Anger – Kent Mayfield


Kent Mayfield

March 17, 2019

Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque

Dubuque, Iowa




You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all      going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered       by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.


~ Thomas Merton


I read Toni Morrison who says that “everything in the western tradition is full of   anger, possession, distortion and corruption.  It is slaughter without blood.  Under       the guise of country and love, you (we) destroy all sorts of things, each other,            children.”


“It is precisely in a period [of great spiritual and societal hunger] like our own that            we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women       and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and           for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision, and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the             creation of new realities — especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and    songs to become embodied; to take on flesh, in real, hard places.”  Vincent    Harding



We fret about words, we educated folk, not just writers or poets, but we who care about the mind.  Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.


What do we mean, for example, by the word “peace”? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancor? It seems to me that what most people mean by “peace” is victory. The victory of their side, domination, power, control. That’s what “peace” means to them, while to the others peace means defeat… Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit.


“There are contradictory impulses in everything,” Susan Sontag poignantly observed a half-century back. There is a dark side to the notion of variability of individual meanings.  There can be contradictions, sometimes irreducible conflicts, among the values we most cherish.


It all comes down to an urge to intellectual fascism — maybe a heavy word to use , but I think the right word — it comes down to the urge to know and say what’s best for people, to know and say that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes faith or politics or psychology into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social/moral explanation for our vision of life, which is to say an explanation of what kind of behavior you should be ashamed of and what kind you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of life where it comes from, where it goes…


I’ve been struggling with single words this fall and winter.  And, here, again, I struggle.  This time with ANGER.


The snows had hardly begun to thaw in 1977 when the residents of a New England town received a strange questionnaire in the mail.  “Try to recall the times you’ve become angry or annoyed in the last week or so,” the survey said.  Describe the most angry of these.  (One woman knew exactly – it was when her husband had purchased new car and and had driven it to his mistress’s house so she could admire it. When the wife found out she was livid.  Furious, her rage was an eruption she couldn’t control.


The survey was interested in the particulars of the respondents’ anger…to quite a level of detail….the words she had shouted, whether punches had been thrown.  “Did  you want to get back at or gain revenge,” the survey asked?  Afterward, did you feel “triumphant, confident and dominant” or “ashamed, embarrassed and guilty?”


As described in a recent article in “Atlantic” magazine, the researcher, James Averill, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, thought that basically everyone felt that anger was something that mature people and societies ought to suppress, that if you were angry you ought to be a bit embarrassed,” but as he began to survey ordinary people – people who were upset with their coworkers, who yell in traffic, who argue over who should carry out the trash or curfews for teenagers – he expected that people would confess that they were red-faced afterward, that, in retrospect, their paroxysms had only made things worse.  Instead, he told, “Most people were pleased to talk about being angry.  Some people even attached thank-you notes.”  The betrayed wife, it turned out, wasn’t all that upset about the mistress—she had harbored suspicions for some years, and to be frank, if another woman was willing to put up with her husband, more power (and sympathy) to her.  BUT, how DARE he show her the new car first.


For most people, it seemed, the angry episodes did not become blowout fights.  They didn’t make things worse.  Instead they tended to make bad situations better…much, much better.  They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions.  Even the enraged wife’s confrontation with her unfaithful husband led to productive solution:  He could keep the mistress as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife took priority outside of the bedroom.


In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints.  They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized.  Even the targets of the outbursts agreed that the shouting and recriminations had helped.  They said they “came to realize their own faults…their relationship with the angry person was more often strengthened than weakened and the targets more often gainede rather than lost respect for the angry person.”


Subsequent studies agree.  We’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges.
Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks.  When we become angry we feel like we are taking control, like we are gaining power over something. And, as reality television proves, anger is a sure-fire way to get attention.


You all remember when Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, seeking to discredit a clownish bumpkin who had his eye on the Presidency, said that during anxious times, “it can be tempting to follow the siren all of the angriest voices” but that “we must resist that temptation.”  Donald Trump stepped up to the taunt: “Well, I think she’s right.  I am angry.  I’m angry and a lot of other people are angry too.  As far as I’m concerned, anger is okay.  Anger and energy is what this country needs.”


I understand that.


