Merging Humanity with Anger by, Peter Engel

2017 September 10
by DoMC

Merging Anger With Humanity
By Peter Engel
August 27, 2017
Summer Sermon, First Unitarian Congregation Society ofBrooklyn

So…..We are all angry. All SO very angry. But Do We Have to Let Our Anger Ruin Us?

Here is a typical situation. Almost every weekday morning, I come home from dropping my daughter at day camp or school. Very often I will see – no, make that hear – someone screaming into their cell phone about something. Usually I only get bits and pieces of it, but the gist is that the person I see has been disrespected or wronged in some way.

Apparently they feel screaming at another human being is the only way to deal with that. We all have done it with a bank, a phone company, a government agency or the DMV, whomever.

Sometimes when I sense the basic rage behind the rants, I look at the person. I feel that some piece of whatever is good and loving and compassionate in them has just eroded away. What is happening to their humanity?

I also see many parents who curse in front of their young kids. Or worse, curse at them. I’m not a prude about foul language. I can and do curse a blue streak in the right company and circumstances. As a parent myself, I slip sometimes. I used the A-word in front of my child to describe someone the other day. I felt it was necessary to apologize for it..

It hurts to seeparents, frustrated with a child’s imperfections, who cannot control themselves enough not to demean their own children with hurtful words. Have they lost their sense of the wonder, beauty and responsibility that comes with raising good human beings?

Am I the only one who is noticing that more people do not have a filter for their anger and vulgarity in public? I keep coming back to my father. He abhorred foul language. He saw it as demonstrating a lack of intelligence and imagination.  Now in my youth and working some jobs in factories and the like, I disagreed with him, as most teenagers do with their parents.

Something must have rubbed off on me, because I associate anger with cursing. That’s why I have even thought of starting a National No-Cursing Day. I’d promote a day when everyone watches their words in how they deal with others. I would do a publicity blast, get on the comedy talk shows and go viral on social media. Ideally, Bill Maher would wash his mouth out with soap on HBO, and I’d help him.

Why do I think this is needed? Because I feel all of us have let anger de-humanize us. We’re so angry we can’t even slow down to listen to what anyone else can say or do to help. When my kid melts down, we tell her to breath. But that applies to adults. We are so stressed out that I truly think we risk making everyone we love and care about into our enemy.  

Now, I think anger can be a positive force. It gets out what needs to be released. Anger. It expresses outrage at injustice. Anger can change things, often for the better. Anger can save lives. And repressing anger creates fear. Fear is never good.

Still, anger is dangerous when a human being has prolonged exposure to it. It can dehumanize us, corroding us from inside. And we don’t have to let anger ruin us.

For me, a bad day is one when my daughter wakes up in a bad mood, gives me a hard time, I drop and break something made of glass on the floor, I’m late for everything, a client doesn’t like something I’ve done, I’m kept waiting on a line or on the phone a really long time, I burn dinner or maybe my wife and I have failed to properly communicate about something basic, like whether we’re meeting somewhere.  On these days, anything that happens or anyone who says the wrong thing incurs my wrath.

Do you have days like that? (LOOKTO CONGRETATION) Yes, welcome to my club. BUT….do we have to let our anger ruin us?

Now, when I started to write this homily, I made a promise to myself. That promise? That I wasn’t going to bring HIM into this. Now, you know who I mean. I felt strongly that after 2 years of this madness, couldn’t we look at anger and humanity in a broader way than one vulgar man? Couldn’t we examine the deeper sources of our rage? Couldn’t we bring ourselves back to center without giving that refugee from the human race even more attention?

I tried. I wrote a draft the week before last. I was reasonably happy with it. The family and I went toNew HampshireandMassachusettsto see relatives and go on a bike ride. On the Saturday evening of that weekend, I saw the horrible news aboutCharlottesville.

Often when tragedies like that happen, we are just numb. Yes, we do offer solace and prayer, hold vigils, and reach out to communities that are hurting.  Still, we essentially feel powerless. We don’t know what to say or do.

One of our recent congregants, Alexandra Gecker, recently moved back toRichmondand was inCharlottesvillewith her UU congregation. Luckily she avoided the violence, but Alex’s account of what being there was like made me think of being near a terrorist attack on another continent.

Alexandra wrote that she wasn’t there to argue with the people engaging in hateful rhetoric or actions. She went for everyone else, especially people of color. Her congregation wanted to add more bodies and voices to say “NO” to racism and white supremacy, and help those directly affected by the actions of the hate groups.

This is what Alexandra wrote on Facebook: “Our First UU friends helped us safely get two fellow UUs to our car so we could get them to their car (in a beautiful yellow-shirted Standing on the Side of Love blob, they shepherded these two women…). I’m glad we were there… and I’m super angry that anyone had to be.

“As a wise person reminded me yesterday, these views are not isolated to just the folks who gathered inEmancipationParkyesterday. It’s important to say ‘No Thanks’ to white supremacy in super-clear, tangible ways when it makes itself this blatant, and hopefully that helps us say ‘No’ when it is more subtle as well.”

