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.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Learning From the Wrong Example: A Story of Five Teachers

Patricia Daley Martino and Peter Martino

For the most part I am grateful to my old teachers. By and large, they were an earnest and dedicated bunch.

Teachers like Patricia Daley Martino (pictured above with her husband Peter) were a treasure.

But I remember five with less kindly sentiments. Still, they did teach me something:

What not to do.

My very first high school science teacher laid down the law on the first day of class. And the “law” went something like this:

“I may make mistakes in marking your papers and grading your tests. You may be able to prove to me that I made those mistakes. It still won’t matter. I’m not going to change your scores or your grades no matter what you say.”

I can’t remember precisely what went through my mind when I heard this, but it was probably some version of “Is this guy nuts?”

What I learned from this man (whose son I knew in grade school, when he was already a juvenile delinquent in-training) was that power corrupts, and authority needs to wielded with a sense of justice, lest you become some sort of bully or dictator like my science teacher.

I also learned, in a practical way, that the famous quote from trial attorney Clarence Darrow is true: “There is no justice, in or out of court.”

But, I doubt that the teacher in question intended to instruct me in that particular lesson.

Still another high school science faculty member, a year or two later, took off a small number of points from a test paper because I didn’t put my home-room number on the page; or perhaps it was not in the right place, I don’t recall which. Since I was already “detail-oriented” he taught me nothing new about attention to small stuff. But, what I did learn was a lesson about nit-picking, something he was quite good at.

Going back to the primary grades, I observed a bad example displayed by two different teachers, one female, one male.

For reasons still unknown to me, both of these single adults, neither probably older than their early 30s, felt compelled to tell my class a bit about their dating lives. The man fancied himself a “Don Juan” type and indicated that he could easily have been married if only he wanted to. The woman, for her part, explained why it was that she was still single.

Who asked?

Should I have taken notes? What would they have said if someone queried, “Will we be tested on this?”

Even as a little kid, I thought to myself, “I’m not supposed to hear this.”

Finally, the teacher I had for music in the 8th grade told us all that she had been a famous opera singer, but for some reason had given up that career. Moreover, she offered that she had a stage name different from her current married name. What was it? She wouldn’t say. From time to time she would also rant about Harry Truman, who hadn’t been President for a number of years. She was, however, a heck of a good choral director.

Another case of kids being a captive audience. Too much information — the wrong information, I knew even then.

I suppose the moral of this story is that we learn equally from those who are good models and those who aren’t.

Teachers (and others) often don’t realize that the lesson they intend to teach is, in fact, not the one being taught.