Of four basic human emotions – mad, glad, sad and scared – mad is the most problematic. It is from anger that people are hit, stabbed, choked, murdered, abused, hurt, punished, cursed, castigated, blamed, and objectified. To this list we may add “thrown out of office.”
Politics the world over is fueled by anger, and America is not immune to this emotional epidemic. Anger begets anger, so its global spread is not surprising, nor is it new. People have been driven by anger to kill others in every age of recorded history, and its violent expression in military conquest and domination has been a prime mover of the development of new technology; think hydrogen bomb.
This year American political anger is at an elevated level. The predictable frustrations and disappointments which accompany an economic downturn are readily converted to anger, and public rage is being employed by cynical political forces to seize greater power. Often masked in populist-style sloganeering, political anger management is not about lessening our most destructive emotion but about increasing it and using it to exert control. It’s not like this is a big secret; the 1930s depression-era director Frank Capra explored this theme in films like “Meet John Doe.”
Anger directed at the Islamic religion, illegal immigrants, the homeless, the poor, various ethnic and religious minorities, the federal and state government and politicians in general is the currency of this political season. People are identifying targets and scapegoats upon which to vent their angry frustration and feelings of helplessness – and angry people are easy to manipulate. Thus shallow and callous candidates need offer little more than blame and anger to attract votes and win elections, a highly dangerous situation in a democracy. Think Adolph Hitler.
For those of us longing for honest, rational dialogue and the development of sound long-term solutions, such displays are disheartening. In this political atmosphere, little makes me glad – I and many others more often feel scared and sad.
Confronting anger requires tremendous patience and skill. Martin Luther King knew this and counseled those participating in civil rights demonstrations and marches to abandon their anger. He understood that when anger encounters non-resistance and peaceful demonstration, it undermines itself and eventually is overcome. Peaceful resistance to anger does not mean submission – much to the contrary. Tactics and strategy need not be motivated by anger, and movements motivated by love and non-violence have over time prevailed. To those so committed, selfless devotion and great inner strength are required. Think Mahatma Gandhi and the British Empire.
Tibetan Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for 33 years. When asked how he endured the many years of torment inflicted upon him, he replied: “You are receiving the anger and hatred and exchanging it with your love and compassion to that ignorant person who is torturing you. Whatever I learned (as a monk) I put into practice during my severe torture.” Compared to Palden Gyatso’s experience or those civil rights marchers beaten and set-upon out of hatred, I’ve lived in paradise and not been sorely tested.
Like most people, I sometimes feel angry about the state of the world. I want to be of help, and the truth is that if I don’t abandon anger, I will just add to the world’s problems.