What's the Number One emotion or attitude right now around the world? If we can trust at least a modicum of what we see and hear across all media these days, it just might be anger, followed at some distance by anxiety. Frustration is common. Disillusionment is widespread, but it's anger that seems to reign supreme in certain geographic areas of the globe, and closer to home in our own political climate. This emotion isn't a fount of hope, a typical building block of success or happiness. And yet, it's everywhere. And it seems that those who harbor it want to inflame it in others. Why?
First, I should acknowledge that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with anger. As Aristotle told us long ago, its rationality is all about such questions as "toward whom, for what reason, in what measure, for how long, and to what end?" Righteous indignation is proper toward the harming of the innocent. I can't imagine a persuasive moral tradition that reserves all judgment and urges us to accept even the worst, most vicious conduct. But, as Aristotle's questions suggest, in order to be reasonable, productive, and even healthy, anger needs to be the temporary reaction to a particular situation that goads us into solving the problem ingredient in that situation, and thus improving things for the better, overall.
Anger that's ongoing is corrosive and destructive. It's a poison. And yet, if a current sampling of Twitter and Facebook provides any reliable indication, there are many people who actually seem to embrace it and relish it in their lives.
C.S. Lewis had this wonderful little story in a book called The Great Divorce, where people in hell are given a bus trip to heaven, where they can look around as tourists. The surprise is that, if they like what they see, they're invited to relocate. The only condition is that they have to give up whatever "sin" or moral flaw kept them out of heaven in the first place. If it was bitterness, or resentment, they have to let it go and put it away for good. If it's greed, or unbridled ambition, they'd have to say goodbye to that. And if it's old fashioned anger as a way of life, they'd simply have to renounce it, cease to fan its flames, and turn away from it as their mode of existence. The surprise is that many people can't manage to accept the offer, however much they seem to value it. Their besetting sins have just become too important to them. They've said, in effect, "Evil, be thou my good." They've grown accustomed to some counterfeit of happiness, and can't let it go, even when faced with the real thing.
How could this be? I've known people of whom it was true. You may have, as well. It's hard for us to experience such negative emotions as disappointment, frustration, despondency, and discouragement. Such emotions can be a swamp, a bog for the soul. When our hopes seem to have been dashed, we often can't stand to endure those victim emotions, feelings that just seem to make our plight worse. So we transform the disappointment or discouragement into anger. We lash out at someone or something outside ourselves as the source of our problems, the cause. We're good. They're bad. And directing our ire outwardly is cathartic. We release all that pent-up energy, throwing it toward someone else. And when we can do so as a group endeavor, it's even better. Misery loves company the most when the crowd all joins together in confirming and reinforcing the anger that's substituted for all those other, harder, emotions. The irate growl together, almost as a sporting crowd would cheer together. And they're actually cheering their own substitution state for those more difficult emotions, or for the yet harder work that actually addressing the challenging situation might require.
The great philosophers join together in recommending that we not do this. Moreover, many suggest that we have compassion for those around us who are choosing this false path. They are taking themselves down a road that doesn't lead to heaven, but to a very different place instead. And they're cultivating a comfort with counterfeits that may one day rob them of their true capacity to love and live in a fulfilled, successful, and even happy way.
So as we see so many fanning the flames of fury around us, we are wise to refuse that road ourselves, and instead work to rectify the sources of the problems that we can, eventually, solve.