob rule. We feel our own pain and the referred pain of those we see suffering, and our brains light up like fireworks. Electrochemically speaking, we are walking storms, pent-up cataclysms of stress hormones, righteous indignation and impotent frustration. All we need is a target for our anger—a natural reaction to pain, grief and injustice—to become hatred of the Other Who Did This To Us.
In mental health circles, anger is sometimes described as a secondary emotion, protecting the self from contact with a deeper, more heartfelt wound. If this is the case, then we are facing a double-edged sword as we enter the political arena: the realities of the world are hurting us on one side while the barrage of invective that passes for public conversation sinks its hooks into us from the other. No wonder we are such a mess. We live in a world where fewer and fewer of us, even in the middle class, live more than a paycheck away from indigence. Our children are inheriting a world where they can no longer expect the American Dream, and the comforting jingoism of Equality, Justice and Freedom in the land of the brave doesn’t apply so much if they’re female, brown-skinned or queer. Science tells us that we are killing the planet that houses us, that we are punishing our citizens for the color of their skins, their gender and their social class at birth, but when we turn on the TV or open the Internet we see these ideas ridiculed and dismissed by people who see scientists as the enemies of God. The complacencies of growing up liberal in a heavily-filtered ivory tower have been replaced by the much more real and disturbing truth that all is not well and it’s up to me to do something about it. Who wouldn’t be angry? Our parents and teachers didn’t prepare us—well, mine didn’t, anyway—for this world where we can get death threats on our phone for saying women are as good as men, where police departments use mug shots of black men for target practice, where being murdered may be the price we pay for identifying as female if we were born in a male body. WTF?
I was raised to believe that anger is unseemly, an inappropriate state for a reasonable person. I still think there’s some truth to that, as anger can be notoriously hard on one’s powers of critical judgment. But as I look at the work that needs to be done, I am seeing that anger has its uses. In its absence, we crave the luxury of ignoring the harsh fact that outside our sleeping-room doors lies a world in which power is used to promote the interests of the powerful at the expense of the weakest. Those of us who live in first-world countries whose cultural wealth is grounded in colonialism and slavery would much rather accept the narrative that we rule the world as a result of our own meritorious efforts. At the first sign of a challenge to our self-congratulatory inner monologue, we enfold ourselves in the upholstered platitudes that make us feel safe again.
But what if safety is an illusion? What if the platitudes and the intentional blindness and the increased sticking-of-fingers-in-the-ears-and-heads-in-the-sand prove to be useless against the inexorable, tectonic fulfillment of historical events already in motion? It’s not a rhetorical question; we will be finding out the answer for the rest of my life, and my children’s lives. That’s when I get angry.
I’m angry because I know better than to think reality will go away if I refuse to look at it. I’m angry because I knew this was coming and told myself a bunch of lies so I wouldn’t have to pay attention. I’m angry because I’m still tempted to repeat those mistakes so I don’t have to admit both the enormity of the problem and the enormity of being part of the solution. I’m angry because I’ve internalized so much sexism that it’s taken me 47 years to start to open my mouth about it. I’m angry because I spent decades telling myself I “got” racism when all I was doing was spouting self-flattering bullshit. I’m angry because I’m pretty smart and there are plenty of people smarter than me who are still wearing blinders when they could make a huge difference otherwise. I’m angry because there are so many smart people who are too scared or too poor or too hungry or too black or too gay to get a shot at making this better for everyone. I look around me every day, in the park or at the store or in a meeting or on the Internet and I’m floored by what people are saying and doing—and most of the time I’m still too cowardly and conflicted to say anything.
No wonder people want to pin all their hopes on some kind of savior rather than wade into this mess. No wonder people of conscience throw up their hands and retreat to despair when they see what the American experiment has come to. No wonder people turn their backs on the weakest to protect their own. There are very legitimate things to be afraid of, and people aren’t designed to handle fear rationally. We’re designed to mask it with anger, to lash out at the nearest thing we can find to blame. The more nervous we are, the more incompetent and unprepared we feel, the angrier we get and the more we hang our hate on the most easily-visible hook.
Anger and hate can feel like a gratifying relief when the alternatives feel useless. It’s intoxicating to surf the waves of intense emotion, and it distracts us temporarily from the real state of affairs. Like the surf, however, it is hard to harness anger in the service of sustained, positive, action to mitigate fear, and even harder to harness hate for that purpose. If we want to make actual changes to make the world less terrifying, we need to find a way to stay angry enough to pay attention, but not so angry that we lose our ability to think. We need to resist the temptation to hate that which we can’t control, most especially those of our fellow humans whose fears and anger lead them to hate us. We don’t have time for that. We have to accept and become friendly enough with our fears and frustrations and disappointment so that the resulting anger has nowhere to go but to fuel positive action. We have to find a way to remember that we are all part of the same broken, flailing, frightened tribe and root that compassion unshakably deep. Only then can our anger at injustice be directed where it can do some good. We cry out against those in our world who kill wantonly from the core of their own bitterness and pain, but our anger at one another and our hatred for our fellow human beings are part and parcel of that same pathology. There are many who profit from the fractures caused by anger and hate between us—we must resist the seduction of that route and proceed together along the narrow, uphill path where we can prevail.
©Mary Braden 2016