Raging Against the Night…or Not?

The word is out. Americans are angry. It appears large numbers of the populace ride a roller coaster of rage throughout their day, with a whopping 68% of the population at least once a day reading or hearing something that makes them angry. A recent Esquire-NBC research study, entitled American Rage, studied the many manifestations of anger rippling across our culture, and the study paints a picture of a peevish population. From the outraged crowds attracted to Donald Trump’s stump speeches, to the prickly supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to the irked activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and the annoyed armed men occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, it seems we are increasingly a nation of angry people.

The study found a spectrum of triggers for the nation’s anger, revealing a fragmented population that is annoyed about a lot of different things. Some Americans are angry about the inactivity of Congress, others the encroachment of government into the marketplace and industries like health care. Another segment of the population directs their ire on corruption on Wall Street, and still others on the role of money in manipulating the political process, while more than half of the nation (52%) is angry that the “American dream” is no longer attainable.

AngryHand.jpgAccording to the study, the magnitude and focus of our anger rises and falls along fault lines of ethnic, racial and gender differences – 73% of whites are angry at least once a day, but only 56% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos. Women are angrier than men—not only by the way they are treated but by the way others are treated just as much. Middle-aged white men are the most angry of all, seeing life “through a veil of disappointment,” and a “perceived disenfranchisement,” a bitter sense that the dream of their life did not pan out because of external factors.

Curiously, there are a few issues that we rally around with a common irritation. One of the larger percentages of Americans (78%) are aggravated by their perception that elected officials enact policies that favor only the wealthy, and an even larger percentage (more than 90%) are outraged that shootings are happening in our schools. As the researchers summarized the study: “We the people are pissed.”

Cone.jpgOver the years, anger has motivated humans to mobilize politically around their dissatisfaction with the conditions of life or those in power. James Cone’s, The God of the Oppressed, explored this righteous anger in relation to centuries of American enslavement and oppression and the African-American community’s struggle for human rights. In The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820-1860, Linda Grasso travels similar ground on women’s issues. She sees anger as an “arsenal” against personal and institutional oppression and believes that anger can elicit courage, growth, and common cause, becoming a profound source of energy that can direct progress and change.

Cone and Grasso are undeniably right. Throughout history angry people have changed societies and cultures by channeling the energy of their rage into constructive engagement with unjust or ineffective social, political and economic systems. In the musical, Les Miserables, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg captured the motivational potential of this affective reaction to injustice. The revolutionary character Enjolras channels the passion of centuries of revolutionaries refusing to yield under the boot of oppression in the song: Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Because rage has been a part of the human condition from the beginning, the human race has learned a lot over the course of history about emotion, what it can do to us, and how to work with its energy in constructive ways. In a frequently cited psychological study comparing 47 non Indo-Europeans, Hupka, Lenton, and Hutchison found that in most cultures anger is the first emotion humans identify with a label (guilt runs a close second). Whatever else is going on in our inner world, we’ve always been able to recognize anger at work. And, whether you look at the animal and human sacrifices to appease the gods in preliterate societies; Poseidon’s jealous anger at his brother, Zeus; the Roman Furies and their retributive anger toward human arrogance; or the unleashing of God’s wrath on the antichrist in Revelation 16, many of our ancestors have assumed God is just as angry as we are, and about the same things. You still see this assumption operative in contemporary religious circles. After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes in New Orleans in 2005, some Christian leaders attributed the devastation to God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Similarly, when an earthquake killed more than 90,000 people in Pakistan the same year, the Pakistani news media blamed the tragedy on Allah’s anger and punishment of sinful behaviors.

But, some people with deep spiritualties have always seen the dark side of this powerful emotion. They recognized that anger is not just a tool of transformative change, and it doesn’t always promote “insight, artistry, and action,” as Grasso documents in regards to the fight for women’s rights. Anger is an emotional labyrinth that can swallow us whole and become corrosive and toxic before we’re aware of it. Throughout history, many humans have expressed their anger with no regulation or consideration of the emotion’s role and power to shape our world. In doing so, they have created the most brutal and hideous chapters of our past. One of the great threats to our age is that unlike the past, in which angry people had a difficult time finding each other, thanks to the Internet, telecommunications and travel technology, those awash in irritation can find each other fairly easy.