Opening at the Irving Berlin’s Music Box Theatre in 1933, “As Thousands Cheer” poked fun at public figures such President Hoover, Barbara Hutton, Gandhi, John D. Rockefeller, and Noël Coward, among others. The show also covered current events ripped from the headlines, including the lynching attacks on African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ethel Waters sang  Berlin’s “Suppertime,” an African-American woman’s lament for her lynched husband.  (It has since been recorded and performed live by Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald, and Barbra Streisand, among others.)  I only saw it a few days back at a film retrospective.  She sang:


I should set the table

‘Cause it’s supper time

Somehow I’m not able

‘Cause that man of mine

Ain’t coming home no more


Oh, supper time

Kids will soon be yelling

For this supper time

While I keep from telling

That that man of mine

Ain’t coming home no more


While I keep explaining

When they ask me where he’s gone

While I keep from crying

When I bring the supper on

How can I remind them

To pray at their humble board

How can I be thankful

When they start to thank the lord,

Oh, lord!


Supper time,

I should set the table

‘Cause it’s supper time

Somehow I’m not able

‘Cause that man of mine

Ain’t coming home no more


I sat broken-hearted in front of the screen stunned by the pathos of the moment but

deeply angered.  Then I learned that, as described in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, when the white cast members initially refused to take a final bow with Ethel Waters, Berlin himself declared that if Waters was not included in the final curtain call, no cast members would take a bow.  And I said, “So there! Gottcha!”


More than 75years later I was angry.  I understand the power of anger.


In the mid-1960’s, California and Arizona residents, if they happened to look at the back pages of their local newspapers, were likely to see a smattering of articles about a small group of angry grape pickers.  For more than half a century, various labor associations had struggled to organize the men, women and children who toiled in California’s sunbaked fields – About 250,000 workers—many migrants from Mexico and the Philippines, some in the country illegally and unable to speak English – plucked grapes and picked asparagus stalks in punishing heat, too poor, too hungry to mount a protest.


Among the workers, there was chatter about a new leader.  Cesar Chavez, a migrant himself, had traveled as a child from Arizona after his family lost their home.  My father knew the owner of the from which they moved and told me (I was then living in Japan) that Chavez had a basic approach to organizing – not impassioned speeches, songs and prayers more typical of the civil-rights movement in the South.  No, he believed that the key was appealing to the workers’ sense of moral outrage.  If you focused solely on higher wagers or better working conditions, he knew, you were setting goals that lacked the emotional resonance people needed to commit to a cause.

Dad sent me this quotation from Chavez:

“My motivation comes from my personal life.  It grew from anger and rage…We are ready to give up everything, even our lives, in our fight.”


He knew if he could transform a labor dispute into an angry, righteous movement, then the people’s sense of the possible would change.


His group often said:  “We are suffering.  We are angry and we are not afraid to suffer in order to win our cause.” They became angry.  They became involved.


Chavez knew that you can’t organize a group of victims. If people only see themselves that way, there is no sense of agency, no sense of power. “Movements don’t emerge from small acrimonies.  They require a sense that it is not just an individual who wronged us but a system that must be reformed.”  (Marshall Ganz)  Still, moral outrage must be closely managed or it can do more harm than good. Stoking emotion is easy.  Learning how to channel it?  That’s harder


For Chavez, the anger deepened, fury burst, violence blazed, and he knew he was losing control. And so on a grim February morning, he announced that he was fasting to urge the movement to recommit to its basic principles.  In a small room of an adobe-walled gas station, he consumed only water.  Newscasts speculated that he might die. The fast continued for a week, then two, then nearly a month.  As he starved, the violence in the fields tapered off.  He emerged after 25 days to join a mass attended by thousands including Robert F. Kennedy.


Cesar Chavez had literally to starve himself to stop the outrage and frustration from getting out of control.


We might wonder if enough people across this great country understand that right now.


America has always been an angry nation.  Yes even our country’s founding mythology is rooted in anger.  The American dream itself is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life had handed them. We are a country born of revolution.  Combat—on battlefields, at the ballot box, in the news and on Facebook and Twitter—has been with us from our beginnings.  Our history is punctuated by episodes in which we have settled our differences not through conversation but with guns.  The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with each other in the public square, in the free press, in open court.  The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive a policy through disagreement, negotiation and accommodation.


Recently, however, the tenor of our anger has shifted.  It has become less episodic and more persistent, a constant drumbeat in our lives.  It is directed not only at those we do not know and are the more easily demonized but increasingly at people we rub shoulders with literally or figuratively.  Anger has built within us, exerting a startling pressure that can have a dark consequence: the desire not merely to be heard but to hurt those we believe have wronged us, a destructive obsession with teaching the other person a lesson he won’t forget.


It is tempting to lay the blame for this current devolution at the feet of the current president. True, Mr. Trump has vilified democrats, immigrants, the media, left-leaning liberals, but on both the left and the right, a visceral disdain for one’s political opponents has become common, as has a  feeling of schadenfreude (Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.) when the other side suffers a setback.


