Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why is Everyone so Angry?





They were being obvious about it. And in Starbucks of all places. Not to everyone of course, but to a trained observer like me it was clear that they weren't happy. (Him: I thought you wanted to order something light. Her: I did. I married you. Him: Why would you say that? Her: Because I'm so happy.) They were about forty five, him in a blue suit, and her wearing a dark skirt and white blouse and a glittering necklace that appeared to be made up of tiny disco balls. They continued their sniping in front of the barista, who was pointedly ignoring their little war. When they were finished I stepped forward and ordered in a friendly, responsible manner. I asked about the price increase. Wasn't the coffee expensive enough already? The barista was polite and said she didn't drink coffee. How can you work at Starbucks and not drink coffee I asked her. She seemed uncomfortable, but I reassured her there were many things on the menu. I still felt sorry for the girl having to deal with the rude couple in front of me, who were clearly very angry and taking it out on others. The barista handed me my coffee, but I asked her to fill it up a bit more. What were they teaching these young people nowadays? Couldn't they make a simple coffee? I smiled and told her that the coffee wasn't worth the new price, but the free refills meant that it was still affordable. She looked kind of sick as I said goodbye and I frowned at the couple now sitting at a table. Look what they'd done. Idiots.


I spent the next hour trying to write, but every time I looked up, the angry couple was either exchanging silent glares or condescending looks at some of the other patrons. The nerve. I packed up my laptop, and shot them a look as I left, just to make sure they knew that I knew what it was they were doing and that I didn't approve. On my way home, a blue civic crossed in front of me, and I laid on the horn to let them know I didn't appreciate it. I waited anxiously at the light on the final turn, waiting to turn left and still upset about being cut off. Thankfully, I was at the front of the line. There were so many bad drivers! What were they doing, just handing out driver's licenses now? Was it possible to have just a single, peaceful day filled with people raised properly. With manners? A horn sounded and I looked up, realizing too late that my advance green arrow had flashed a few seconds ago and was already turning yellow. I slammed my Yaris into gear and turned the corner, surprised when the driver behind me whipped past me as I straightened out, giving me the finger. I glared at him, but didn't respond. I was too polite for that kind of garbage. What was he doing, anyway? I'd made a simple mistake. It wasn't a big deal. I shook my head as I pulled into our underground parking. It was like an epidemic, I thought. So many angry people.


When I walked in, my wife greeted me with a hug and then stepped back.


"What's wrong?"


"Oh, just people. The usual." I said.


"No. Not that. Why are you so angry?"


***


When I was young it was easy to spot people who were angry. They were the ones with the red faces and loud voices. The people who were quiet and respectful were the ones in control. I always wanted to be one of the quiet people, someone able to withstand anything without losing control, but I was never really good at it. Controlling my emotions was a kind of pipe dream, and I'd be laughing hysterically one moment, and a few minutes later, shaking with anger. Sometimes it was directed at other people. Sometimes at myself. When I was fifteen I pulled myself from basketball practice because I wasn't playing as well as I thought I should. The coach forced me to go back in because we only had nine guys, and you needed ten to scrimmage. I was mad at him for about a week.


I used to look up to the leaders at school, the tall, cool guys who wore double earrings and always had girls around them, and tried to imitate them. I got pretty good at it, too. I'd swear and curse and try not to let anything touch my emotions.


Everything was cool.


Whatever.


No worries.


All good.


By not caring, I raised my stock, and more important, my level of control. But then something would happen. I'd notice the way the football guys were ignoring one of the bench guys on the team, or spend some time with the 'un-cool' members of the school band, and my fa├žade would falter. Liking people sucked. When I exposed the part of me that cared, it inevitably got stomped on. It was as if my anger was a shield. Not a good shield though, because after a while being 'cool' kind of sucked, too. I had this kind of empty thing going on inside that was okay when people were around, but when I was alone, it was really lonely.


***


I was never a big fan of the news when I was a kid. It was so boring. In fact, it seemed impossible to make it more boring. A pretty head looking into the camera and talking with pictures over their shoulder. I could never figure out why so many adults watched that stuff. It wasn't like the news changed. Someone died. Someone stole something. Someone missing. Comments from government people about why the other government people were jerks and totally wrong and why they were great people and patriotic and completely right. Someone else dying. Someone else missing. A squirrel or a dog on water skis. Weather. And then sports, which they put last to make sure that everyone heard all of the boring stuff first.