BrokenMirror.jpgConsider the chronically angry people around us, and their shared behaviors. Because they can’t regulate the emotion of anger they have a hard time listening, struggle to make important distinctions about complicated realities, and suffer from a deficit in empathy, which inhibits their ability to think in other people’s categories or “feel” the validity of the underlying concerns supporting other people’s opinions. The chronically angry are incarcerated in their thinking and feeling, some serving life sentences. This is one of the reasons such people return to the same talking points over and over again, and their narrow set of issues become superimposed over every situation and conversation. Those with unchecked anger may see a truth in the chaos and disappointment of reality, but they are almost always wrong in their overall diagnosis and prescription for the treatment of problems.

Perhaps the reason so many of us seem content to wallow in our rage is the influence popular culture has had on our values. In the past 50 or 60 years, our culture has often made the angry rebel, even if it is a rebel without a cause, into a kind of folk hero. Anger has become idolized–an end in itself, a last cry of resistance to the “rigged systems” that confine our life. Shouting at the darkness and the rain is not only acceptable, it is the superior response to a meaningless world. Dylan Thomas’s poem becomes a mantra taken out of context: “Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Network.jpgThe pervasive role of anger in the Esquire-NBC study is reminiscent of an iconic scene in the film, Network, a post-Nixon era critique of television news.  The aging TV anchorman, Howard Beale, has a nervous breakdown while reporting the evening news, and his brief moment of despair and honesty turns him into the superstar “mad prophet of the airwaves.”   In a famous scene, Beale tells his viewers:

“I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write … all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad… I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

The scene ends with images of people sticking their heads out of their windows all over the country and yelling into the night: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of “not taking it anymore.” Even if we are mad as hell, the world is going to continue to change at the rapid disorienting rate (which is one of the reasons we are so angry). If we’re going to make all of this anger really work for us, we need to reconnect with the kind of wisdom of the ancient power of redemptive anger that has driven all of the most effective social reformers in human history.

These saints, seers, philosophers and gurus caught onto the dark side of anger early. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, for instance, the desert mystics, fighting their inner demons in solitude, came to see the full force of the destructive potential of rage or wrath. By the fourth century anger took a prominent place in the list of the seven deadly sins, and by the time of Dante’s Inferno, anger was a sin that booked passage to the lower levels of hell.

The ancients came to realize by the 5th century that there are contrary virtues that can temper the cardinal sins. In the epic poem, “Battle for the Soul,” Prudentius may have been the first to suggest that patience is the antidote to anger. Patience allows us to not demonize others or their opinions. If gives us the strength to take issues into the messy commons of our shared world to fight out viable solutions to our problems, without allowing anger to suck us into its vortex. Patience helps us cultivate a long view on our life and human history. It assists us in building a suite of other virtues that are essential to world changing behavior: compassion and understanding, but also persistence and long-suffering. The angry people who will shape a new world must learn to channel their psychic energy not only to complain, but to resist withdrawing into a hive of rage with like-minded people. They need to build alliances across meanings systems in order to reform institutions. The angry people who have changed the world for the better were those motivated to change the world in incremental steps.

These angry women and men have moved nations and cultures toward all kinds of good things, and it is little wonder this emotion plays an outsized role in human efforts to understand our inner life and the things that motivate us to change the world around us. But, it remains to be seen if the sea of rage measured in the Esquire-NBC research will lead in the direction of positive social change. The results of the survey poses a troubling question for our moment in American history: Will our national expression of pervasive anger lead us to positive advancements in our common life, or will it drive us to each other’s throats with the cast of angry characters residing in Dante’s fifth level of hell? The cynics would say the latter, and the Esquire study might support them. But, I’m betting on the power of the human spirit to reconnect with the strength and insight of ancient wisdom and the virtue of patience. We’ve risen out of the ashes of our irritation more than once in the past, can we do it again?


Staying in the Struggle

15730026991_aace20b7eeThe latest film in the Star Wars franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is scheduled for release on December 18th, and soon our culture will become awash in Star Wars imagery. It seems we take fantasy stories very seriously! So much so that on Monday, October 19, when a movie trailer for the film aired on the Internet it resulted in such a rush for advanced ticket purchases that a popular on-line ticket site, Fandango, crashed.