This is 2017. We had a two-term American President of color. Those of us too young to witness the Sixties civil rights struggle beyond faint memories and history media find this hard to fathom.  Aren’t we supposed to be past this part of the struggle?

I wasn’t numb after reading Alex’s account ofCharlottesville. I was angry. I still am and will continue to be. People died. We must fight back. I know a UU congregation feels that way. But what has surprised me and given me hope is the condemnation of conservative politicians, business leaders and others who aren’t completely aligned with so-called progressive values. They also won’t be silent about allowing this to be acceptable in any way, shape or form.

Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan have that effect. There is nothing about their belief systems that allows the inclusion of some “very fine people.”

Of course we can understand why Susan Bro, the mother of the murdered Heather Heyer, could not bring herself to talk with Trump.  In her time of grief, why should she waste a moment on someone who has no filter, no sensitivity and no ability to listen to others? If anyone has the right not to consider Trump her President, it is Susan Bro.

Yet if you heard or read what a composed Ms. Bro said at her daughter’s memorial, she holds on to humanity and hope. The message of the day was to stand up for what you believe in. Heather Heyer’s mother did not see the need to talk about Trump. And I think she’s right. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” Ms. Bro called out. “Well, guess what — you just magnified her.”

Ms. Bro said it’s not all about forgiveness. She acknowledged we will always have differences and be angry with each other. But she also compelled people to channel that anger into something that isn’t hate. The inspiration I take from Ms. Bro is that she is not going to let anger ruin her. She sees no gain in matching hate for hate.

But let’s make no mistake. Hate is prevalent. We now have a situation unlike any seen in the modern media age.  The President of theUnited Statesbasically says that if Nazis, racists and anti-Semites are armed in the street, well…he is A-OK with that.

But enough about him. What about us? I’d argue that what we have to deal with locally is more important and requires more of our real human intervention.

  • People are being discharged from psychiatric hospitals to live homeless, in the streets. And when that looks bad, they are shuttled elsewhere. Meanwhile, the roots of the homeless crisis get pushed further under the rug.
  • Families that may have a roof over their head can only do so without enough to eat. Parents work multiple jobs and leave children to fend on their own. They’re vulnerable to crime, gangs, and the worst the streets have to offer. What are we doing to help end these vicious cycles?
  • The police cannot stop and frisk any more. Yet people of color, particularly men, are more likely than anyone to be profiled, harassed, jailed, beaten or even killed. Too many police aren’t trained to handle tough situations. They get scared or just shoot. And too many of them get away with it.
  • There’s been significant progress in racial and sexual discrimination. Yet now we are seeing that too many people miss the good old days of white supremacy. Even if they don’t march and vocalize it, how do we keep this from being acceptable again?
  • Rampant greed is ripping apart the fabric of communities that were critical to our city’s revitalization. I walk through some neighborhoods and feel like a neutron bomb has gone off. There are these glittering new buildings that are barely inhabited, yet the streetscape lacks life and has empty storefronts.
  • Economic injustice? The thing that makes me angriest about Trump defenders is when they say “you won’t put him down so much when you look at your next 401K statement.” The selfishness of that Me First sentiment is beyond contemptible. Yet I’d argue it’s more prevalent than sanctioned racism or violence because it comes from “normal people.” [LONG PAUSE}

We have the right, and a basic responsibility to get angry and fight back against these kinds of injustices. That’s where anger is a positive force. It can channel our resolve to do something. I believe that is part of why you come here.

But for me, the problem is that something gets lost in the transition from Reverend Ana’s Sunday homily and Monday, when I deal with life and look at the news. I feel frustrated and doubt myself about being able to do anything, or make a difference.

So I find it easy to revert to potshots, name-calling and booing from the peanut gallery about critical issues. Who is that really helping?

It saddens me when I feel it in myself and see it in others. I see it ripping away at people that I love. I see people who might once have been able to see another side of things taking refuge in polarization and “being right”. I see good people who made bad choices being treated as pariahs for, in many cases, making honest human mistakes.

All of us have the enormous capacity to be judgmental. It’s been pointed out that this is one of my lesser character traits. But I only can recognize what it is when I see it in others. Recently I had an exchange with someone I’ve known a long time in response to someone else’s opinions. It still bothers me:

“You know Peter, I’m so sick of you trying to be fair and hear out these Trump supporters. That guy is a moron. None of these people are worth bothering with anymore, if they ever were. And keep me out of these little debates.”

My response to this friend? The person he castigated and dismissed is also smart, kind and thoughtful in his daily life. I hold on to those qualities. To me, they are a better way to measure people than their politics. I asked him, am I supposed to dump someone else’s friendship because their politics are unacceptable to you?

The response I got was “You just don’t understand that everyone who voted for him is bringing us down!” I didn’t have an answer for that but I do now. It isn’t Trump that is bringing us down. It is us allowing our anger over Trump to bring us down. If we let it.

So here’s my call to action today: do we have to let our anger ruin us? No.

Maybe we need a slogan. I hope the Trump Era is very short-lived, but why not start chanting something that gives our power back to where it belongs? To ourselves.

