Book excerpt: Why is everyone so angry?

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).

Book excerpt: The Wide World of Anger

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.

One of the biggest factors underlying today’s extreme polarization is the bottomless pit of seething resentment and rage running through our society like hot lava.

I mentioned in a previous post that many people I encounter these days seem more cranky and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. We have Road Rage, Airport Rage, Parking Lot Rage and Starbucks Rage. We have Climate Wars, Health Care Wars, Class Wars, Mommy Wars and even Worship Wars. We spew our in-your-face venom onto everything from t-shirts, lapel pins and bumper stickers to coffee cups, refrigerator magnets and doormats like this one sold at Amazon.com:

“The easiest thing you’ll do all day is get ticked off at something,” Jeffrey Kluger writes in a Time magazine article titled America’s Anger Is Out of Control (link HERE). “Someone cuts ahead of you in traffic? Ticked off. Guy in front of you at Starbucks needs his entire order remade because his mocha half-caf, double frap had the wrong frigging number of espresso shots in it even though you know full well nobody can taste the bloody difference? Exceedingly ticked off. We’re all that way – and that’s a problem. Anger is … quick, it’s binary, it’s delicious. And more and more, we’re gorging on it.” 

The gratuitously nasty responses to a popular bumper sticker handed out by school districts offer a perfect illustration of this free-floating over-the-top anger. Personally, I think proud of my honor student bumper stickers are a nice way for schools to show appreciation to hardworking students and promote academic achievement. But apparently some folks beg to differ, judging from their own bumper stickers. My kid beat up your honor student and my kid got your honor student pregnant are just a couple of the snarky “statements” that leave me shaking my head. Good grief! If we don’t want our young people using drugs, joining gangs or making other unfortunate choices, why the hostility toward kids who are doing something right?

Lloyd Vries at CBS News (link HERE) shares, “A reader wrote to me, ‘Just do the country a favor and shoot yourself.’ … How angry does someone have to be to write something like that? And ‘Mr. Go Shoot Yourself’ is not atypical. Surf the Internet for a second or two, and you’ll see the venom pouring out from those who verbally attack each other.” At my computer I type the words, “Why is everyone so angry?” The Google search yields nearly 150,000 entries and an inescapable conclusion: Vries is correct. There sure are a lot of angry people out there.

A short browse through just a few of the 150,000 entries reveals that the population of folks gorging on anger isn’t limited to the U.S.

The British are vexed about Brexit, among other things. Some display their fury in ways that rival their U.S. counterparts on the rage-o-meter, according toan article for The Daily Telegraph in London (Short-Fuse Britain: Why is Everyone So Bloody Angry? – link HERE). Judith Woods writes, “Last weekend, my children and I were nearly knocked into the canal by a cyclist incandescent with rage that I was walking by the canal. He was followed by a peleton of similarly rude men in a tearing hurry who refused to give way to pedestrians, as they are supposed to. I was sorely tempted to lie across the path in a gesture of defiance, but I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t have pedaled straight over me, leaving cartoon tyre marks, so instead I shouted at them. Of course I did: I’m as cross as everyone else.” 

What do people get cracked about in Australia? Blogger Jacqueline Lunn (link HERE) relates: “In the space of a week I’ve seen people get twitchy at each other as they wait in the line for ice cream. I’ve seen scenes of obvious, quite nasty, frustration due to an elderly man exiting a bus. I’ve watched three grown men, not one but three, push past my 10-year-old daughter to be served before her at the counter. Brows furrowed, on a mission, about to snap. Her older sister had to stand with her so pushing past was thwarted. I’ve completely cracked it because the dishwasher wasn’t unpacked when I’ve come home from work. Cracked like an egg rolling off a benchtop.” 

In a feature article on the Web site Modern Ghana (link HERE), Nicholas Ameyaw-Akumfi recites a litany of angsty issues that will sound familiar to most Americans. “Why are people so angry these days?” he asks.“It seems as though everything challenging in life is hitting them faster and from every direction. Changes in technologies and communications have caused their lives to move faster. Unemployment prevails as the cost of living keeps rising. Sleep doesn’t come as easy as it used to.” His account of how Ghanaians respond will sound familiar as well: “A spilled cup of coffee in the morning can ruin the better portion of a person’s day and a ringing telephone or barking dog can set their nerves on edge.” 

Meanwhile in India: “How have rage and vitriol become so addictive?” asks blogger Manika Raikwar Ahirwal, managing editor for that country’s NDTV (link HERE). “We need our daily dose of rant. And if it’s angry and full of abuse, even better. … In this new world of hatred, your mission, if you so choose, is to destroy without prejudice. Anything, everything is fair game. We will target you and by association anything we can get our hands on.” 

As my husband would say, “Ay, covfefe!” And to think some of us here in the good ol’ U.S.A. thought we might be able to escape from our own Fury Festival by fleeing to another country …

All this frenzy calls to mind the parable of the boiled frog – a cautionary tale most of us will hear sooner or later if we attend enough business conferences or stress management seminars. The storyline goes like this: If a frog is suddenly tossed into a kettle of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But if the frog is happily swimming around in lukewarm water, with the temperature turned up gradually, it will not perceive danger and will be cooked to death. 

Turns out the boiled frog story may actually be nothing more than an urban legend. In reality, say some experts, the frog will be smart enough to hop out of the water in the nick of time, no matter how slowly one turns up the heat. I’m left wondering, however, whether we humans will be so sensible.

Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to so much anger? If you live outside the U.S., is there similar anger and polarization going on your country? 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).