Thursday, 24 November 2016

On Living with Anger, Part 1

Praise the Lord for Donald Trump! That’s what the Facebook post said. A day after the U.S. elections, I’d gone on-line to look for photos of my brand-new baby nephew. Alas, there were none. What snagged my attention instead was a conversation a Facebook friend of mine had begun about the election results. Most contributors to the thread expressed sadness or anger or fear about the recent turn of events, but here was this one rather lengthy comment that started with Praise the Lord!  and went to say that God had just answered her prayers, that Obama “wasn’t qualified, either” for the job but she didn’t get all up in arms about it and why should people be so upset now? Oh yes, and she wasn’t a racist, but if you wanted to call her one, just go on and do it; she didn’t care.
Yes, that's how it feels.

Since then, many of my friends in the U.S. have reported their own encounters with our fellow citizens who rejoice in the new president-elect. Most of those encounters have been far more violent, far more disturbing, than mine. Because I live a whole ocean away, my interactions with supporters of the new president-elect have been by long-distance only. But reading that post on Facebook, for me, was no less shocking -- no less enraging. Anger clobbered me over the head. Anger made me feel sick to my stomach. For a moment, anger paralyzed me.

Adding to my distress was the knowledge that I was not going to be able to escape this anger for a long time, that people who make me so angry -- whose decisions, whose worldview, make me so angry -- are not going to go away.

The last time I felt such anger was the last year Dave and I lived in Guatemala, and I handled it poorly. I let it eat me up from inside. A long story, but I'll shrink it down to a few paragraphs. I was directing a language school in Guatemala City; the school was part of a larger institution, which included a graduate school, a guest house, its own printing press. For the first year, I'd gotten along with my dean and my four co-directors. But one afternoon, out of the blue, the dean called a directors-only meeting. I walked into that meeting not knowing what to expect. To my surprise, two other employees -- young women who worked as assistants for two of my fellow directors -- were seated alone at the table's far end, looking frightened. They had cause to be frightened, too. They'd recently discovered that the two directors for whom they worked were embezzling funds. But when the young women showed their evidence to the dean, he flew into an impassioned and -- I soon came to think, unbalanced -- defense of the two directors. The dean spent the meeting cursing the two women out for their suspicious natures and lack of loyalty; he allowed the two directors in question to verbally whiplash them, too.
Zona 1 -- downtown -- of Guatemala City

Though I'd had no previous inkling of these goings-on, by the time the meeting ended, I felt sympathy for the two women. I talked to them afterward; I looked at the evidence they'd gathered -- the same evidence they had tried to show to our dean -- and saw that they had not been lying. Funds had been misused -- were being misused -- in increasingly extravagant ways, by the two directors in question. I began to pay more attention, to press for further investigation. The more I looked into this abuse of funds, the more certain I was that the dean was putting his friendship with the two directors before the best interests of the institution, to say nothing of his moral code.

The short version of this story's end: Several people at the place where I worked came to be very angry with me. I in turn came to be very angry with them. I thought I was fighting a battle for justice. I still think I was. But as the crisis grew month by month over the course of a year, even my deep belief in my cause -- trying to uncover the corruption in our institution -- did not prevent me from being daily consumed by my anger.

There were many beautiful aspects of life in Guatemala that I have not experienced anywhere else -- that I feel great fondness for, still. I loved the custom of kissing everyone on the cheek when you entered your workplace each morning. I loved the blue volcanoes you could see from the school's fourth-story roof -- volcanoes which sometimes were wreathed in clouds, one of which often spat fire. Among the Guatemalans I worked with, I made some very dear friends. But when anger took over my life, I could no longer enjoy these experiences. Because I dreaded meeting certain co-workers, the formalized morning greetings became a source of stress rather than pleasure. As for enjoying the uniquely beautiful things all around me  -- the volcanoes on the horizon, the bougainvillea falling in bright bursts over the walls of the school -- I barely noticed them anymore. And while my good friends at work continued to empathize with my efforts to end the corruption, our conversations turned almost entirely toward that one bitter subject. My ongoing anger poisoned my life. Something had closed down inside me: my capacity for joy, in large part. 