But since I'm an adult now, at least according to my birth certificate, I try to watch the news. Fortunately, it's much more exciting these days. Sometimes they have the news readers sit in a semi circle. Or they put them behind the desk or a couch. The big change though, is how often they argue. My favorite is Fox News because whenever I flip to it someone is accusing someone else of something horrible and it's all very dramatic. The past year I've been following the story about the whole Boston Tea Party thing. These people keep gathering outside the White House and accusing the President of being Hitler and everyone moving to Germany or something. I'm not sure why they keep gathering, but from what I can tell there are thirty million Americans who want to go to the hospital and these people don't think they should go. Fox keeps interviewing these people who get red and spit into the camera and shake their fist. They're angry, and I guess that's not good, but it sure makes exciting television. The problem is that even the people who aren't on television are angry. According to my wife though, some days I'm angry too, and what I can't figure out, is why.


***


I'd been in ministry for about four months when my senior pastor first used the word 'potential.' "You have great potential, Steve. The most I've ever seen." Since he'd been a pastor for about a hundred and seventy years (he was pretty old) and worked in twenty different countries, I took it as high praise. All I had to do now, I remember thinking, was fulfill my potential. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do exactly, but if I worked hard enough, I knew that I could do it. Back then, I was young and all about changing the world. I was serious about it, too. If someone asked me what I was doing, I told them that I was changing the world. Sometimes people frowned when I said it, but I figured they were lazy and not as talented as I was, so I ignored them. Most of the people in my congregation clapped when I said I was changing the world. They encouraged me and told me I had great potential.


The thing about changing the world is that while it's a really good idea, it's a lot of work. I mean, wow, it's tiring. And people who know you're changing the world and who are supposed to be on your side never seem to realize that they have to do their part. I remember this time we were supposed to have a board meeting for the so-called church leaders, but two of them couldn't make it so they cancelled THE ENTIRE MEETING. What? I was furious, and I stormed into my senior pastor's office to question him about it. No big deal, he said. Well, what about punishment? Should these people even be leaders? He smiled and said that I needed to be patient. Patient? How could we be patient? The world was dying and everyone was going to burn for all eternity and the world would never ever change if we kept up at this glacial pace! We were trying to change the world! Wasn't that God's plan, the one you preached every Sunday? That we were God's only option to save humanity? He smiled and told me to go home, but I was really mad.


For the next year and a half, I worked harder than ever, but eventually I left the church because changing the world was too hard. Some people tried to reassure me that the church wasn't all about numbers, but everyone knew that was what the losers always said. If "you weren't growing, you were dying". That's why the best selling books for ministers were always written by winners with massive congregations and wives that looked like movie stars. I wasn't even sure that I'd helped the members of my small group, let alone the world. What I did know was that I hadn't fulfilled a single bit of my great potential. I was a failure. A lot of people were going to burn and stink like ash and be in pain for all eternity because I hadn't done my part.


After that it became tough to do any kind of ministry. I had all of this potential, so many people had told me so, and yet I didn't know what to do with it and was terrified to waste it. I was still excited about changing the world, but less then I had been. I'd start a new ministry or a new venture and then watch helplessly while other people dismantled it because they couldn't commit or didn't want to commit or thought there were better ideas worth pursuing. Sometimes I shot the idea down myself because I didn't want to do anything less than fulfilling my great potential or got busy or changed my mind. It was pretty frustrating to watch the world reject your attempt to change it, so I just kind of stopped.


***


Not everybody wants to change the world. Some people think that the world is perfect the way it is now. I don't know any of these people, but I'm sure they exist. Most of us though, are uncomfortable sometimes, whether it's the government or relationships or race relations or gender prejudice or something else. If you listen to talk shows, which I only recommend if you're inebriated or super mellow, most listeners are interested in going back. You know, back to when things were really different. Of course, no one ever wants to go forward. Going forward means stuff will change, and most of us don't want that. So we're kind of stuck. Can't go back. Don't want to go forward. And we all want our lives to change.


I think being human often feels like you're wearing the wrong clothes. Either they're too small or too big or belong to someone else. And for all the solutions that we offer one another, it always comes down to how much we're willing to spend. Even then, the Gucci life is just as uncomfortable as the Goodwill life, because the sizes they offer are all the same.


And none of them fit.


***


A couple of years ago I had to go this retreat for one of my courses at Seminary. It was a Catholic retreat center, but our school rented it out and they didn't ask us what we believed, which was fortunate because we didn't really agree with the Catholics about anything important. Talk about a church that was irrelevant. And boring. They still sang hymns from a hymnbook, and expected you to say the same stuff every week. Going to Mass was like watching a newscast from the 1970's. If they could sign up Will Ferrell to be a priest, then they'd have something, but as it was, completely irrelevant.


