Have You Had Your Daily Dose of Anger?

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There is a test built into this essay, but not the kind you think.

There will be questions at the end, but they will make sense only if you read everything.

And even then, the questions are not the kind that allow for right or wrong answers.

Intrigued?

Read on.

In today’s bull’s-eye are teachers, unions, government workers, National Public Radio, and Washington politicians.

Yesterday it was bankers, stock brokers, deal-makers, hedge fund managers, and Wall Streeters in general.

It’s also been Obama for a while.

Anger doesn’t seem to be in short supply. And all these folks recently have been or continue to be convenient targets.

The argument pretty much goes like this: if only so-and-so (referring to an individual or group) were different, better, dead, living in another country, out of power, punished, making less money, or otherwise emasculated, then all the rest of us would be much better off.

They, the same so-and-sos, are the ones who are dragging us down, making the country worse, and so forth.

Of course, sometimes it’s true. But isn’t it interesting that even when the so-and-sos are disempowered, there are still just as many angry people around, looking for and finding another target?

Have you heard very many people deride BP (British Petroleum) lately? You know, the authors of that big Gulf of Mexico oil spill? No, the angry voices have moved on to other resentments.

Life is full of frustrations, a lack of control, and lots of unfairness. The highways are too full, the money we are paid too little, the bosses too demanding, the work too hard, the hours too long, the spouse uncooperative, and the kids are out of control.

Change alone can be frightening — enough to make a person angry — and, gosh knows, the country is certainly changing in ethnic and racial make-up, while the distance between rich and poor increases.

It did seem that people were quieter about their discontents a while back; certainly in the ’50s, not so much in the 1960s when the civil rights movement met the Vietnam War, and protests were all around.

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I’m told the ’30s were pretty tame in the USA, despite the fact that people were out of work in large numbers (25% unemployed), many more than today. An equivalent level of hardship in 2011 might well generate a revolution.

What accounts for the change from mid-twentieth century America to today? Perhaps the after-glow of a shared national effort (World War II) and the prosperity that followed it made for less sense of grievance. But that wouldn’t explain the modest level of ear-splitting rancor of the Great Depression years.

Others would point to a subsequent loss of faith in government due to corruption or incompetence that made it an easier target, going back as far as the Johnson administration’s escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, or the nonexistent WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) we were told with certainty required the hurried invasion of Iraq.

Social critics would identify permissive child rearing which allowed children not only to be seen, but also heard and listened to, instead of “seen and not heard;” or the Freudian penchant for finding the roots of adult problems in one’s parents’ child-rearing practices (thus, shifting the blame from oneself to others who become the target of resentment).

Or perhaps it was the creation of a social safety-net that led people to believe that they were “entitled” to things they had not earned and encouraged them to “demand” more dollars out of other people’s pockets — which found those people not taking kindly to the idea and in some cases quite opposed to safety-nets in general; nor should we forget a legal profession ready to exact payment for real and perceived wrongs.

And some might point to public anger as the last vestige of the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto found on the Gadsden flag of Revolutionary War days, the thing that helped enable the colonists to fight the British. Surely, it was then a more than necessary evil.

But for whatever reason, among us are angry people who find lots of fault with others, less often than with themselves.

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Few of the those most insistent that things be done their way seem to have read their history books; nor have they thought through the consequences of their actions down the road.

The notion that “IF IT FEELS RIGHT, IT IS RIGHT,” seems persuasive, until you realize that just the opposite position might feel just as right to someone else. And every self-righteous person always thinks as the WWII Germans did: “Gott mit uns” (God is with us).

The red-faced, clench-fisted, self-appointed defenders of all that is good and proper (as they see it) refuse to compromise on anything. Blustering assertion has replaced reasoned and well-researched argument.