Although some critics question the social relevance of fantasy stories like Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Star Trek franchise, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, these forms of literature and film are deceptively potent forces in cultures. Underneath their texts, scripts and computer-generated action scenes, there throbs the heartbeat of ancient themes and characters that serve as strong “soul forming” vehicles. The history of every society is dotted with examples of “make-believe” stories that have shaped values like courage, self-sacrifice, acceptance of the neighbor and stranger when others do not, perseverance under fierce trials, defense of the innocent or defenseless even if it requires risking one’s life, or standing against formidable odds to promote justice As St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, saw so clearly in the 16th century, it is through our imaginations that we often grow into something more than we already are. This is why early Jesuit schools gave a special place in the curriculum to great literature.

15705065090_b040945883_zToday, most Americans know something about Harper Lee’s famous first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was a runaway bestseller when it was released in July of 1960. Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and many other prizes for the book, and served as a consultant in writing the script for the movie, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, 1962. Like the book, the movie is considered by many one of the best ever made—winning three Academy Awards. It still sells a million copies per year, and over 30 million since it was first published. It is regularly ranked in surveys as the most influential book in Americans’ lives, outside of the Bible.

On the surface, Mockingbird is a coming of age story, told through the reflections of a young woman looking back on her life as a pre-adolescent girl in a poor town in Alabama. But, both the book and the film are a tale layered with messages about living well and living poorly. Mockingbird explores the evil of racism, a child’s gradual loss of innocence and awakening to good and evil, the cruelty that exists among small-minded people, the human capacity to fight for justice despite an unjust and imperfect world, the idea that true heroism can exist within the day-to-day acts of a good person, and the courage and determination required to change a society. The story inspired many young people to become lawyers or go into public service, and many more to become involved in the Civil Rights movement, which was reaching a fevered pitch at the time the book and film were released—sometimes the right story appears when the human race needs it the most, and Harper Lee’s book was the right book at the right time.

Mockingbird has continued to inspire generations of people, and it was such a runaway success that Harper Lee never published again. That is, until this summer when she released her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. This new novel has many of the same characters as her first, but it tells a very different kind of story. Several sections in Watchman have racially offensive language, and while Atticus remains a somewhat principled individual who believes in the law as a humanizing force in society, he also has an almost irrational distrust of the federal government, a conspiracy theory about the NAACP, and believes that 1950s African-Americans in the South are not ready to assume full citizenship alongside the white descendants of the Confederacy. At the beginning of Watchman Atticus is still Scout’s ethical north-star, but she’s an adult now, has been living in the progressive environment of New York City, and the hero worship of her father unravels when she witnesses him attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting. The climax of the book deals with Scout’s struggle to make sense of the inconsistencies in her father’s attitudes about race and his character—she struggles to stand up to him without walking away from the relationship altogether.

19069224923_6008f49d3a_bWatchman is a bitter disappointment if you are expecting a sequel to Mockingbird. The beloved Atticus of the first book is a mere specter of the character he exhibited in the second. But, Watchman is not meant to be a sequel—it is actually Lee’s first draft of Mockingbird. When she submitted it to a publisher, the company saw the promise in both the writer and her story, but did not see a value in printing her submission. Consequently, Lee engaged in a grueling re-write process that gave birth to a far more attractive story. Harper Lee’s second book offers an insider’s view of the process of writing the great American novel. In this first draft, we see a story dripping with an existential grayness. Given Lee’s own story as a bright girl growing up Alabama, you can get a glimpse of her own struggle with navigating relationships with family and friends she left behind in the South who held reprehensible racial attitudes. For all of its limitations, Watchman highlights one of the biggest challenges faced by those who have been awakened to the ingrained injustices in a society: the tension that comes with facing family and friends whose contradictory beliefs allow them to hold high-minded morals in some areas yet narrow-minded bigotry in others.

Although a lot of people don’t like Watchman, I think the two books together showcase an important study in the dynamics of changing the world. We need the Atticus of Mockingbird to fuel our own idealism—someone who is clear in vision, courageous, noble, and uncompromising in values of compassion and justice. Our mythologies and literature are filled with this kind of Atticus. Such characters operating in our inner worlds help us to reach beyond our limitations, first in our imagination, and later in incremental steps in our real lives. The importance of these mythic characters to our interior development is the reason stories like Star Wars and To Kill a Mockingbird still attract us. If we are to change the world, we need to see our fictional heroes do it first. We need to believe that we can fight a lost cause without wavering, and we can endure the bone-crushing experience of defeat and disappointment without having the flame of hope extinguished.

