Letting Go of the Outrage

September 2013

 

As many of my Facebook friends know, I am dismayed about what’s been going on in this country in recent years.  Actually, I think “outraged” is a more accurate description of how I feel. I’m outraged at the extent to which rich corporations now “buy” Congressmen to “represent” their interests in Congress, while virtually no one in Congress is representing the interests of ordinary Americans anymore.[1] I’m outraged at the extent to which corporate America has gotten its tentacles into our political process – not only “buying” Congressmen and capturing regulatory agencies, but “helping” state legislatures to write laws that (surprise, surprise) benefit the corporations but not the public.[2] I’m outraged at how the National Rifle Association was able to prevent Congress from enacting sensible gun control laws that 90 percent of Americans want.  I’m outraged at the almost complete lack of concern among our politicians, particularly on the right, about the obscene and dangerous level of income and wealth inequality that we have recently reached in this country, and the consequent decrease in upward mobility. I’m outraged at the Republican Party’s apparent willingness to destroy longstanding institutions of government that, up until recently, allowed Congress to function reasonably smoothly.[3] I’m outraged at that party’s (all too successful) efforts to destroy public confidence in the federal government, in part by causing it to be so dysfunctional that people have naturally lost confidence in it. I’m outraged at the blatant lying and smearing that seems to have become the political norm (again, particularly on the right these days). I’m outraged about the Republican Party’s complete refusal to acknowledge climate change, let alone do anything to mitigate it.  I’m outraged at the fossil fuel industry’s climate change misinformation campaign (aided and abetted by the Republican Party), which will ultimately cause untold and worldwide human misery (to say nothing of damage to the entire biosphere). I’m outraged at the sickening efforts in Republican-led state legislatures, practically the minute the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, to enact voter suppression laws on the pretext of “voter fraud,” barely even bothering to deny that there is virtually no voter fraud (the real motivation, of course, being to make voting more difficult for minorities, the poor, and the young – all of whom tend to vote Democratic).[4] I’m outraged at the far-right efforts to turn back the clock (to somewhere in the middle ages) on women’s health issues, including, in some places, attempting to deny access to contraception (on the pretext of “religious freedom”). I’m outraged at the decades-long hollowing out of the public sector with a consequent decline in public goods (that has gone hand in hand with the efforts to “hollow out” public confidence in government).[5]

I’ll stop.  There may be other things I’m outraged about, but it’s wearying to keep listing them – so you can imagine how wearying it is to feel so outraged about so many things.

I said at first that I was “dismayed” by a lot of things but that “outraged” is more accurate. Sometimes bad things (or at least things I don’t like) happen, and it’s no one’s fault.  I don’t really think climate change is anyone’s fault (although there are clearly political and economic entities to blame for the lack of progress in our government’s addressing the problem).  Nor do I think a senseless mass murder committed by a mentally ill person is really anyone’s fault (although I do blame entities like the NRA for making it so easy for such people to get guns).  I am dismayed – but not outraged – by unfortunate things that really aren’t anyone’s fault.  I am outraged by conscious efforts, usually motivated by self-interest, to do things that cause great harm to great numbers of people.  I am dismayed about quite a number of things, but it’s the outrage that is so exhausting, because outrage is extreme anger, and anger is enervating.

Interestingly, I’m not an angry person in my own personal life. It’s rare for me to get angry at someone I know. When it does happen, the anger consumes me for a while and then dissipates – and I’m always relieved when it does, because personal anger is even more consuming than anger at people or entities I don’t know personally. But, as I said, I rarely get angry at people I know.  But then again, the people I know don’t do things that warrant the torrent of outrage that some powerful people and entities have invited upon themselves.

My outrage is partly fed by my unending incredulity. When I die, it will read on my gravestone, “Here lies Ellen Post.  She still cannot believe the deception, the greed, and the sheer cruelty of which people are capable – the more so, the more power they have.” I am forever incredulous over the depths of loathsomeness to which so many powerful people have sunk, particularly in the political sphere. I am forever screaming (silently in my own head, thankfully) at one politician or plutocrat or another, You know that’s an outright lie! How can you keep saying it? Or, Don’t you see the enormous damage you’re causing? Don’t you care at all? It’s almost childlike, this persistent incredulity of mine. It’s as if I never advanced beyond the image of people and the world that I absorbed in kindergarten, a kind of “Mister Rogers” image in which people are empathetic, and the world is a kind and gentle place.

That world contrasts rather vividly with the real world, of course, in which those politicians in power do what it takes to stay in power, and those corporations with enormous amounts of money do what it takes to keep that money (and acquire ever more money) – even if what it takes is to destroy whole institutions that have served us well for centuries; even if what it takes is to put the entire world in serious jeopardy. I am forever bug-eyed incredulous that people would do things that are so extremely harmful to millions and millions of people – and ultimately to the entire planet.  But they would, and they have.  Get acquainted with the purveyors of climate change misinformation or the politicians who have decided it might be useful to their purposes to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States (precipitating a global financial crisis) by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless their demands are met.

