Responding to Anger

Anger

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…

DJB

Who Tells Your Story

"Hamilton" Playbill

“Hamilton” Playbill

The full story of America can be seen, told, and appreciated at so many places and on so many levels…if one only cares to stop and listen.

Candice and I are in New York City for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.  New York is the poster child for how our rich national story is a blend from so many different people, both ordinary and extraordinary, and it is timely to be here this weekend.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the most powerful examples of an extraordinary person who fought to ensure that the full talents, opportunities, and stories of all Americans would be supported and recognized.  In the first 24 hours in the city, we saw, heard, and thrilled to various aspects of the story that it truly American.

We are staying in Greenwich Village, which counts among its many notable former residents Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and urban activist Jane Jacobs.  Neither was seen as anything other than ordinary, until they put pen to paper, spoke truth to power, and changed the American story.

Last evening we went uptown from the village, as we were fortunate to have tickets to the extraordinary musical Hamilton, at the Richard Rogers Theatre.  And yes, to quote the reviews, it really is that good.

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, “Hamilton” is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette….But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address….And you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another. In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.

Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation.”

History has seldom been told in such a lively, thrilling, and “oh-so-appropriate for the moment” way.  We buzzed about the show and its meaning until well past midnight (and well past our normal bedtime), so this morning we slept in late and then walked a few blocks to the West Village for a brunch at Joseph Leonard.  Candice and I felt right at home – because other than us, all the other patrons were just about Andrew and Claire’s age!  (We joked with our waiter that we got a table because it was still before noon…and most 20-somethings were just getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.)

 As we looked out the window in this wonderful neighborhood gathering place, I realized we were at Christopher Park, and right across the street from the Stonewall Inn.

Christopher Park

Christopher Park and the Stonewall Inn

 

Stonewall National Monument

Stonewall National Monument

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, supported President Obama’s designation of Stonewall as the nation’s first gay-rights National Monument last year.  Because of the actions of those patrons of this ordinary-looking place back in 1969, millions of Americans gained the freedom to love the person of their own choosing, and to tell their stories proudly as part of the fabric of American life.

Hamilton at the Rogers Theatre

The crowd gathers for Hamilton, as we waited in anticipation of hearing new voices tell the American story

The last song in Hamilton “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – had such resonance with both Candice and me last evening.  Why?  Perhaps because the relevance would come up so quickly today when – at the beginning of the MLK weekend – civil rights hero John Lewis was attacked in another of the tweets which are becoming all-too-familiar, in an attempt to silence his story.  We were reminded in real time why we must stand strong in ensuring that our American story is told truthfully and fully.

More to come…

DJB