Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.
Even in this age of extreme polarization, conservatives and progressives still have at least one thing in common: Our anger.
Why are we all so angry?
We’re angry because we can’t trust anyone these days. People in positions of authority lie to us shamelessly. Congress sells out to special interests. The news media are hopelessly biased. We suspect insurance companies make more medical decisions than our doctors. Members of the clergy molest children and church leaders cover it up. Scam artists pose as IRS agents so they can steal our identity and go on a shopping spree.
We’re angry because we’re bombarded with change. Occupations become obsolete before we finish training for them. Staying current with the latest technology is a full-time job. Cultural shifts mean the rules of etiquette keep shifting. We adapt to these transitions, only to confront more demands for change, with no time to catch our breath. We worry we’ll lose everything that matters to us – our livelihoods, our way of life, respect for our values.
We’re angry because injustice reigns. People face discrimination based on race, gender and every other human difference imaginable. Powerful people bully and exploit less powerful people with impunity. Nations go to war for reasons other than national security. Poverty persists as the gap between the rich and poor becomes a yawning chasm. Nearly 30,000 children die every day from starvation and other preventable causes. Political candidates vow to address these issues, then forget their promises once elected.
We’re angry at the petty annoyances of modern life. Junk mail, email spam and telemarketing calls elude our efforts to block them. Appliances stop working the minute the warranty expires, and giant corporations no longer seem to care whether we’re happy with their products or not. Getting a prescription refilled or a driver’s license renewed has turned into a bureaucratic ordeal. And just try to get a live person on the phone when we have a question or need help with something. Yes, these annoyances may seem like trivial first-world problems, but they keep coming at us. All. Day. Long.
We’re angry at other people’s sins. Those progressives/conservatives (depending on which side we’re on) not only keep sinning, they flaunt their iniquity. They celebrate their greed, their violence, their bigotry and their moral depravity, and no one lifts a finger to hold them accountable. What’s worse, these same people stoke public anger at us for not thinking or acting the way they do. When people who are unhappy with us try to shame us, our fury increases exponentially.
We’re angry at our own weaknesses. We know intellectually what we need to do: Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, pay more attention to our relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating intellectual knowledge into action. We can’t seem to quit our bad habits or stick to a healthy eating plan. We should be doing more in our communities, but who has the time? We feel like the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7, “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”
We’re angry because we’re overwhelmed. We’re constantly pulled in 20 different directions by our overloaded and chaotic schedules. We cross items off endless to-do lists: our to-do list for work, our to-do list for household chores, our to-do list of personal self-care routines, our to-do list of urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. We juggle so many balls in the air, we’re convinced we have to keep these multiple to-do lists or we won’t remember to do simple things like brush our teeth. Despite all the to-do lists designed to help us hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our time, we can’t keep up with all the demands.
We’re angry because we’re anxious and afraid. Each day, the news presents another potential catastrophe for us to worry about. What can we do about climate change, or have we already passed the point of no return? Is there anything these days that doesn’t cause cancer? Will technology replace our jobs with robots? Will Social Security still be around when we’re 90? How do we keep criminals from breaking into our homes, our credit card accounts and our retirement funds? If the wrong political party gets into power, will we be forced to live according to a value system we abhor? Will we still have a country in four years? Will we get through this pandemic alive? Will our loved ones?
We’re angry because we’re lonely. The social distancing prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our ties with family, friends, colleagues and members of our faith communities. However, even before the pandemic, people were becoming increasingly isolated. Technology keeps us focused on our screens rather than our relationships. Time spent climbing the career ladder equals time spent away from people who matter to us. Frequent career moves also uproot us from our communities and this loss of connection leads to a loss of our support systems.
We’re angry because we’re grieving. We have lost 500,000 people to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone – that’s a half million parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbors and valued colleagues. Worldwide we’ve lost two million human beings and counting. We’ve lost jobs and businesses. We’ve lost our family gatherings, our concerts, our church services and our vacation trips. We’ve lost our freedom to come and go as we please. We’ve lost our sense of safety, our sense of security and our sense of control over our own lives. We’ve suffered so many losses we’ve run out of tears, and still the losses escalate.
We’re angry because we’re exhausted. Cumulative, unrelenting crises generate fatigue and despair. Each week, we hear about yet another terrorist attack, another mass shooting, another natural disaster. War rages endlessly in hot spots around the world. Political scandals persist unabated. People around us won’t stop fighting at work, on Facebook, on the streets or even at church and their constant bickering wears us out.
We’re angry because we feel powerless. We know what policies would resolve our problems if only our leaders would summon the political courage to implement them, but we’re not in charge, and they won’t listen to us. We write to our elected officials, who respond with a form letter that makes it clear they (or their assistants) failed to read past the first paragraph. We march for life, for peace, for justice or for other noble causes, and for a brief moment it appears we might see change. But then the public gets distracted, the media chases after the next shiny object and we’re back to the status quo. We sense that nothing we do matters. Our efforts seem like a cosmic joke.
We’re angry because we repress our true feelings. The Psalms brim with poetry about anguish, pain, fear and grief. The Bible offers an entire book titled Lamentations. Jesus wept. Yet our modern culture discourages overt expressions of strong emotions. “Suck it up, buttercup,” we’re lectured. “Stop the pity party.” With few acceptable outlets for the legitimate expression of painful emotions, we simply “stuff it” until we erupt. In some circles, even positive emotions such as passion and joy are suspect. “Curb your enthusiasm,” we’re told. Outrage, on the other hand, is not only accepted but encouraged and celebrated.
We’re angry because questions are forbidden. When confronted with inquiring minds, religious and secular ideologues alike discourage too much probing. “You mustn’t question God’s will,” some folks sternly warn us if we dare to question their interpretation of Biblical truth. Not that the “nones” are any better in this regard. Heaven forbid we question one tiny iota of an identity group’s dogma. That’s a good way to wind up cancelled like a credit card.
We’re angry because we’ve lost our sense of meaning. In a society that worships Mammon rather than God, success means having a fancier job title than our neighbor, and “enough” gets defined as whatever the neighbor has – plus one. If our neighbors define “success” and “enough” the same way, we become trapped in a competition we can’t win. Our homes runneth over with stuff, but material goods fail to satisfy. The brass ring turns out not to be so shiny once we’ve grabbed it. People in 12 Step groups often speak of “spiritual bankruptcy” – a state of psychic numbing or sleepwalking in which our lives lose all meaning beyond getting our needed fixes. We want our lives to amount to more than eating and sleeping, acquiring the latest toys, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off to-do lists, but we don’t know where to start.
Experts agree that emotions are complex and often intertwined. Fear, anxiety, grief, frustration and feelings of futility can masquerade as anger. Fighting against whatever we perceive to be the source of our anger helps us feel more powerful and promises to give our lives meaning. Sadly, at the moment, rage seems to be what connects and unites us.
The good news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. We can rest assured we have a lot of company. Given everything that’s going on, our anger is understandable, reasonable and legitimate. In other words, we’re “normal.”
The bad news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. Unfortunately, anger is often contagious. When people around us lash out at the rest of the world, this tacitly gives us permission to do the same. When not channeled in a constructive way, our collective anger can become our collective insanity. And a long line of folks stands ready to exploit our personal and collective anger for their own ends.
Questions for readers: How do you see our anger being exploited, and by whom? How can we channel our anger constructively? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).