“We didn’t start the fire… “so the Billy Joel song goes, “It was always burning, since the world was turning….”
We didn’t start the fire, but where do we put the rage roaring inside of us?
I’ve been thinking about this since before President Biden’s inauguration, thinking about it all the weeks since the election when we knew who won, but we were still holding our breath, and on January 6th, when we watched helplessly as the Capitol was ransacked.
Democrats are traditionally the “forgiving” party, the good guys who play fair and square, at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. We claim the moral high ground in order to make ourselves feel better about all the sucker punches that drop us to our knees. Remember when Michelle Obama told us: “When they go low, we go high.” I nodded my head in agreement, and tossed dirt on the fire within me. But when they lied about the dangers of a deadly pandemic, when they lied about who won the election; when they stood at their pulpits and pretended there was some equivalency between protests all over the country over years of murderous racial injustice, and a mob of white supremacists trying to overturn our democracy, at our President’s provocation, I blew on those embers, I stoked the fire and let my flames roar with outrage at the outrageous. And the flames just kept rising, take your pick: it’s been one hell of a year.
At the end of the day, though, there’s still this fire, consuming me and creating chaos around any attempt at mindfulness. Oh, I’m mindful alright! I know that often, anger just fosters anger, that it ignites the flames that eventually burn out of control. But when you suffer at the hands of another, or when you witness suffering at the hands of another, isn’t anger justified? Isn’t it the striking catalyst toward justice, toward change?
The Black Lives Matter protests that took place last summer, that are taking place now, in Minnesota, were/are the result of lethal violence against black people at the hands of the police, at the hands of our society. But the response from so many is to pivot away from that injustice and toward a disingenuous outrage at the riots that have broken out in pockets of these protests. In other words, you are allowed just enough anger to maintain the status quo.
Conversely, the insurrection is now being redefined by many as a movement of justifiably angry, but peaceful (peaceful!) patriots objecting to a fraudulent election. The election was not fraudulent, the men and women involved in the Capitol riots were certainly not patriots, but their lawlessness is now described by some politicians and pundits as a righteous anger! That is, when they weren’t giving the Capitol police plenty of hugs and kisses. Fires.
The vaccine is here, and it is literally the only way out of this nightmare, but polls indicate that nearly half of Republican men don’t want the shot; that 40% of our military don’t want the shot; that 45% of white evangelicals don’t want the shot. Whether it’s politics or religion or distrust of government or science, or obstinance or ignorance or selfishness, or all of the above, who knows. Bottom line, without these people, the country may not reach herd immunity and new variants will continue to grow out of the Covid virus, risking everyone’s health, even those of us lining up now to be vaccinated. The indignation at being asked to get a shot slams up against my outrage that their personal choices outweigh our best chance at public health. Fires.
When my kids were little and throwing a tantrum, I encouraged them, to #1: express their anger productively with their words, or #2: punch a pillow. As they grew older, I tried to validate their feelings. I agreed that sometimes there is good reason to be mad, and to understand that there are limits on what we can do with our anger. Ultimately, my parental advice came down to managing our own response to any given situation, and letting go of the rest.
These days, I sit on the other side of those lessons. I sit on the other side and I fume until steam swirls out of my ears. I hear my own words of counsel, and I try to apply that detached logic, that maturity, to myself, with little success. I try to douse the fires encircling me during the nightly news, the fires licking at my feet as I peruse the internet, scorching me as I hear about so many who still, still believe the lies. The fires feed off my charged sense of outrage, they spark and spew and rise, as I fumble toward the Exit sign, that mystical place where this year is behind us, and we are the better for it.
It’s exhausting: this ritual around the bonfire of my own anger, and maybe, to quote Tom Wolfe, my own “vanity.” The idea that I can influence injustices that have been burning not for one year, but for hundreds of years; that I or any of us, can actually subdue the forces sweeping through our society, our entire world. This fantasy that there wouldn’t be casualties, not of life, which is its own singular horror, but of “living,” of comfort and safety, of peace of mind, and hope; casualties of conscience. The realization that, despite these losses, I still reside within a place of protection, while so many continue to wander in that wilderness of living while black, living while sick, living while poor. Fires. Fires everywhere.
The problem is, all this righteous anger, all this air that feeds the fire; it sucks up the very same breath we need to calm and restore our equilibrium. It fans the flames and burns a kind of toxic smoke that limits the capacity to see “what was found” (to quote an earlier post).
Every year, until last year, that is, the seaside town of Rockport has built a huge bonfire on the 4th of July. They prepare for the fire days before, piling packing crates two stories high, on the edge of the beach. And on Independence Day, the bonfire draws all the townspeople to the spot, to watch the flames lick the starry night sky, while the moon pushes the frothy waves right up to the edge. The mighty ocean, just this once, no match for the towering inferno. The town’s entire fleet of fire trucks stand at the ready, encircling the bonfire, with their mile-high cranes, spraying a soft shower of water toward the center, like a fountain from the sky, to keep the flames in check.
At first, I scratched my head at all the effort, but standing before the fire, surrounded by so many laughing revelers, unrecognizable in the shadows, the ocean behind the flames, the black ink sky, it made sense. This communal and joyful melting into a primal and powerful energy, this baptism by fire into the possibility of freedom.
As I wrestle with all the tentacles of anger this year has wrought, I think about that bonfire and my need for balance, if I am to come away from all of this any better. I can stand just close enough to the fires of my anger, so that I see the kaleidoscope colors, the chaos dancing and sparking, the calling out for change. I can stand just far enough to steer clear of the destructive coals of consuming judgement. I can sit by that fire and learn when to lay another log on the burning embers, and when to douse it with a cool rush of perspective and, yes, even forgiveness.
Anger can be such a mesmerizing force, a kind of lullaby into a slumbering, complacent cynicism. Or we can light it up like a torch on the tip of the spear of justice. Shape it, like a golden orb, and cast it out, so that all our self-doubting shadows skitter off into the corners. Let it cool, just enough, to be less a master, and more a compassionate ally. Let it not conquer, but accompany us, as we tiptoe over the glowing cinders, toward a better world.
“We didn’t start the fire, but when we’re gone, it will still burn on, and on and on and on and on….”