For many years in my 20s, I had a metal door that had magnets and postcards all over it. One of the stickers that I had pinned up to the door was this one:
I loved it because it reflected how I felt about the world: that there was so much going wrong if you looked around there was no way that you would not, COULD not be angry. People die in wars, children get cancer, churches send millions of dollars to feed hungry children overseas but ignore the homeless people one block away, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, it was not right and it was not ok with me. So I volunteered, I protested, I held signs, I wrote papers in college about why we should support nonprofits with our money and our time, I was determined that we would change the world – just like every generation of college students before me. That desire to “save” the world is probably a part of why I decided to become a social worker.
Idealism, it seems, is something that you must outgrow if you hope to emotionally survive.
Recently I had an unexpected conversation about everything that is wrong with America today. It was really more of a venting session where a near-stranger who has different political ideology than I do told me his views about why everything is messed up. It seems like being outraged when you pay attention is not something that is exclusive to one political party or the political right or left. As I listened to this older, white, likely straight male tell me everything I’ve heard before on television news (kids have no respect anymore, breakdown of the family, people are lazy and expect things to be handed to them) and thought about all of the reasons I knew a black feminist around my age could give him for the things he cites (institutional racism, poverty and education, the radical economic change of the country over the last 30 years) but I didn’t feel like arguing with him. Whether online or face to face we rarely change people’s belief systems by arguing with them.
Instead, I listened. I nodded my head and just let him vent. I heard the sadness in his voice and saw the tired expression on his face as he expressed that he thought that he used to be naive.
I think I used to be naive as well. I have realized my generation is not going to be changing the world anymore than my parents or grandparents’ generations did. While some things get better, some things get worse, that is the way things work; we take a few steps forward, and then a few steps back, we learn things as we learn how much we still have to learn. No one is completely right and no one is completely wrong. We can’t blame the problems we observe on one person or administration or political ideology. Blame doesn’t change anything and I realized, neither does anger.
Nothing positive was ever created from anger.
I took a couple days to process the conversation that I had. I went to Facebook and I looked at all the anger there and for the first time, it made me sad – not because the things making each person angry but because they were angry at all. As a therapist, I teach that holding onto anger doesn’t hurt the person that we are angry at, it hurts us. I teach that we forgive other people because it frees us from our hurt, anger, and sadness. I teach that the only thing that we can control is ourselves and our reactions. So why would I not practice what I preach, so to speak?
My belief is that we change the world one person at a time. By helping others, I hope that they will in turn become strong and healthy enough to help others, and it’s through that love, not through anger, that the world becomes a better place. I look around I don’t see that we have made anything better by being angry with a person, or a president, or a corporation, or a religion, and worse yet our lives have not improved through that anger. No one has become happier or healthier or more peaceful or found more opportunities through their anger, whether they believe it to be righteous or not. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said that he had decided to stick with love because hate was too great a burden to bear. I realized that is the way I feel about anger. My anger was much too great a burden to bear, so I’m choosing love instead.
* Some of the images in this article are from Syracuse Cultural Workers where you can purchase them in various forms.