The other morning I stepped out of my quiet meditation space and into the kitchen for breakfast. I knew that storms had been ravaging some parts of the country where I have relatives, so I decided that instead of the usual quick weather check on the net, I’d turn on the TV to get a national perspective and maybe see some regional video.
As the TV screen popped on, I was immediately jolted by a couple of those angry talking heads. These guys were debating the merits of a recent supreme court decision. I had my hands busy with food prep, so instead of clicking away, I endured the rants and raves and posturing and dire predictions of social implosion that these two “opponents” predicted would surely flow from either adopting or failing to adopt this decision as the law of the land. Clearly their intent was to inflame the passions of their respective constituencies, one ultra conservative & the other strongly liberal (progressive).
Now what struck me about all this was the purely speculative nature of all the arguments. Each drew upon the fears of his particular group of regular fans. And each hyperbolically predicted extreme, even outrageous, consequences that were designed to stimulate a strong visceral response to some imagined (but by no means certain) future.
This sort of “discussion” is the political equivalent of the noises exuded by a side show barker: It is cheap, sensational, and often distorted.
The Invisible Background Hum of Anger
Unfortunately, this kind of stuff makes up a substantial portion of every news channel’s programming. The result is that vast numbers of people go around vaguely angry at talking-head conjured demons, real or imagined, who threaten their lives. With this steady stream of venom radiating through the airwaves, many of us live with a pervasive hum of background anger churning away, just below our conscious awareness. As we move through the day encountering people, we don’t see them as the unique individuals they are. Instead we see archetypes who are for or against abortion, gun rights, the social safety net, big government, gay marriage and on and on. Worse, we see them as threats to be feared.
If you think you’re immune to this, you need only spend time in daily mindful meditation. You may be surprised to find how much of this crap bubbles up!
Aarrgghh!! Make It Stop!
So how can we get rid of these angry thoughts and background anger? The short answer, of course, is to stop listening to these media performers – – just turn them off. But that leaves us with all the negative seeds they’ve already planted. What do we do about the residual anger these inevitably sprout?
Like any malady, it must be witnessed and accepted before it can be dealt with. You gotta call it what it really is: fear. As Alan Cohen tells us (my bold added):
“Anger is fear under pressure. Behind every angry upset there is a fear. If you attempt to deal with anger at the level of anger alone – by either venting it or repressing it – you are manipulating the symptom without addressing the cause. If you can discover the fear behind the anger and dismantle it in the light of awareness, the anger dissipates. The next time you are angry, ask yourself, What am I afraid of?” — from A Daily Dose of Sanity: A Five-Minute Soul Recharge for Every Day of the Year by Alan Cohen via Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes
In other words, when fear gets a glimpse of itself it often begins blustering and posturing to hide its true nature. In an effort to maintain its dignity, fear morphs into quasi-ferocious anger. Like a chihuahua about to be sniffed by a Great Dane, fear barks and growls and desperately bares its teeth to ward off an imagined disaster. Never mind that the Great Dane was simply curious. It’s driven away before any kind of mutual understanding can be reached. And sadly, both end the encounter as ignorant of each other as they began it.
Still, there are exceptions. We’ve all seen those heart-warming examples of big, scary creatures hanging out with — even nuzzling and playing with — frail little creatures. So how can this happen?
The answer is first-hand experience. Familiarity. A one-to-one connection that allows each to find something good… even enjoyable… in the other. When this happens, fear melts away and the veil of anger disappears.
The Old Man and the Sea
Here’s a human example. I once knew an old fellow who had fought in World War II. He didn’t hesitate to tell scary tales of what “those damned Japs” did to U.S. soldiers. This was usually followed by loud and long and politically incorrect rants against the success of Japanese cars, electronics products, etc. in today’s U.S. marketplace. The thing is, since he had lived most of his life in rural Appalachia, he had never actually met a Japanese person.
One day, during one of his a rare visits to our home in Los Angeles, I took this old curmudgeon ocean fishing. It was his first such excursion and he was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the adventure. In the pre-dawn darkness we boarded one of those big, tugboat-sized boats that made daily runs a mile or two out into Santa Monica Bay in search of bass, rock cod, and other sport fish. There were about 25 of us on deck, bundled in light jackets and hooded sweatshirts to ward off the chill of the sea breeze and fog.
When the sun finally rose and burned off that morning fog, we were miles out to sea, the dock no longer anywhere in sight. What was in sight, however, were the faces of our fellow fishermen. They were Black and Hispanic and Asian and Anglo and several other subtly blended races that make up our richly multi-ethnic Southern California. Looking around and realizing who his traveling companions were, Old Dude wrinkled his brow, raised his eyebrows, and shot me some question marks. I silently returned a nod and a reassuring smile, then struck up a conversation with a couple of our comrades. Soon the interpersonal ice was broken and everyone began swapping their favorite fish-catching strategies.
As the day wore on, Old Dude joined in. And to my surprise, he bonded with an old Japanese-American fellow about his age. A couple of hours into the trip, they were taking turns watching each other’s poles while one of them would take a bathroom break, get a coffee, or go after more bait. By the end of the trip they were trading stories about kids, grandkids, and other details of their lives. In short, they had become friends. On the drive home he summed up his feelings for this man: “Helluva nice fella! And he knows a lot about deep sea fishin’!” Through first-hand experience and the magic of one-on-one contact, old Dude’s fear-based anger at Japanese in the abstract had melted away, replaced by the reality of his new friend’s humanity.
A Toothy Growl Means a Nervous Chihuahua
So the next time you find yourself working with someone who’s suffering from media-induced anger toward a group of people who differ in their politics, religion, sexual orientation, etc., ask yourself: “Does this angry person actually know any real, living examples of this group? Have they talked to them and tried to understand what animates their choices. Or tried to learn who they are as individuals?” If the answer is “No,” then it may make sense to simply ignore their anger.
But if their anger persists, you might want to ask them an important question, namely, “What, exactly, are you afraid of?” If they answer you honestly, then you may begin to see their anger for what it truly is: Nothing more than their inner chihuahua twitching nervously and barking out of ignorance! And this nervous little critter quite likely deserves your compassion.
* Chihuahua image above from the YouTube video “Angry Chihuahua.” Check it out! — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKGPvul8FXc.