When Dave and I left Guatemala in 2005, I felt like I was barely crawling away. I thought I'd have to curl up and lick my wounds for a long time to come. Having experienced anger as I did that year -- my anger at others, their anger at me -- hurt my sense of self, my sense of self-confidence. Most of us have been taught that anger is wrong. As someone who grew up both a Mennonite and a Southerner, I was doubly trained not to get angry.

Volcan de Agua, above Antigua, Guatemala
"I can't be this person," I often thought, "this person who hates and is hated." But I was. It's still painful for me to admit.

Comparing my cause for anger that year to the cause for anger many of us in the U.S. are facing right now may make my story -- interpersonal conflict in one small institution -- seem like a tempest in a teapot. (Or a storm in a teacup, as they say in the U.K.) But at a personal, day-to-day level, perhaps the questions are still the same: How do I live with this anger? How do I make my own personal peace with my anger? 

Not to try to extinguish my anger, but to accept it as a reasonable response I am making to what's going on in my country.

Not to hate myself or feel ashamed for harboring anger, but to see it as an outgrowth of my world view, of my values system, of my deepest beliefs.

Not to be consumed by my anger, but to learn to live with it in a way that feeds my constructive resistance.

Because there are causes for anger that you cannot get over in an hour or a day or a week. And you shouldn't.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Storm and the Story

As did roughly half the people in the world who followed the U.S. elections, I went to bed on Tuesday night, November 8 feeling confident that I'd wake to the news of Hillary Clinton being the next president-elect. When I stumbled downstairs to make tea the next morning, my husband, Dave, met me at the kitchen door. "What is it?" I said, backing away from him warily. "Honey," Dave said, "It's bad."

I won’t enumerate the reasons why I hoped Clinton would win. Nor will I try to analyze why she didn't. We are all swimming right now (or nearly drowning) in an ocean of articles on such topics.  I'm more interested in our personal stories -- the way each of us responds in a time of crisis. 

And we all have our stories now, don't we? The story of how we each met the news of the morning of Wednesday, November 9. Since Dave and I live in England, none of my friends in the U.S. were awake in that moment when I said to Dave, "Are you kidding? Are you kidding me?” and went into fetal position on our couch for the next 45 minutes. My U.K. friends began to text and email me right away -- "Oh my God, how are you doing?" -- but I couldn't talk to anyone from my own country for the next several hours, without waking them up. 

Dave and I, this past summer
I turned to Facebook instead. I don't understand the Facebook algorithm that determines which posts we see, when, but that morning after the elections, my Facebook feed looked like the major plot points of a horror story. It began with cheerfulness and hope; the photos posted from the afternoon before, in the U.S. (when I was already in bed) showed friends wearing Clintonesque pantsuits, friends standing with their young daughters beside their Hillary yard signs, friends wearing "I voted" stickers.   

But then, halfway down my feed, a new story line began to emerge: instead of photos, short frantic updates: "Watching the results -- and drinking hard." "I'm still hoping." "How could the polls be so wrong?" "Oh my God, is this happening?"  

Down through my Facebook feed, post after post showed the slow unraveling of the previous night, in my homeland. Then, finally, posted around midnight in the eastern U.S., the horror film's bloody climax -- or, as one friend summed up: "We're so f**ked."

Living an eight-hour plane ride from my family and best friends as I now do, I've been especially grateful for social media -- for the way Facebook, et al, has allowed me to stay in touch with goings-on back in the States. And I was grateful again for the connection, for the sense of community and commiseration, that I found through Facebook on the day after the U.S. elections.

But since then, something has changed. 