Still, the place was nice. Quiet. No TV or radio or internet. No buzz on the latest news or movie updates or celebrity arrests. On the Sunday, they even scheduled a five hour segment where we supposed to go five hours without speaking. Some of the other students, many of whom were already pastors, saw how ridiculous this idea was and brought their cell phones, using the quiet time effectively to catch up on their Facebook and call their work and text their friends. I hadn't brought my cell phone, so I ended up walking around with a couple of my friends quietly by the lake. Like I said, I wasn't thinking. I had a lot more catching up to do the next day when we got back.




***


Sometimes I'm amazed that Christianity exists. By any account, Jesus was a total failure. He only had twelve guys following him, and pretty much everyone abandoned him when the Romans killed him. That all turned around when he came back to life and showed them the holes in his hands from the nails. That kind of story spreads pretty quick. I think about that sometimes because I think it would be cool if I could be like Jesus. I'm pretty sure that I could help twelve people. Unfortunately, I'm not the Son of God so I've been adding as many friends as I can on my Facebook and working hard to expand my influence. It kind of sucks though, because every time I open my email or MySpace or Facebook, I think of so many people I haven't written in a while and feel guilty about it. I really want to help more people, do a better job caring about people, but most of the time – between work and writing and my wife – I don't seem to have much time. All this great potential that God gave me is wasting away, and now that I'm older I can't just say that it will happen in the future. Today is the future. When I think about it too much I get upset and don't want to help anyone.


***


Andy Crouch is this writer I really like. He says a lot of smart things in a way that's easy for someone like me to understand. Anyway, he says that part of the reason we're so angry is that we're always looking for more power. He says that when we say we want to change the world, what we're really saying is that we want to change the culture. He compares Mother Theresa and Princess Diana, who died the same week. He says that both of them had cultural power, but that most of us want Diana's power. We all want to be a beautiful and rich princess, but for most of us that will never happen. He also says that anyone can have Mother Theresa's power, which would be much less frustrating, but that most of us don't want it because it means we have to be servants and give up late night television and eating out.


***


"I guess I'm just frustrated." I said to my wife, trying to answer her question honestly.


"But why?"


"Because I feel…" My voice trailed off as I thought about why I was so angry. Unlike my younger days, I have a great deal of control now when I'm upset. Instead of lashing out, I swallow the anger and do my best to bury it. I don't want to hurt people, and I don't want to take it out on anyone either. But anger always seems to find a way out if we don't face it. If we are unwilling to hold it up and examine where it comes from and why it's there, it will come out, whether we like it or not.


I've spent a great deal of time lately looking at the source of my anger, and doing my best to reconcile some of my beliefs with the realities and tragedies of life. I'll be honest; I'm not sure how I'm doing. The self help books talk a lot about the "source" of our anger, which I think is a bit of hooey because most of us know why we're angry, we're just too scared or too worried about the consequences to admit it. When I think about what people go through each day and why we act the way we do, I'm not convinced that finding the source of our anger is about blame. About who put it there. This is true whether it was an institution, like a school or a church, or something more personal like our parents or a bad romantic relationship. I think that's only part of it. Instead, I'm inclined towards the notion that our anger must be understood as a blend of cultural and personal expectations, both failed and achieved, along with the ridiculous amount of personal tragedies that make up the human experience. I also believe that it's something of a lifelong process, which, no matter how you look at it, totally sucks.


***


I know I've mentioned this before, but I'm aware that my faith is ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd to believe that a Jewish Rabbi who was executed by the Romans is somehow the Savior of the world. Especially when you look at a lot of his followers, including me. And yet, his story, more than any other, strikes me as true. Or at least too absurd to be easily dismissed. It isn't the books or TV shows or get-better-now church slogans that do it either. More, I think it is this strange notion that with only twelve followers, a bit of support from a few others, and a three year ministry cut short by a tortured execution, if Jesus was raised from the dead, he would have every reason to behave in a vindictive manner. (Like I said, a lot of times his followers seem angrier about it than everyone else. I don't know, maybe those people were told a different story.) Instead, he offered forgiveness. And grace. In a world that not only feels angry, but uses that anger to rape and steal and kill and make life miserable for others, there is something striking in the offer of genuine forgiveness, something that just won't let me go.


I think we all have angry moments. The world is an upsetting place to be caught in, and life as a human, no matter where you are, is hard. But understanding where that anger comes from can make a difference, along with a sturdy notion of hope about a God who loves us, one that refuses to be constrained by cheap cliches, harsh rhetoric and smarmy marketing slogans.


These days I'm learning my limitations. Trying to be a little more Mother Theresa and a little less the beautiful princess. I may not be able to change the world, but as today breathes into tomorrow, I'll work on myself, and from there, see what I can do to help.


-Steve