Higher Living Reflections

The Winter of Our Discontent

I am struck by the thoughtful responses to my essay “Saying hi to your anger,” both as comments on the blog and in emails to me. The thoughts range from personal experiences and insights to the context in which readers received and processed points I made.

Perhaps I am reading too much in to how the essay resonates, but for me it suggests something about the underlying current emotional mood—anger—pervading American culture. It confirms that which I have concluded about American culture. We’re an unhappy lot, a psychological and spiritual mess.

Our political climate reflects seething anger, which is arising from frustrations societal sub-groups feel about the trajectory of events. Beyond, though, the political and social maelstrom, I posit that there’s a correlation between what is being expressed outwardly and that felt inwardly, personally.

If so, is anger induced or deduced? Is societal anger being expressed often in coarse manners an amplification of the anger that individuals feel, a “I’m not happy in my life, so I will transfer and blame it on the larger forces at play” attitude? Or, is it “society being a mess is affecting my personal well-being”?

I posit also that frustration lies at the root of much anger. There are any number of issues that lie as a cause, but lack of control, a sense of helplessness, the inability to control circumstances impacting one’s life and, perhaps, those around her. In short: Loss of hope.

Most generally feel they’re in control, that they can handle the daily barrage of frustrating events, from the weather to rude drivers, by rolling, as the maxim goes, with the punches. Life is, after all, filled with challenges. But then, there are times when one feels incapacitated.

In American culture, individualism is a high value. Imbued in us from birth, we’re inculcated with a sense of personal responsibility. It makes sense then that if we insist a person take responsibility for his life, we need to afford him the power to control it. And, therein lies the rub.

There are two ways one loses power: It’s taken from her or she cedes it. In the first case, she is a victim; in the second, she’s a willing accomplice to her disempowerment, thus a victim by choice. In either case, if there is no hope to escape the chains of victimization, anger, whether expressed or repressed, is likely to arise.

In my “The Capacity for Wonder” essay, I speak about hope as an uplifting ideal. But what does one do if he has lost the capacity for hope? It’s one thing to advocate and counsel that one approach life from a positive, hopeful perspective, but for many it could come across as glib given their personal overpowering circumstances.

How one rises above his gloomy morass, able to extricate himself from his dire situation is the challenge for the individual. Our collective challenge, though, is getting to the source of our collective angst and address it.

Consider rising ocean levels as a metaphor. We are undergoing a cultural sea-change, a tidal-wave paradigm shift that is literally changing the face of America. Technology buzzes us ever faster into ever newer, more complex worlds before we have adapted to the old. Cynicism about and mistrust in major institutions—governmental, corporate, religious—speak to our dis-ease with them.

Sadly, that cynicism and distrust transfers and is attached to others. While we still find strength in one another, it’s become more only in those we find comfort: our personal tribes formed along avenues of common interests, thinking (political and spiritual), and practices. Even family ties are fraught with tension and dissolution.

In The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck tells the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, who contentedly works as a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned. In time, he finds himself in a personal conflict brought on by his family’s materialistic desires. So, as the book flap says, “in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards.” If you haven’t read it or haven’t in forever, I highly recommend it.

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