Little time is taken to locate and read — yes read, not watch or listen to — a reliable and thorough daily news source.  Instead, many of us hear and watch the “info-tainment” of the 10 O’Clock news, or partisan “news” reports and sound bites presenting arguments that are one-sided and sometimes factually inaccurate, becoming the pawns of someone else’s vision of the way the world should be.

If the fountain that you drink at makes your blood boil, should you come back for more?

Rallying cries to “preserve the constitution,” poor analogies to the Holocaust or the Soviet Union, and threats of imminent “dictatorship”  or “tyranny” have all been used to justify steaming outrage and urgent action. The word “government” is treated as if it were spelled with four letters, just as word actually made of four letters, “B-u-s-h,” was used in a similar derisive, “dirty word” way before his page was turned by a new election.

“Liberal” policy threatens encroaching socialism to certain groups on the right, while the “conservative” agenda augers the creation of a permanent “underclass” and the domination of business interests over the little guy on the left.

We make improper use of the names we call the objects of our anger. For example, but for a few extremists, there is no “far left” or “far right” in this country. “Far left” is communism, “far right” is fascism. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see any major politician who resembles Lenin or Hitler, or who is advocating their policies.

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Instead of thoughtfulness, there is a lot of venting. Anger, of course, is self-justifying, and fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Which is why the angry zealots do not usually seek psychotherapy voluntarily. Those few who wish to are advised to take a look at Ronald Potter-Efron’s Stop the Anger Now as a starting place.

Meanwhile, internal inconsistencies in one’s world view are ignored by those who are most incensed. Social conservatives who wish to legislatively forbid Gay marriage or abortion are attempting to regulate some very private events, but generally wish less government control over health care and fewer national rules for business and finance. Meanwhile, those who are socially liberal want their private lives kept private, but look to more constraint and control over health care and business practices.

In effect, the social conservatives want the government into the bedroom and out of your wallet, while the liberals want it out of the bedroom, but into your wallet.

Since 1940, significant groups within the good old USA have voiced strenuously opposition to:

Japanese Americans (who were interned in concentration camps if they lived on the west coast during World War II, even though most were US citizens), people who might have dabbled with Communism during the Great Depression (many intellectuals did), and “pre-mature antifascists” (who were suspected of being Communists after World War II, despite their prescience and courage in taking action against the Spanish and German fascists during the Spanish Civil War).

Others with a bull’s eye on their backs have included Blacks, civil rights activists, hippies, the “military-industrial complex” during the Vietnam War, anti-war protesters in the same period, doctors who perform abortions, Mexicans, Muslims, illegal immigrants, Gays (especially after the Iron Curtain fell and a new object of enmity was required to replace the USSR); and, of course, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

Not to mention Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney.

I’m sure I’m leaving some important people out.

Clearly, some folks earn our intense dislike.

But many of those listed above simply seemed to be easy targets or had ideas or origins that were “different.”

My point is that there is a lot of misplaced anger out there — a bit like kicking the dog when you walk in the door because your boss gave you a hard-time at work.

Even where anger is justified, it can go off the rails. As John Dower notes in his brilliant book War Without Mercy, the Pacific portion of World War II was a race war. Both sides dehumanized and demonized the enemy in caricatures and words. One can only imagine what U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry felt when they looked at posters such as this, a buck toothed, saber toothed, drooling, myopic, dog-eared, satanic travesty of their image:

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Even in less fraught times, in-groups commonly defend against out-groups, while out-groups are trying to get in. The pie that represents the “American Dream” seems to be getting smaller, and everyone wants a pretty big piece. I suspect that some of the rage we see today is in response to the precarious, dangerous, and competitive nature of life itself: the daily indignities, the feelings of helpless, and the sheer dazzling and frightening speed with which things change faster than we can keep up.

And perhaps some other part is just our biological and genetic inheritance — the “fight or flight” capacity for anger that our ancestors had to have in order to take on the real threats to their existence and protect those they loved.

