I don’t know if it’s just me, or if the level of rage around us has increased dramatically. I know why my father was in a rage much of the time, his mother whipped him in the face with a heavy cord from the time he could stand. Anyone would be subject to rage with that kind of upsetting start. I had some insight into my mother’s anger, though she’d get angry when I’d try to be sympathetic about it and I learned to change the subject, on a dime, when she got that look on her face. My sister’s anger is not hard to figure out. But the most perplexing thing is the amount of anger simmering, some behind smiles and the best of intentions, in people around me, in the world at large.
A few weeks ago a friend set a misunderstanding into motion for seemingly inexplicable reasons. He later had an insight — he was provoking a fight between his two older brothers by his actions. His brothers were each over a thousand miles away, so others were cast as gladiators. He cast me in the role of the tougher of his two brothers, I imagine. I had a friend years ago who bizarrely mistook me for his father, unbeknownst to me, and was enraged, for years, apparently, that I never praised his teaching. Many of us seem to spend a good deal of our lives playing out scenarios with surrogates standing in for dead abusive parents, absent abusive siblings.
I blame nobody for being enraged in a world like the one we live in. People are livid all over the place. Look at the highways in Florida, general incivility, the unsportsmanlike behavior of trash talking millionaires on TV, the wars raging on several continents, the indifference to the death and torture of innocents done in our name, the bitter zero-sum impasse in our government, the continued war against the weak while the richest grow much, much richer as the world becomes more and more crowded, warm, polluted. You may have a nice group of friends, a supportive community, a sanctuary from the violence and hatred afoot everywhere these days, but the murderous rancor in the papers every day is hard to ignore. A wit, Harry Shearer, tweeted today: On FTN, Colin Powell calls Assad a “pathological liar”. I clearly remember when Assad assured the UN that Iraq had mobile bioweapons vans.
Of course, there were no mobile biological weapons vans in Iraq, nor any other signs of a nuclear weapons program, no ties to the 18 or so Saudis who were the suicide pilots on 9/11, but, for some reason, a lot of death was rained down on Iraq, in my name and yours — countless Iraqis and thousands of dead, maimed and permanently disabled American veterans of a war as senseless, and brutally patriotic, as World War One. The wartime president who ordered the pre-emptive attack on Iraq recently told a group of Shock and Awe veterans with prosthetic limbs that he deeply appreciated their sacrifices and that he’d tried diplomacy to avoid going to war with Saddam Hussein.
Maybe it’s true we can do little to change the big things. Change starts with ourselves. I have to be thankful that I’m able to remain mostly mild, instead of flying into rages. Hard work, and good work, and I’m glad and grateful to be doing it. Maybe it’s true the only thing we should focus on is taking care of the people in our lives, being kind, and helping, and always giving the benefit of the doubt to our friends, until they prove us wrong.
It isn’t easy to be consistently kind and empathetic when things are difficult. It’s hard to be patient when events press in on us, or to be mild when people treat us badly. Kindness and mildness are more important than most people know. Like hope, they are the things that remind us that life is good, they make an unbearable situation worth enduring.
A friend wrote recently of a yoga tale in which the snake, badly beaten, complains to his friend the guru, who finds him bloody in the road, that the guru told him not to strike back. “Christ,” says the guru, “I said don’t bite. I didn’t tell you not to hiss!”
Sometimes it is necessary to hiss, I suppose. But when confronted with things we can recognize as expressions of generalized hostility, my approach nowadays is to walk away, remain silent, there is no last word to be had worth the letters it takes to spell it. There is usually little to be gained by talking to people who will argue to the death that you are nuts to be hurt by things that were not intended to cause harm.
My elbow that accidentally broke your nose? What is mysterious about “accidentally”, asshole?
We get variations on that from angry people sometimes and experience teaches that the best response is to seek medical attention and stay out of harm’s way in future. You will not win any arguments with people like that.
Nor is there any point in trying to.
I began writing this musing over whether people who were the victims of angry people when young are attracted to each other. The little brother who was sucker punched by his older brothers, the middle sister who never got a dollar, nor any credit, from her parents, the older brother who bore the brunt of his mother’s rage and her random slaps across his face, the little sister terrorized by her insane bully brother. There may be a magnetic force at work, drawing a certain type together. I hate to think that is so, but it’s hard to imagine that everyone out there is the victim of some kind of crime against them when they were a child.
On the other hand, take a look at the world we live in. Sadly, you will not have to look very far.