Responding to Anger



Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Respect is a Decision

No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

We are heading into a season when generations will mix together with more frequency than they may at other times of the year (around a dining table for a holiday meal, for instance.)  While we interact with people of a variety of ages at work, the differences in generations are often much wider when we move outside the office. I was thinking of the clashes that often arise during these gatherings as I was reading a new book of essays by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin entitled No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Le Guin is 88 and, in this delightful and insightful book, she is not shy about saying she is old.  In fact, don’t suggest otherwise.  As she notes, “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires.  Fear is seldom wise and never kind.  Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow?  Is it really the geezer?”

But what got me to thinking about relationships between generations, and the importance respect plays in all of our dealings with each other, is when Le Guin states that kids “who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are.”  They don’t see you.  And if generations do encounter each other, it is often with indifference, distrust, and animosity.  This is where the importance of respect comes into play.

Le Guin writes that showing respect is a decision, not an opinion.

“Respect has often been overenforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc.). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding.  It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification.  Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all.  Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death.  The acceptance of that takes courage.  Courage deserves respect.”

Respect for others can be hard, and it is often easy to only respect those who share our interests and opinions.  But I like Le Guin’s suggestion that respect “creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.”

Ursula Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you chose to celebrate.  If we’re lucky, we’ll have kids, geezers, and everything in between together over the next two weeks sharing times of understanding, appreciation, and, yes, even affection.

More to come…