Back when Teddy Roosevelt ran things, the subtle message was Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick. When Franklin Roosevelt took on our economic collapse and epidemic of poverty, we were told that We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself and it’s legendary. After September 11th, we had to tell ourselves Don’t Give in to Fear, or the Terrorists Win.

The failing Narcissist-in-Chief doesn’t really have one for his Presidency. Donald Trump rallies now remind me of an oldies act. He just plays the greatest hits from 2016. The crowd still gets pumped with “Lock Her Up,” “A Great, Big, Beautiful Wall” “The Lying Media” and “I Alone Can Do it.” But there are no follow-up songs. InPhoenixthe other night, you could see people getting bored.

Don’t Let Your Anger Ruin You. Let’s be more specific about that. Let’s make it a political chant:

DON’T LET YOUR ANGER RUIN YOU, OR TRUMP WINS!

DON’T LET YOUR ANGER RUIN YOU, OR TRUMP WINS!

Can you repeat that with me?

DON’T LET YOUR ANGER RUIN YOU, OR TRUMP WINS!

Feel better? I do. One last time:

DON’T LET YOUR ANGER RUIN YOU, OR TRUMP WINS!

HA-LE-LU-JAH! HA-LE-LU-JAH, brothers and sisters! Whew! I’ll admit it. Watching some of those old-time preachers has inspired me.

Now, with that out of our system what do we do next? How do we keep our lives and sense of self? How do we remain committed social justice warriors while not letting anger corrode us?

I have a four-point list I call the Four Es for Not Letting Your Anger Ruin You. Embrace. Enforce. Exercise. Engage. You’re welcome to use them.

1.         Embrace Spirituality. No one confuses me with being a kumbaya kind of guy. But I do feel that experiencing love and spirituality has a calming effect. Do breathing exercises, take yoga classes, read, or immerse yourselves in nature. It works.

2.         Enforce Media Limits. Oh, where to begin. Who here posts on social media much more than they should? (I RAISEHAND, OTHERS DO).

I have traveled a lot this summer. I learned that if you don’t catch and comment on everything, you won’t actually miss anything. You will still live your life. Being untethered to a digital device, you might even reclaim parts of your life.

Still, those devices can be your friends here. The “news and information” that we consume so voraciously can be compressed, edited and categorized to prevent overload. Are you looking at every single site, or have you set up emails, texts, social media feeds, news aggregators and the like? If you haven’t, please make your media consumption more efficient.

You know, I love Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah. They are all quite gifted and the work they do is important. But think about how much your exposure to them might Let Your Anger Ruin You. Do you have to watch them every night? No. The video highlights are everywhere.

3.         Exercise. How does being great at reading, thinking, writing and planning activism translate to exercise? I don’t know, but those endorphin releases definitely do clear the monkey mind. Each of us has one racing around inside. Reverend Meagan treasures her walks acrossProspectPark. There is running, yoga, bicycling, kayaking, wall-climbing. Lately, I’ve learned how good it feels to hit things without damage. I’ve joined a kickboxing gym.

However you choose to embrace exercise, think of it as self-care. Back in March, Reverend Ana delivered an amazing two-part homily on Anger Management. It was in response to some local violence, and how we can regulate and look after ourselves. If you missed it or want to hear it again, I suggest listening at the FUUB website…

4.         Engage. Everyone needs guidance. Paige Carlson gave me some beautiful guidance by editing what I wrote for today. She did a brilliant job in making sense of my mash-up of ideas. That happened because I didn’t just internalize what I needed. Don’t be afraid. People you don’t know are looking for someone to listen, to share ideas with. It takes courage and restraint to remain humanized in a world that seems to want you to be inhuman. I try to make staying human my responsibility to myself. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.

One more word on this.. It can mean engaging with people you don’t agree with. No, I don’t suggest trying gentle dialogue with David Duke. But great societies like ours have a long tradition of engaging in fair-minded debates with people we don’t agree with. Yes, we will get angry with each other, as Heather Heyer’s mother said. ButDON’T LET YOUR ANGER RUIN YOU, OR TRUMP WINS!

Part of engagement means thinking about your own family and friends. How rough were the holidays last winter because of the election? Do you really want to isolate yourself from otherwise good people?

Unless you’ve been told you’re hated and not welcome any more, disowned or abused, perhaps now is the time to reach out a friendly hand. Recognize that we all make mistakes and accept that almost everyone is struggling with this. Believe that it was not everyone’s intention to tear us apart and polarize us further. Take it to heart that there really are good people in the world we don’t agree with.

Try. Pick who it is carefully, but try. All I ask is that you avoid a tone of “I Told You So.” Think of how you have felt whenever someone has thrown that at you. That is a form of compassion and love too.

One Can Look Back in Anger. I know I do sometimes. But what about looking ahead? Can you do it without anger? Darn good question.

I know we can all find the light. Let’s look ahead. I have come to know many of you here. You are all beautiful and compassionate human beings. I hope that whatever you take from what I’ve offered today is of help in facing a difficult world.

Please join me in singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” on your lyric sheet, attached. And thank you so much for your time!

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