I understand the anxiety. And I understand the sadness. I can understand the worry, and the questioning of meaning. All of these responses seem normal. They seem sane. It’s natural to feel anxious when we don’t know what will happen next. It is natural to feel sad in times of sickness and loss. It is only natural to worry about loved ones and about the multitudes who suffer in this pandemic. And it is natural for people to question meaning when faced with the arbitrariness of disease and death scything through our neighborhoods.
What I really don’t understand, though, is the fury, the anger, the grudge, the violent reactivity that is exploding in pockets all around us.
Sure, at some level, it is understandable. Anger is the flip-side of fear. It is a common reaction of the frightened to lash out. But this sustained fury that spreads like a fire in our society, that threatens to consume foundations of trust on which society stands as well as the fragile webs of relationships that take so much time and effort to build and that are essential for a complex society to work: this I can’t understand.
A security guard at a Dollar Store in Michigan is shot and killed because he insisted that a person wear a mask. Employees of a McDonald’s in Oklahoma are shot and beaten by men who are asked to comply with health regulations in the restaurant. A young man just across the causeway from us in Brunswick, apparently jogging through a neighborhood, is chased down, shot and killed by a father and son who believe he must be the fellow that has been prowling a vacant homesite and stealing construction materials.
I do not understand such reactivity and the anger that fuels it.
One of our ancient Church fathers referred to anger as “Dragon’s wine.” The metaphor is powerful. It conjures the mental instability and lack of good judgment that go with drunkenness and the consuming fire that flashes indiscriminately and without any sense of proportion from the drunken dragon’s mouth. Most of us just want to avoid drunk dragons. Not a bad policy.
Years ago, I was in a seminar in Dallas with the brilliant therapist Virginia Satir, widely regarded as the mother of family therapy. One of the exercises in the seminar was a role-playing episode. Students in the seminar were asked to play parts in a family unit. One part was to be a troublesome family member. As I recall, it was an angry young person. The student played the part well. I think most of us know that part. She stormed, stomped and fretted, blamed, threatened and yelled. The other members of the group were instructed to react to her as they ordinarily would. One yelled back. Then another joined in. Another family member tried to reason with the young person, giving lots of advice, most of it pretty good. When nothing worked, it was obvious that every member of the family as taking a step back, away from the young person, whether physically or emotionally.
As the role play came to an end, Virginia herself stepped into the family circle, slowly, as unthreateningly as possible, and she moved toward the “young person” with her arms open. Reaching the person playing the angry youth, she enfolded the woman in her arms and said, “please tell me what is frightening you. I want to listen.”
What was remarkable was the response of the woman playing the role of the angry young person: she began to weep.
I find myself in times like these wanting to teach. I’m a teacher by vocation, and I want to teach others. Right now, as I write these words, I’ve got Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and The Discourses of Epictetus, Vol. 1:14 “That God oversees all persons” open beside me. The First Epistle of St. John is right there on my table.
I know – I do know – that I cannot change anyone’s behavior but my own, and reading these sources of wisdom does indeed help me. But I also know – really I do – that I cannot change anyone’s behavior but my own.
At first, then, I feel so helpless in the face of the dragon-like behavior rampant in our world today. And I must accept this helplessness before I can do anything good. My raging against those who rage won’t help. Giving advice, talk, talk, talking at the angry will not soothe them. I want to step back, maybe even run away. I’m having lots of fantasies lately of moving to a small Hebridean Island where puffins are my closest neighbors.
What would it take for me to take a step toward the angry, cautiously, of course, without threatening if I am able? What would it look like for me to open myself to the suffering that is at the source of the anger in the other? What might it mean not to drink of the poison of rage, not to approve of the fury, but also not to condemn the angry person? What would it require for me to listen?
It would take courage. A lot of courage. And it would almost certainly lead to pain. Maybe many defeats. But if active love can quench even just a little anger, if it can help at least a few to shed the dragon’s scaly hide, would it not be worth it?
Such are the thoughts with which I am sitting today.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church