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

Farewell 2017, Hello 2018

Age of Folly

An Age of Folly Indeed! The cover photo of Lewis Lapham’s newest book on how America Abandoned Its Democracy

I was so discouraged with our country’s direction at the end of 2016, that I missed what had become an annual More to Come… year-end update.  Many commentators described 2017 as a “dumpster fire of a year.” Even Dave Barry had a hard time coming up with outrageous examples that exceeded our twisted reality.  The title of this year’s review by Barry says it all:  “2017: Did that really happen?”

My optimism for our country’s future hasn’t fully recovered in part because I find myself agreeing with Lewis Lapham when he writes:

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Frightened by the future…that could be a theme of so much of 2017 in America.

It didn’t always seem this way.  In my 2013 year-end post, I outlined seven rules for the next third of my life, with an optimism that I could live a long and fruitful life. For four years I’ve looked at them on my computer wallpaper as I’ve logged on in the morning. Colleagues have seen them and made comments. The family has been supportive. But in thinking recently about my difficulties in keeping up with my life goals in 2017, I realized that I had lost some faith in the future.  My primary goal is to regain that faith in 2018.

25th birthday celebration

Celebrating 25 years of Claire and Andrew – one of the great achievements of 2017!

At work and in our family life, 2017 was a year of progress and celebration, of which I am proud and which gives me hope for the future.  But careful readers know that I can demonstrate some of the lighter symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which a quick trip to sunnier climates (think the Pomona College Family Weekend in February) usually fixes.  2017 felt like a year when SAD-like symptoms (or perhaps TAD-like symptoms, and you can fill in the “T”) came and went throughout the year.

Reading a recent article by David DeSento helped me focus on what may have been missing from my 2017:  that sense of gratitude for what I have been given.  A psychologist, DeSento argues that social emotions — not willpower — helps us achieve our life goals.

“What these findings show is that pride (not arrogance, but pride in the skills one has), gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.

If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance.”

I had recently been thinking about gratefulness and thankfulness.  Putting all this together, I realized that I needed to add an eighth life rule for 2018 and beyond.  So…here’s a quick look at that new rule plus some thoughts on how I did in 2017 with the original seven.

1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate.  Every Day.  Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day.  Even in 2017, I managed to maintain that habit.  Moving forward with this new rule, I want to expand that habit to being intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion.

2.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. I had a good pattern of daily exercise through 2016, resulting in weight stabilization.  Unfortunately, that didn’t continue in 2017, and my weight returned.  For 2018, I want to look with gratitude at the health I’ve had through six decades of life, and find ways to build on that outlook to maintain it.  I’m also going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you?  1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”

3.  Listen more than you talk.  It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit.  While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…and act that one never regrets.  Both thoughts are worth remembering.

4.  Spend less than you make.  2017 was another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars!  (Although I can say that I gave it some serious thought.)  I’m continuing to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future.  I’m also thinking more about what to give away and how to do that to support those who have less.

5.  Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  Candice, Andrew, and Claire all support me in this effort, but I know I turned to comfort food more than I should have in 2017.  Like the rule about spending, I want to think about how eating less is an act of gratitude that what I have is enough.

6.  Play music.  The world is a better place when I play music.  My music is better when I play with others.  That’s the goal for 2018.

7.  Connect and commit.  Over the years since I set these rules, we made real progress in gathering people together on a regular basis.  That slipped some in 2017.  In the list Candice and I are assembling of 50 things we want to do in 2018, we already have a number of connections identified.

8.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life! I tried very hard not to let my SAD or TAD symptoms show through to others…in part, because this is probably the life rule I remember every day.  But there is still progress to be made…and in addition to Ursula Le Guin’s recent book of essays on growing old, I enjoyed reading yesterday’s New York Times article entitled, Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old PersonI laughed.  I smiled.  I saw some traits I recognized.  I saw some things to work on.

Okay 2018:  bring it on!

More to come…

DJB

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…

DJB