But while I believe my outrage is completely justified, I have a hard time putting that genie back in the bottle.  And I’ve noticed that holding onto the outrage, letting it envelop me, doesn’t do any practical good – in particular, it doesn’t stop the bad behaviors that I find so outrageous – and it actually may be doing harm to me.

So I want to get a little Zen about it.  I want to let go of the outrage – but not completely discard it.  I want to let it go but still acknowledge it (from an emotional distance).  I want to get to a point where it doesn’t consume me, but it still engages me. I want to stop feeling so angry, but I don’t want to stop caring – and I don’t want to stop doing (or, at least, trying to figure out what to do).

About a month ago, I took a small step in that direction.  I posted on Facebook that I was “taking a day off” from worrying about the state of the country and the world to try to raise my “happiness quotient” for the day. I said that I was trying out a new strategy for the day – “not inviting any negative thoughts, and ‘letting go’ of any that manage to enter my mind.” For that day, I wouldn’t read those Facebook posts which linked to something I knew would trigger negative feelings, or post anything like that myself (which, I noted, would cut out most of the political stuff, my standard fare).  “It’s just for a day,” I said;  “I don’t want to have my head in the sand permanently; just need a break.”

And you know what? It worked.  For that one day, I let go of negative thoughts. If they came into my mind – and they most assuredly did – I pushed them out and replaced them with positive thoughts. This took a conscious effort, but I did it.  And for one whole glorious day, I felt good.

It wasn’t so easy for me to do that, even for just a day.  My default mode is to think about – one might even say “obsess over” – the things that dismay and outrage me. So I was proud of myself for achieving a whole day free of such thoughts.  Then why not go for more days like that?, you might be thinking. How about shooting for a whole week like that? Or a whole month? Taken to the extreme, why not try to achieve this “happy” outrage-free state permanently?

The answer, my answer, is simple: An always-happy state isn’t the goal, at least not if it’s achieved through ignoring reality. The goal is an optimal balance between my own personal sense of well-being and my ability and willingness to work against the things about which I am outraged.

Ah, an optimal balance! Why didn’t I say so in the first place? That’s simple enough. But, of course, it’s not.  I don’t know where that optimal point is; I have no idea how to achieve it. Is it a matter of the percentage of days I go “outrage-free”?  Or the number of outrageous things going on that I force myself not to think about?

I used to think that feeling that outrage is a necessary condition for action, that if we’re not sufficiently outraged about something we won’t muster the energy to act to rectify it. But perhaps that’s not right.  Feeling outrage can certainly be motivating, but is it necessary? Did Gandhi feel outrage as he led India to independence? Did Martin Luther King Jr. feel it as he led the civil rights movement in the United States?  Can one have too much outrage? Can it become an impediment to action? Can one wallow in outrage to the detriment of acting (so focused on the outrage that thoughts of acting fade into the background)? And can outrage blind one to rational thought? (Images of Tea Partiers with those three-cornered hats standing on the National Mall saying ignorant things come to mind.)

Making sure that you’ve got your facts straight about what you’re outraged about should be a given. Fuming about President Obama being a socialist who wants to put us on the path to totalitarianism is a waste of your time and everyone else’s (at least anyone who has to listen to you). So if you’re so outraged that you cannot rationally assess the situation, or make sure there is solid evidence to support your assessment, that’s a problem. It’s become a huge problem on a national level in this country.

But assuming that your outrage is indeed based on solid evidence, my guess is that unless it is “tamed” it can still interfere with a rational approach to changing the situation for the better. I am reminded of the folk song that became a motto of the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and ‘60s: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”[6]  Keep your “eyes” on what you are trying to achieve; the more you focus on your outrage, the less you are focused on your goal.  Outrage, while motivating, can, I believe, become diverting. And did I mention “beyond a certain point, unhealthy”? I don’t know exactly where that point is, but I suspect I might be a bit beyond it. So I’m trying to let go of the outrage enough to allow space for enjoying the wonderful things I have in this life.  I think of outrage as a fire – I want it to be strong enough that it warms and energizes me, but not so strong that it burns me. There; I’ve got the metaphor down. Now all I have to do is get the reality down. I’m working on it.


[1]  This and several of the other issues mentioned in this essay are described more fully in my essay, “Trying to Explain My Crazy Country” and in other essays I’ve written.

[2]  This eager helpmate, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) just celebrated its 40th birthday.

[3] The gross abuse of the filibuster in the Senate is the most often-cited example, but there are others.

[4] Texas and North Carolina are the two most high-profile instances of this as I write this.

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One comment on “Letting Go of the Outrage

  1. […] and tend to obsess over – the big, ugly offenses against humanity and how much they upset me (see “Letting Go of the Outrage”). These simple pleasures act as a kind of antidote to the large, outrageous things going on in the […]

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