I can hardly look at Facebook anymore. With each passing day since the elections, the experience of going on-line has become more and more stress-inducing. It’s like trying to wade through a hurricane. 99% of my Facebook feed is still about the elections and their aftermath, and scrolling through my friends’ posts – once a pleasant distraction – has begun to create feelings of powerlessness in me.

Every news item about the appointment of white supremacists to the next White House staff, or about the current president-elect’s inability to “believe in” climate change, has added to the rage that is already brewing me. Because I could not find a way to channel that anger – to use it in a creative, constructive way – my increased anger led to my feeling powerless. And powerlessness, I’ve come to see, is a close sibling to despair.

At first, Dave suggested to me that I simply ignore any news coming out of the States. To turn it off, shut it down, to point my face in another direction. I can see the temptation. We do live in England, and while people here, too, are gravely troubled by the result of the U.S. elections, it is not a constant topic. It’s not the source of panic I feel from my friends on Facebook, that I often feel in my own heart. And some days I walk out into this medieval town in the North Pennine hills where I live and think, Wow. It really is another world. If you try, you can almost forget about the U.S. for a while, over here.
"Downtown" Durham

But I can’t really forget. I can’t turn off the rest of the planet. And I can’t just sit still and wait these next four years out. Whenever I’m upset about something, my first question is, What can I do?

I come from a family of doers, as Dave points out to me frequently. They trained me up well, to take action. Action always makes me feel better. It’s a way to exercise some control over my circumstances rather than letting them control me, insofar as that’s possible. When I have an argument with a friend, I prefer to talk it out – to make amends – as soon as I’ve got a handle on my emotions, rather than letting them stew. When I’ve hated my job, I’ve literally moved to a brand-new country (on two separate occasions now).  Two and a half years ago, when I had cancer, I was actually excited to get my chemo treatments. (I know that’s strange. But it felt like real action to me.) And I wore a pink wig; I blogged about living through cancer.

But how do you do anything about a whole country’s decision? What meaningful response can I make to my deep concern for my whole country? My deep concern is that that U.S. will move – is already moving – toward more virulent and more widely or freely expressed fear and hatred of the Other. Fear and hatred of anyone whom we perceive to be different from ourselves.

For the past week, I’ve been struggling to find a response that I can make from my own set of strengths and beliefs, from my own place in the world. On my Facebook feed now, there’s no dearth of petitions to sign. I have signed them. There are donations to make; I have made them. There are new focus groups to join, and I've joined. But has any of it felt empowering – healing? Has it felt like real, meaningful action? For me, it has not. Engaging my political convictions through my left brain – through analysis, rhetoric, debate – feels enervating to me. I’m glad others do it, supremely glad; such action is profoundly important. I want to support my friends and others who do take action that way.

But I find my healing and power through my right brain – through art. The power of art is my power: the way I can engage with the world, find a voice. The power of art is that it can express emotional and spiritual truths in a way argument or analysis just can't. I don't know about you, but in this time of crisis, I need to hear spiritual and emotional truths more than ever. Two works of art that have helped me do so this week are this song, “Seriously,” by Sara Bareilles, performed by Leslie Odom, Jr. and this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, from her 1968 book, The Speed of Darkness.

Muriel Rukeyser (One of my favorite poets)
It’s arguable whether blog-writing is a form of art. I’ll let the jury decide. But y’all, I’ve decided to go on and engage my right brain. In response to the recent U.S. elections, I’m going to use what I’ve got – and what I’ve got is this creative energy, this desire to write. I want to use this particular space to tell stories about living in other cultures, living with other cultures. I want to think about difference, and how we overcome or find ways to connect through our difference.

As a native-born U.S. Southerner who’s lived in many other, fairly radically different places -- among them Guatemala City, Chicago, Barcelona, and now Durham, England -- I have some life experiences to guide me in these ponderings. Maybe my thinking aloud here – maybe your thinking along with me – will be healing for us, at some level.

Each of us who is grieved by the current state of affairs in the U.S. has to find a way, our own way, to push back. Telling stories is how I find the power to do so. Where do you find your own power?