The repercussions of societal rage

You’re angry (the economy is in the tank, your government isn’t working for you). I’m angry (the guy in the car behind me is flipping me off for driving too slowly — he’s angry as a blister). President Barack Obama is angry (at Congress’ partisan grid locking). Everybody’s angry. Or so it seems. 

Anger surrounds us. It’s in our politics (conservatives are angry at liberals and vice versa); it’s in our streets (senseless murders born of anger are committed everyday); it’s in our music (lyrics not only encourage but condone anger); it’s in our films and television shows (rage dominates); it’s on the Internet (check out the video games kids play online); it’s in our sports (brawling athletes furious over losing, raging parents assaulting coaches and officials for some perceived wrong done to their child or team); it’s in our schools (bullies taking out their anger on weaker students); and it’s in our homes (spousal and children abuse generate cop calls and media news daily). 

Anger, according to theologians, is not something particularly honorable to live with in this life. These same theologians suggest that the surest surrender to anger is to seek spiritual peace through prayer; indeed, they claim, the clarity of spiritual calm is evident in those who sidestep anger through prayer. 

All too common

Yet, anger is so terribly human. The Greek philosopher Galen termed it “madness.” Surely, most — if not all — of us at one time or another have felt surges of anger or hostility, sometimes so compelling that we fantasize vengeful acts from a dark side we didn’t know we had. But the fact is vindictive behavior based on anger makes us as small as those who have victimized us. One of novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s characters said this about anger: “Detours and other hitches in a smooth life are dancing lessons from God.” Psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher says that some people get angry more easily and more intensely because they have a low tolerance for frustration, inconvenience, annoyance or failure. I couldn’t agree more. Once when I was coaching high school basketball, the opposing team’s fans were so angry because we were kicking the stuffing out of their team that at halftime they bolted the door of our locker room from the outside, preventing us from getting out for the second half. 

Still, there is this enigma about anger. Often times the root of our anger has a legitimate rationale: Loudmouths who use offensive language in public; tailgaters who bunch up on our bumpers to force us to go faster; drivers who use cell phones or who text; neighbors who play inordinately loud music; litterers who desecrate the streets, the highways, the walls, the buildings with their trash and graffiti; drivers who park in handicap spots; sore losers who profane the winning team’s players and coaches with foul language. 

There are simply too many of us who make others the targets of their tantrums. Many times their rage is a result of delays that eat up their time or demands that prevent or delay goals from being met quickly, for, after all, it is time that drives and governs our lives more than anything else these days: women feel pressed to be mothers and lawyers at the same time; men sold on the idea of sharing the cooking and the kid duties are at the same time trying to climb the corporate ladder; children are rushed from school to soccer practice to piano lessons to SAT tutors to part-time jobs. We are afraid to miss it all, for in missing it all we might be figured as flawed. So we get angry. 

Percussions have repercussions — a battered child becomes a brutal parent; a frustrated worker goes home and takes it out on a spouse instead of confronting the boss; a student receives a B instead of an A and curses the teacher. More often, it’s our sense of self that is threatened and that produces a power-surge of anger.

Righteous anger

Yet, paradoxically, some anger, if channeled and controlled properly, can be positive. The other day I saw a father call his son to the sidelines at a high school soccer match, and firmly, but with heat, deliver the message to his son that he wasn’t putting out 100 percent. The kid turned it around and scored two goals to send his team into the championship game. And once I got angry with a student in my writing class who was blessed with writing talent but whose efforts were lean and sloppy. After a firm but heated sit-down with him, his writing improved dramatically. 

So yes, anger can lead to challenge and change. A wise man, an Oblate priest, once told me how he adapted his anger at black people as a teenager — the byproduct of a very narrow-minded, very conservative cultural upbringing. He turned it the other way. Using his clenched fists and his clenched jaw to rage at racism and poverty, injustice and inequality, he made it his mission to feed and clothe the poor, underprivileged kids in a ghetto in Philadelphia, get them jobs, counsel them, coach them in basketball. Along the way he saved hundreds of kids. 

Raging at political gridlock, corporate greed, unfair tax representation, poverty or indolence can be a creative force to open and change minds — it can make us vote smarter, work to repair injustices, ditch complacency, play harder on the athletic fields, study with more focus to earn the grades to get into college, work harder to get ahead in our jobs. This kind of anger clarifies; it brings the force of truth. This kind of anger works for all of us. 

And the guy who flipped me off because I was driving too slowly to suit him? Well, when he pulled alongside me at a traffic light and saw that I was a friend, he smiled sheepishly, then thumb-upped me as if to apologize. I thumb-upped him back. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted him as a friend anymore. 

B.G. Kelley writes from Pennsylvania.