When I was a teenager my mother became president of M.A.D.D. in North Carolina. My brother had just completed his freshman year at Harvard and was killed by a drunk driver while walking near the beach. Just imagining such a thing as a parent is painful. But I’ve seen it weathered with grace and truth.
One key to grieving well after any kind of trauma is to figure out what to do with anger. Anger tends to hang around because it feels better than the alternatives, like fear. It’s very uncomfortable to be afraid.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.C.S. Lewis
Advocacy can be a positive outlet for anger. My Mom directed her energy to move the needle on impaired driving. At that time, for instance, a “designated driver” was just becoming a thing. It was one of her talking points. She never degraded herself by using her trauma to seek the spotlight or play upon people’s emotions. She poured herself into prevention.
But, advocacy also can become self-serving. If it’s a place to stoke bitterness, then the goal is not to direct passion but only to let the fire burn. Like yesterday when social media lit up with trash-talking vitriol. Which yesterday? Pick one. The most efficient way to find a niche and build a personal brand these days is to bang away at an oppressor in the name of a victim.
Bitterness can masquerade as advocacy, draw energy from negative emotion, and turn heads.
It can masquerade as advocacy
Some activists stoke fires of self-pity without admitting it even to themselves. I used to think the angriest demonstrators use victims as human shields just to get away with hammering their opponents. Today, I can see many of them want to be shielded from their own pain.
Anger’s path of least resistance is ANTI. That’s when people are specific about what they’re against and vague about what they’re for. ANTI allows them to ignore the hard work of forgiveness by giving them something to do that seems productive.
A typical example comes right out of today’s social-media culture warring:
“Abandoning biblical teaching about morals because of your child’s personal struggles with sin is the real “idolatry of the family.”
In some cases that may be true. But what is the purpose of this diagnosis absent of any pastoral prescription? It certainly gets sharp agreement from people ready to prove their moral superiority. But I wonder if some angry rhetoric is just avoidance? Avoiding the pain of patient empathy for families with prodigal children, in this case.
Draws upon energy of negative emotion
Again, it feels better to be angry than hopeless or afraid. If I’m convinced anger is justified, it actually can be downright motivating. As Frederich Buechner says,
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.”
Buechner traces this feast to its logical conclusion, explaining that the skeleton left on the banquet table belongs to the very person with the appetite for vengeance—himself.
Sometimes people just want to feel seen. They find quick connection with people who share a common enemy. But throwing fuel on each others fires produces far more heat than light.
For years I was part of watchdog group dealing with secular activists targeting the bureaucracy of our denomination. During that time, more than two dozen such groups sprung up to push back. Being locked in a neurotic tug-of-war can still feel like a noble effort. Better to figure our what you are for and get to a place where you can be for it.
And turns heads
Nevertheless, negativity gets attention. Katlyn Beaty, in her book about celebrity culture makes an important distinction between fame and celebrity. Fame is when you’re known widely for adding value to the world. Celebrity comes by manipulating the levers of modern-day mass media. Without producing or adding anything, social media in particular is making celebrities. And bitterness sells, especially if you are the product.
Recently I heard someone say, “Most of what I do on social media is react to things on my keyboard and then try very hard not to press ‘send!’” More people need to embrace that struggle. Some of the most toxic voices are the one reacting to some other toxicity.
An old quotation of Frederick Nietzsche provides a fitting caution as bitterness becomes more viral: “Take care lest, in fighting the dragon, you become the dragon.”
Before you press “send,” put yourself to the test…
Am I picturing someone I’m trying to help or hurt?
Could I hear these words coming from the mouth of the person I most respect?
What am I against?
What am I really for?
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:4).
Michael Bixler says
Who can read this and not be convicted? Thank you, Tim, for your vividly accurate picture of anger and unforgiveness… and for sharing your mother’s example of taking the power out of evil and bad by transforming it into good.
Debbie Goodman says
Thank you, Tim, for sharing this story about your brother and the ultimate “good” that came from such a needless tragedy. My only sibling, my younger brother Brant, was 21 and in college at Oklahoma University and was one in a carload of guys traveling and hit head-on by a truck driver who went to sleep. Brant was killed in the accident that could have been avoided. It took a long time for me, as a 24-year-old, to accept this, to find room in my heart for forgiveness, and to get to an okay place.