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.

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