Ask Dr. V, Why Are We So Angry?
Dear Dr. V,
I travel a lot and have noticed that no matter where I go, what town I’m in, suburbs or the city, I see and hear angry people EVERYWHERE! Seriously, I’m in my late fifties and have never seen or heard Americans more angry. It’s really strange. Go ahead; check out any Internet comment site too and you will hear and read the angriest people ever. It makes me sad. What is going on? And on a personal note, what can I do??
Thank you for such a timely and astute question. I know exactly what you are talking about. I’ve noticed it, too. It really does seem like somebody’s spiked the water supply with rage, given the amount of anger we see in our immediate surroundings and the greater world around us. I think there’s a confluence of factors causing this collective, ongoing eruption of resentment, frustration and anger.
If we were to try and discern the source of all this negativity, perhaps the best place to begin would be with ourselves — on the individual level. For the last few generations, especially in the West, we have been conditioned more and more to believe we are entitled to have anything and everything we want, practically at the touch of a button; this is especially true since the advent of the Internet, where we can access almost anything from research data to a new pair of shoes with a mouse click. The consequence of such convenience is the erosion of our collective patience and our willingness to truly work for something, on a conceptual level. The converse of the idea of a bird that’s been caged its entire life not missing flight. How can somebody who’s never been told “no” be expected to understand that they can’t have everything and anything they want? Add to this the undeniable fact that things are getting tougher and we have a perfect storm of impatience, selfishness and immaturity. When allowed to marinate unchecked, these emotions often congeal into a general feeling of anger and resentment.
Beyond this, there are factors outside of us contributing as well. There’s an old curse; “May you live in interesting times.” Without a doubt, the first decade of 21st Century will be remembered as a definite “before and after” point. September 11, the wars that followed, the economic collapse, the extreme polarization of the country — all of these can be very upsetting and overwhelming to contemplate. Perhaps as the emotional manifestation of the “fight or flight” survival tactic, for many people anger is often not far behind fear. There is an illusion of empowerment that comes with anger that some find preferable to the contrasting emotions that come with fear. It can seem easier to take refuge in anger than to face one’s fears and attempt to deal with the situation rationally. This is at best putting off the inevitable.
Misplaced, undirected anger can cloud one’s judgment; ultimately leaving the person exhausted and empty, and that which upset them to begin with remains unresolved.
Sadly, certain factions of the media also stand to gain much from keeping us frightened and angry. It’s really just simple economics. I’ve discussed before that maintaining an atmosphere of impending doom will keep people glued to their TV sets for the 24-hour news cycle. Anger can be just as effective. Consider the tactics of most of our TV and radio pundits (right and left). By in large, the audience tunes in to have their own opinions confirmed and shouted back at them. In this way, their own sense of righteous anger is renewed and confidence in their worldview shored up. In a way, it’s almost like a vapid religious service, the pastor testifying, the congregation shouting “Amen!” But keeping people upset, angry and yelling at each other, rather than encouraging actual discussions and exchanges of ideas, is a great way to cloud the issue.
That’s a mighty big barrel of anger to be staring down. What can one person do? I defer again to Gandhi and his wonderful quote, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” All you can do is be deliberate, empathetic and loving in your heart, mind and actions. Try to avoid media that gets you riled up so as to keep yourself free and clear of needless negativity. When you do engage with a person who seems to be unduly angry, try to come from a place of compassion and understanding. Ask them about how they’re feeling, why they’re so angry. Some people may be thankful for the opportunity to actually talk through the issues with a friend. Still, others may feel they need their anger, like some horrible, stinky security blanket. If that’s the case, I suggest you respectfully disengage from that person, so as not to give any of your energy to their dysfunctional process.
It is not always easy to maintain an even keel, inside or out, in the tumultuous times we live in. However, it is my belief that it is always better to fight fire with water, rather than gasoline.
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