The United States of America is an angry nation in many, many ways. Some argue that our country is historically rooted in this very condition. We were founded, from the start, in the spirit of righteous indignation. Formed through angry, open rebellion against a colonizing power that was an Atlantic Ocean away. Our country’s physical boundaries subsequently grew westward toward the Pacific. It was a territory filled with hope, adventure, and an abiding ‘can do’ spirit. But it was a bitterly feud-filled place, as well. For our settlers often seethed with anger over the forces that they felt were holding them back as pioneers. It was, at times, a lawless, outrageous, and violent anger– giving birth to the very term, ‘The Wild West’. It was also during this period that we fought our Civil War. North vs. South in an angry and deadly clash over the human rights of a people we’d wrongly enslaved. Since then, we’ve kept on fighting through more recent history. We endured a divisive, ugly internal battle on our home front regarding the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and 70’s. Then spilled out our inexplicable and misdirected anger at our returning Vietnam era veterans– those who had bravely sacrificed and served. We fight even today over our rights to carry guns, even while human anger turns bloody and deadly in the hands of armed, mentally unstable killers who tragically end the lives of many innocent people. And so on and so on…
In short, our abundant anger abounds. It seems to literally surround us sometimes. On social media. From the White House and Congress. Within our families. In our cities and communities. At our work places. Amongst our friends and neighbors. Between our generations. Around the issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion, to name a few. Everywhere, actually. It’s hard to miss the ever-present snarkiness and sniping in our lives these days. Degrading and marginalizing name-calling is now our norm. Angry labeling of others is omnipresent. Accusations fly with nary a concern for the truthfulness of the claims. Anger has become a divisive and integral part of our current culture. All that said, anger is not inherently bad, though. In fact, it is inevitably and undeniably a part of what we are as human beings. It represents a necessary, cathartic release for us. It is an outward expression of our inner fears. It’s an element of our need for a measure of control and power over our unpredictable surroundings. It’s been real, it is real, and it’s not going away.
And appropriate human anger can be useful. It can motivate us at times. Used properly, it can reset expectations with others in our relationships. In more reflective ways, it can catalyze our inward exploration of the anger’s real, but unconscious, sources. When channeled (and verbally articulated) constructively, it’s a needed alternative to physical violence against others whom we feel may have slighted us. On the other hand, anger can be extremely harmful. It’s hurtful when our anger rules us, and not the other way around. When it’s unfairly directed toward us or toward others. When it’s randomly, obtusely ‘displaced’ or transferred to those having nothing to do with the anger’s real source. When it’s chronic, not episodic. When it’s aimed at hurting another in revenge. When it fosters lingering, festering hatred and violence. When it separates us from each other. When it’s an ugly manifestation of our underlying and insidious bigotry, racism, and feelings of entitlement. In all these situations, our anger is destructive. It destroys ourselves, destroys others, and destroys all things around us. It is, simply put, a dangerous thing. It’s a dystopian ‘beachhead’ for our continued hatred toward others and an excuse to attack them.
Whether anger is helpful or harmful turns on many things. Anger is unique and different for each of us, to be sure. However, there are some common signposts that can guide us here. There are useful self-queries we should undertake when we’re feeling angry. For example, we need to thoughtfully probe the real, underlying cause of our anger. What are the fully embodied, but perhaps unarticulated, inward sources of what actually makes us angry? Next, is our felt anger directed at a well-understood injustice? And toward that end, is there a greater good that can come out of our feelings? Further, is our anger directed toward clinging to the past? If so, we’re likely going to stall there forever. Next, is our anger focused on forging a new consensus or, instead, driving a wider and more rigid wedge between us? Are we managing our anger or is it out of control? Is our anger facilitating the potential for additional communications and better understanding… or is it sewing further confusion? Finally, is it helping to grow us? Or is it eroding our very soul?
Perhaps, most importantly, we need to honestly ask ourselves this: Is our anger sometimes simply the easiest, most convenient way to address the situation? Are we imprisoned in our own lazy anger because it’s somehow more comfortable and ‘sure’? Here’s the thing about that: When we’re ‘entombed’ in this place, we’ve already lost the battle. That’s the case because we’ve failed to think more deeply and introspectively about it. We’ve refused to transform our anger toward the next, more useful dimension. This dimension is one of Dynamic Tension. Dynamic tension is all about constructive conflict. It involves a definable and discrete dispute, disagreement, or debate to be settled. Over some thing, some opinion, a position, a policy, or relational parameters amongst our family, friends, or co-workers. It is a felt wrong seeking fairness, justice, or change for the better. It’s a problem to preferably be solved in partnership with the party who has wronged us. Now we can be angry while we’re simultaneously engaging in constructive conflict. But we’re far more likely to be emotionally ‘in control’ when we have a mutual stake in an amicable resolution to a conflict that meets shared interests or needs.
Transforming our ‘vision’ around our anger is difficult. Frankly, it’s hard, arduous, and challenging work for most of us. It’s a discipline and practice that we can only slowly master. But, at its core, it’s a Choice. For, in the end, we all have a choice about our anger. We have a real, self-empowered choice about our feelings and what to do with them. Will our choices hold within them the potential to heal our bodies, spirits, and souls? Will these choices ‘walk’ in grace, love, and compassion toward others? Will they bring the hope of real, lasting peace to us as God’s people on earth? Will they stretch us a ‘beings’? If our choices do not do these things, our festering anger holds the ugly potential to degrade, dehumanize, and disempower us.
And it’s time for us to choose. Christmas, the Season of Peace, is nearly here. The New Year is just around the corner. We face enormous and almost daunting shared challenges in our world right now. These sobering challenges demand our very best in 2019 and beyond. In this light, I confess to having both fears and hopes for the year ahead. I Fear that we’ll cower from what’s before us in a state of unhealthy, dysfunctional, and diffused anger. And, in turn, take the risky, inwardly corrosive, and continued fall toward the dystopian human condition that surely awaits us if we don’t change. But, conversely, I Hope that 2019 brings forth a new and renewed promise. The promise of seeking our better ‘angels’, not our uncontrollably angry ‘demons’. The promise of achieving a more loving and peaceful reconciliation around our many differences. And the promise of a purposeful, concerted effort to find what’s potentially more ‘Utopian’ about our world. Now, we may never create and sustain such a world. It will likely always be just beyond our reach. But we should always seek it, nonetheless. We should always try our best to make this possibility a little less remote. And always make the human potential for a less-angry world more tangible and real, however imperfectly.