I’ll admit it:  I can be angry.  I am OFTEN angry.


I’m angry over gun violence.  I’m angry over toxic masculinity gone viral.  I’m angry with dog-walkers who leave Fido’s poop on the sidewalk.  I’m not alone.  You may be furious over Big Pharma expenses or your coming tax bill.  You may be outraged by a stagnant legislative agenda to address climate change, or the cancerous heritage of Love Canal and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the carnage in Christchurch. I fume over the tone-deafness of most of us to sustained racism and ageism and sexism.  Human trafficking, sexual predators, cable news, Twitter, politicians that campaign more than govern–


I know it.  I am one (quietly) seething pot of anger.  And my friends are the same.  One said just last week “I profess to hate what cable news does to national conversation, but I tune in.  The vitriol on display each night is over the top, but I tune in.  I decry nasty discourse on Twitter or Facebook and check back the next hour to refresh my outrage.”  And this is a scary place to be—for us as individuals, and for the nation as a whole.  Our anger has become a burden and yet we seem unable to turn away. The anger impulse is too deeply encoded, the thrill too genuine.


The ways in which anger is stoked from every side may be new and the partisan divide that that such anger fosters may have pushed us further down a path toward widespread violence than we realize.


As we reach beyond the midpoint of a presidential administration that has driven nearly everyone (right or left) into a rage of one kind or another, we are at a crossroads.  Where do we go from here.  Will we continue, blindly furious?  Or will we see our rage as a disease that must be cured?


The goal can’t be to eradicate anger.  We couldn’t if we tried, and as James Averill’s research indicated, we need our anger.  We need to air our grievances with friends and family.  We need the moral outrage that motivates us to push for a more just society.  Neither right nor left has a monopoly on truth and justice.  People who have been denied the right to express their anger – the women of the #MeToo movement, the activists of BlackLivesMatter, the bruised and scarred victims of clergy abuse—shouldn’t be expected to give up the fight now.


Many of our nation’s most contentious issue are driven by a feeling that our institutions have failed us.  Historically, this feeling has been at the root of some of America’s most important movements for change.  Ours, too, could be a moment for progress, if we can channel our anger to good ends, rather than the vanquishing of our enemies.


“It is not enough for people to be angry,” Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience at Carnegie Hall in February, 1968.  It was the 100th Anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. DuBois, and King hoped to remind the listeners of his teachings and his methods.  Du Bois had been an angry radical all his life.  He had furiously called for resistance, but he had sought to make his enemies into allies.  He had overcome his anger in hopes of finding peace.  “Above all,” King said, “He did not content himself with hurling invectives for emotional release and then to retire into smug, passive satisfaction.  The supreme task is to…unite people so their anger becomes a transforming force.


And how do we do that?


I read Toni Morrison who says that “everything in the western tradition is full of anger, possession, distortion and corruption.  It is slaughter without blood.  Under the guise of country and love, you (we) destroy all sorts of things, each other, children.”

How do we step back from vengefulness into urgent transforming engagement.


I saw a cartoon this past week.  Two people were out in the woods. One says to the other:  “How do I find those delicious mushrooms we like so much?”  The other responds:  “Have you lost your MOREL compass?”


I don’t know.  Maybe I have lost both my morel compass and my moral compass, as well.


David Dennett, the philosopher from Tufts suggests

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly    that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or            widespread agreement).

You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

Only then permit yourself to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.



Not long ago, I heard Clarissa Pinkola Estes (she’s a Mestiza shaman of sorts from New Mexico) say:


“It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people’s worlds

and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people…


…You are right …The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while

endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.


Yet … I urge you, ask you, gentle you, not to spend your spirit dry by bewailing

these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is – we were made for these times.


For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting

to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.,,


…In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.”


Then, I hear  David Whyte advise:


Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.


Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.


Start with your own


give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something



To hear

another’s voice,


your own voice,

wait until

that voice


becomes a

private ear

that can

really listen

to another.


Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.


Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.


Thomas Merton’s words come to me again:


“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”


And I recall Vincent Harding saying :


“It is precisely in a period [of great spiritual and societal hunger] like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and for their own lives.”


Angry as we may be, even in these moments together, let us do as our own UU prophet Rebecca Parker declares:


“Let us covenant with one another to keep faith with the source of life knowing that we are not our own — Earth made us. Let us covenant with one another to keep faith with this community of care. And, let us promise one another to seek for an ever-deeper awareness of that which springs up inwardly in us. Even when our hearts are broken by our own failure or the failure of others cutting into our lives, even when we have done all we can and life is still broken, there is a power of care that has never broken faith with us and never will.”


May it be so.