But, Watchman reminds us of our broken and fallen world and the real people who exist within it—helping us see the need to understand the kind of world God wants us to try to build together. For, sadly, it seems our world is filled with too many of the Atticus character in Watchman, and too few of the Atticus character in Mockingbird. There are many people who are decent and loving in some situations, but can become abominable in their thought and actions in others. These people typify the complex mystery of contradictions that exists in the human heart and the mind. In Watchman, Scout is so repulsed by the darkness she sees in her Atticus and her town that her first impulse is to leave him and it and never come back. Like many of us, she doesn’t want to remain in relationship with such toxic humans. However, her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, tries to convince Scout that the best course is to not flee to New York, but rather the opposite—to set up roots in her home town of Maycomb with the intent of changing people’s minds about issues of race: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise (Scout). They don’t need you when they’re right.” At the end of the book the reader is left with the impression that Scout does decide to return to Maycomb, to become an active participant in community life and act as a moral irritant to her fellow citizens.

Uncle Jack’s advice to Scout reminded me of one of the most powerful women I have ever known – an African-American Catholic woman named Pauline Humphrey. Pauline was a third grade elementary teacher in a poor African-American neighborhood in north St. Louis, and a dedicated and unbelievably effective community activist. I worked and lived in her community for about four years as a young Catholic seminarian, and was involved in many projects with Pauline: campaigning to tear down abandoned buildings because they were becoming drug houses and several children had been sexually abused behind their boarded up windows and doors, creating community gardens in abandoned lots, fighting the city’s intention of placing a methadone clinic in the already distressed community, getting the children of the community into afternoon and summer programs. Pauline was kind, forgiving, compassionate, usually gentle in demeanor and one of the most nonjudgmental human beings I have ever met. But, she was also unrelenting and tough as nails when it came to goading the community to projects that protected the kids of the neighborhood. Although she may not have known it, Pauline became one of my heroes, and one of the most impactful mentors I’ve ever had.

Pauline moved into the neighborhood in the late 1950s. She was one of the first black professionals to move into the north St. Louis community and almost as soon as her family settled into their home, white families began selling their houses at such an alarming rate that property values plummeted. Eventually more than 1,500 houses flipped over a two-year period. While some of the original black families also left, Pauline and her family decided to stay. One day I was going door-to-door with her asking people to come to community organizing activity later in the evening and she told me story after story of the ignorant and hateful things that were said to her during those years of white flight, most of it said by the white Catholics in her parish. After hearing a dozen or more outrageous stories, I finally had to ask her a question: “Pauline, why are you still Catholic after encountering such atrocious behaviors?”

She paused before responding with a thoughtful tone in her voice: “We’re all sinners, weak and stupid in certain ways,” Pauline said, “some of us are weaker and dumber than others, for sure. But, if I believe that we are all made in the image of God, as I do, how would my fellow Catholics and their children ever grow up to think differently if I left to go somewhere else? God put them in my path and me in theirs, after all. Whatever I’m called to do with my life, part of it has to do with remaining faithfully present and engaged with those in my path.” She admitted that it was often difficult, but Pauline was made to do difficult things and her very presence in the world challenged others.

ThornsThe racism in the United States that was the context of Harper Lee’s book when it was released in 1961 is still very much a part of the nation. While there have been undeniable advancements, racial attitudes have continued to fester, and racial oppression has just taken on new forms (Michelle Alexander has documented the mass incarceration of black men with painstaking precision in her book, The New Jim Crow). Despite all of the Mockingbird Atticus wannabes, the blatant ignorance of discrimination has continued to flourish in family systems, congregations, places of businesses and other places of community. It has been passed on from generation to generation like a virus that will not respond to medical intervention.

After reading Watchman I was left wondering if the viscous potency of this legacy is the result of flight—fleeing the discomfort of having to relate and argue with family and friends who just don’t seem to get it. In this second half of the 20th century we just don’t seem to have enough Pauline Humphreys—people who are willing to remain faithfully present and engaged with those in their path, even when it’s painful.

Inspired by these heroes—fictitious or real—can we stick around when it feels uncomfortable? Can we persevere through challenging relationships to get closer to God’s vision for us? Can we stay in the struggle without fleeing? Maybe in this next generation we’ll get the best of both worlds – the Atticus in Mockingbird and the Scout in Watchman and be graced with more people like Pauline Humpreys.