How to Escape America’s Anger Problem
Last year, the BBC asked a question that many of us are still asking: “Why Are Americans So Angry?” According to a CNN/ORC poll from a year ago, “69 percent of Americans are either ‘very angry’ or ‘somewhat angry’ about ‘the way things are going’ in the US.” At the time, Republicans were the most angry, but more than two-thirds of us were angry about the economy, immigration, “Washington, and America’s ‘place in the world.’” 2017 has only fueled the fire for voters on both sides, and many of us are still getting red-faced about these and many other issues, as evidenced by the recent events at Middlebury and other free-speech squabbles.
While it’s easy to blame Trump for the rise in anger, his presidency is a reflection of our rising anger and not the cause of it. Moreover, there are larger forces at work, beyond economic and political ones. In a recent article for the Atlantic Monthly, Peter Beinart writes that a rising secularism is “making America’s partisan clashes more brutal.” He goes on to say, “As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.” Although he concedes that “establishing causation is difficult,” the absence of faith in some people’s lives has arguably impacted their disposition toward those with whom they disagree.
For those of us who still faithfully participate in church communities around the country, we still face the same problem of anger and partisan rancor that marks the American zeitgeist, albeit for different reasons and at varying levels.
Paula LaVazza, a conservative, albeit #nevertrump friend, admits she feels “angrier than normal. Much angrier.” “So angry,” LaVazza says, “it surprises and scares me a little. So many people I care about have done a complete 180 on a lot of the things they believed were most important, and want me to do one too, and are upset with me for not doing it. I've spent a lot of the last couple years completely flabbergasted and frustrated, and it often turns into anger.”
Writer Ellen Painter Dollar cites a different reason for her anger: “My anger is exacerbated by a feeling of helplessness. It feels like there are these big forces at work, and I don’t know how to respond. Intellectually, I believe that our job as human beings is to do good when we can, even when it’s a small thing. I cling to that and try to live it. But right now, it feels inadequate. So it’s that feeling of powerlessness that stokes my anger.”
Indeed, hypocrisy and helplessness are among the many reasons to be angry these days. I get it—so do must of us. There is plenty to be angry about. And it’s worth noting that I am someone who by nature runs angry—when confronted with injustice and cruelty, my heart flashes hot—and in general, I appreciate the power of righteous anger. Nonetheless, there’s something about contemporary anger that has even me stepping back, turning away, and tuning out. Not because it’s too powerful or too scary but rather because it’s too common and too constant.
As people of faith, we have a name for this kind of excessive anger—sin—and we also have a script for how to respond to it. The Bible is replete with warnings about over-the-top anger. Proverbs 29:11 tells us that fools give in to their fury. James tells us to slow our rage as it doesn’t produce righteousness (1:19–20). And in Ephesians 4, Paul’s reminds us not to sin in our anger. While we take this to say that we shouldn’t get mean in our anger, there’s a deeper sin problem here. When we get mean and screamy in our anger, when we stew and steep in hate and rage—one Christian friend recently posted that she finds herself “hating like she’s never hated before”—we miss out on the Christian calling to love God and love our neighbor.
“I have had to find ways to ease my anger because I don't think it's healthy either for me or for the people around me,” LaVazza told me. She had an “epiphany” when she realized “my anger accomplishes absolutely nothing and persuades no one of anything. So it doesn't do any good. If I accomplish anything at all, it has to be by trying to be more loving and humble, more like Christ, not by getting angry.”
To ease her anger, LaVazza is committed to spiritual practices—“lots of prayer, memorizing Bible verses and bits of poems, deep breathing, writing, reading good books and watching good movies” to give herself a mental break. She’s also minimizing social media, a theme shared by Dollar.
Dollar says she only uses social media in “limited ways—to connect with friends and colleagues and other personal uses.” Instead of scrolling through her news feed for, well, news, Dollar goes directly to the news source and is “trying to respond to the world as it is right now through concrete actions in my daily life and work rather than getting into arguments on social media.”
“I’m a writer, so I do believe that our words can make a difference, and there is a time and place for reasoned and impassioned argument,” Dollar says. “But for me, right now, the healthiest thing is to avoid argument and simply do what I can each day to live out my values and my beliefs.”
Dollar says she’s working on learning to separate her “righteous” anger from the knee-jerk kind. And she’s wise to do so. Spiritual practices, limiting Facebook and other social media, and expanding the scope of our news gathering are all helpful tools for managing anger. We all need time to think on our own, to wonder, to pray, to consider how we might respond or better yet—gasp—if our response (angry or otherwise) is even fruitful in the first place.
As I tend my own soul and spirit in these rancorous times, I often turn to a simple phrase that I heard repeated (in news and conversation) over the course of a few days this winter: “We now know.”
We now know. These humbling words, more than anything else, have helped me to harness my own anger. Whatever I think today, whatever my opinion is right now, what ever I feel today, it might change tomorrow. Why? Because we so often get it wrong, and all our anger might be for naught—at great cost.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we’re reminded to take the long view of human history. The Scriptures are full of stories about “what we now know” about the great love story of God and his people—stories we can now see from a distance that people only saw up close at the time. We read about the anger and impatience and chaos, we read about how they shook their fists at God because they didn’t know the why and they didn’t know the end.
Of course, there’s much we don’t know now, either. And it’s hard to trust. But humility—knowing the small place we inhabit in the scope of history—and trust—that God’s providence will prevail in the midst of circumstantial upheaval—are antidotes to the anger that pervades our lives these days. As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecc. 3:10–11).
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of seven books, including the forthcoming children’s book, Grit and Grace: Heroic Women of the Bible (SparkHouse Family, 2017). Caryn lives with her husband, three kids, and one rescued pit bull in the western suburbs of Chicago.