As an old 1960 Twilight Zone episode illustrated brilliantly, we are prone to believing that The Monsters are Due on Maple Street even if there are no monsters. If you haven’t ever seen it or haven’t watched it in a while, it shows how chaos and unpredictable change added together can trigger the search for scapegoats, even among the innocent in an average suburban community.

If instead you consult Brigitte Gabriel, author of They Must Be Stopped, you will be told that “America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America. They have infiltrated us at the C.I.A, at the F.B.I., at the Pentagon, at the State Department.”

And who are “they?” Muslims living in the U.S.A.

Really? Or is Ms. Gabriel simply Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in a dress? McCarthy was the man (eventually censured by the Senate) who told us of the non-existent infiltration of the government by Communists back in 1950:

The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

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McCarthy never came up with hard evidence for his claim and sometimes changed the number of alleged traitors in government. Nor has Gabriel offered such evidence for her accusations.

When will Ms. Gabriel mention that the independent research group Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, affiliated with the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and RTI International reports something rather different? It indicates that Muslims provided tips that helped thwart 48 of the 120 U.S. terror attacks planned by their co-religionists since 9/11/2001 .

Long story short: beware of angry people. Their anger just might be turned in your direction. Today, perhaps, they are your friend. But tomorrow?

Beware of those rabble-rousers who stir up the discontented. Enough of them can be found on cable TV, talk radio, and on the Internet. They aren’t your friends either.

Be careful of those who only occasionally see more than one side to any story; and the only side they tend to see is their own.

Be on guard against the people for whom angry expression and impulsive action are the solutions and not the problems.

If you are attracted to someone who appears to be your big, strong, and powerful protector, remember that your only real protection is in yourself and the rule of law; and that one day you may find that the fearsomeness of your companion has become a threat to you.

Beware, too, of angry people with a drink in their hands (McCarthy was one such), unmindful of the disinhibiting potential of alcohol to set their rage loose.

In 1919, just after World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

Are we are in one of those moments again?

I guess that depends on how the quieter voices respond.

The future is up to every one of us.

Make the future.

End of today’s sermon.

Now for the test questions.

Have you found yourself muttering under your breath as you read the above?

Have you cursed to yourself about the opinions I’ve expressed?

While I don’t claim impartiality, in more than one case I have pointed at difficulties on both sides of American politics. Have you been able to see the other side’s point of view even a little?

Do you believe that anyone who leans in a different political direction is unworthy of your respect or your ear?

Do you have good friends who look at politics from other than your perspective?

Can you have a well-reasoned, honest, and civil conversation with someone who does not hold your position about any of the issues described above? And, if you do, do you permit the possibility of altering your stance a bit?

Do you search for the facts that are available from non-partisan news sources and do they ever persuade you to change your mind about something?

Is there anyone on the other side of the aisle who you admire? Even a small amount? Is there a single writer from the opposition party who’s regular column you read?

Have your past judgments about others, as well as your personal and business decision making, been so good that you are utterly certain of the validity of all of your political opinions today? Put differently, has your life been such a shining example of wisdom and inerrant behavior that it is impossible that you are wrong?

No one on earth has ever been all-knowing in the arena of world affairs and even those solutions that work tend to have a short shelf-life. Angry self-righteousness, however, can last rather longer.

If you are unwilling to change course (in politics or anything else), consider new information, or compromise in a rapidly transforming world, you will have taken the fixed position of a stopped-clock — right only twice a day.

But, no matter your political persuasion, you will be angry all day.

The top image is A (gentle)man giving the middle finger angrily by Mgregoro. The second image is that of a Vietnam War Protest in Washington D.C. by Frank Wolfe, October 21, 1967, followed by the Gadsden Flag by Lexicon, Vikrum. The next photo pictures Protesters at the Taxpayer March on Washington by dbking, which occurred on September 12, 2009, after which is a U.S.A. propaganda poster from World War II:  Tokio_Kid_Say.png. The final image is a 1954 photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy taken by United Press. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Life is Like Climbing a Rope

File:US Navy 030822-N-3228G-011 A chief petty officer selectee climbs a 50-foot rope on the confidence.jpg

Early life is full of obstacles. Everything is new and the learning that you do in public, in front of your peers, allows for the possibility of humiliation.

Only later in life do you discover that while the challenges of adulthood are actually even more difficult, those same problems seem easier to negotiate because of the toughening derived from all the hits and misses of your formative years. The hard experience early on has made you stronger, at least if you did a reasonable job of learning things along the way.

Which reminds me of one of my high school challenges: learning how to climb a rope. In fact, life is a little bit like doing that.

References to moving up in the world abound. Everyone seems to want to get to the top.

In a high school gym of reasonable size, the rope hangs from a long distance away. My guess would be perhaps 25 feet up or more. The rope puts you in the position you have been in for much of your childhood: starting out at the bottom and spending a lot of your youth looking up — at your parents, your older siblings, your teachers, and all the things that seem impossibly out of reach because you are small.

And there you are, as the gym teacher tells you that you — yes, you — are supposed to climb the thing to the top. Today a rope, tomorrow the corporate ladder.

It is a solitary task. Just you and the rope. A little bit like you and the job of hitting a baseball, getting good SAT scores, making a career, winning a spouse. Your are on your own.

If you look at the top of the rope and think about how far away it is, how impossible is the task of getting there, you will have defeated yourself. Much like imagining how you might one day own a business or make a speech in front of hundreds of people or raise a family. Too far away and too troubling to think of until you get there, when it won’t seem so daunting after all. Of course, you don’t know that yet. Partly, because you haven’t yet climbed the rope.

If you wish, you can avoid the rope, try to pretend it’s not there, tell yourself that you don’t have to address that now. And, indeed, it will wait. The rope is very patient. Like all the problems of life, they continue to exist until we realize that we cannot escape them, that only by facing and mastering them do we really move beyond them, up and away.

No one told me or anyone in my gym class how to climb the rope. Indeed, I think that was intended to be part of the challenge. Like the rest of life, you have to be clever, think things through, watch others, and learn from experience before you can make much progress at mastering the coarse fiber that hangs there silent, implacable, and indifferent. It will not be the last time that you will confront the callousness of the world, and sometimes its disdain.

If you are anything like me, you won’t make it very far the first time you lay your hands on your threaded nemesis. You’ll worry too much, be self-conscious about those who are watching you, get stuck, slide back, and maybe suffer from rope burns as if your opponent is more than a “thing” and wants to inflict as much pain as possible. Life will do this to you too, just as you defeat yourself by over-thinking things, lacking a plan, wondering what others think of you to no good end, and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

But then you notice something — some things that suggest you are beginning to learn. First, you realize that you can’t stop when climbing a rope or give in to your fear; there is no time for rest or you will slide back. And you must give the rope climb, and life, everything you have. Not just your arms, not just your arms and legs, but your will: the tenacity and drive that won’t allow you to accept defeat.

Just as in all of the future that waits for you, you cannot give up, but must improve or regress. The law of gravity applies to the rest of life, too.

But, once you master the rope, you will gain in confidence and know a little bit more about the world and about yourself. A knowledge that can be applied in very different and difficult situations.

Perhaps you will realize other things, as well.

First, that there will always be other “ropes.” Life has no end of them, no end of the challenges and demands with which it will present you.

And you might even recognize something else that neither the gym teacher nor the rope told you.

Getting to the top wasn’t the most important thing.

No, more important were the strain, the challenge, the pull and the crawl, the sweat, the exhilaration, and the feel of the rope in your hands and against your legs. That is, the lived-in experience of the moment.

And, just as well, the realization comes that the rope was your friend all along.

Like life itself, it had lessons to give you.

The 2003 photo above of a 50-foot rope climb was taken by Photographer’s Mate First Class William R. Goodwin and is courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.