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outrage

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The Quest for Purity

Many journalists have written about outrage being the emotion du jour – or as Hugh Hewitt puts it, our current addiction. A few months ago, he wrote:

“…like the human pulse, it is nowadays a sign of life. Not to be outraged is to be almost disqualified in the eyes of many from being a participant in politics, even though the perpetually outraged fall across the political spectrum. Not only can they not imagine anyone not being outraged, they also can’t imagine any kind of outrage save their own.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to be outraged. But being in a constant state of elevated anger, from one issue to the next, is ultimately self-defeating. It drives us into binary thinking not only about issues, but about people. (You are with us or against us.) And once in that space, we lose our capacity to distinguish nuance, texture, and difference; we shrink the gray zone, which is where we need to be operating; and most importantly, we squander the opportunity to gather new insights, expand our understanding, and build a viable, inclusive path forward.

Outrage can be valuable, when used judiciously. But when it is always turned on, it seems to bring forth a disquieting quest for purity. There is a growing intolerance of anyone whose thoughts, actions, and statements do not meet our criteria, as evaluated through our own lens. We don’t make room for the possibility that we may have misinterpreted someone, or not fully understood the multi-layered and complex context from which that person was speaking.

On a recent radio program, the left-leaning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described an experience of being misinterpreted by those within her own political tribe, and being taken down publicly. She said: “The Left eat their own…” and then commented further on the intolerance of perceived variances in thinking.

Two weeks later, on a different radio program titled “Words You Can’t Say,” I heard the same statement made on the Right, by Dodie Horton, a Republican state senator. She said: “I was amazed to find that Republicans eat their own.”

In both cases, it had to do with language and a misinterpretation of a particular choice of words. In both cases, these people were hounded and intimidated for an interpretation that was imposed on them.

There is a disturbing blindness to this quest for purity. When we insist on processing what we hear through our own frame of reference, without considering and exploring the frame of the other, we miss complexity, nuance, and possibilities for creative solutions. In our well-meaning desire to elevate and improve our society, we inadvertently kill off that which will help it grow.

So, the next time someone says something that offends you, or that you find discordant in some way, ask an open-ended question before making a statement. It is harder to do than you think, because we are so used to responding with a statement (and often, a judgment).

Until and unless we develop the skill to explore someone else’s context in all its layers of complexity, we will miss one opportunity after another to broaden our understanding of the world we live in, and to expand our capacity to effect positive change for all.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Anger and Kindness

Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, recently spoke about the value of anger to prompt us to action. He emphasized that the value is derived from being able to channel the anger without aggression, and that daily self-reflection on what we can do improve ourselves is what gives us the power to improve the world. Wise words indeed!

In our era of outrage, far too many people seem to be blinded by anger, and even to cultivate it. Their actions appear intended to draw attention to themselves rather than to effect meaningful, positive change. I am dismayed to see the pride with which so many people proudly proclaim that they “called someone out.” To what end, I ask? Is the targeted person likely to change his/her behavior in response to being publicly shamed? Unlikely, I believe.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” has been interpreted in many ways, often with concrete actions to build, create, or transform something. I think it also means finding ways to be kind, compassionate, and patient in our everyday lives, even with those who drive us crazy – such as colleagues, family members or service providers. It means seeing the dignity of the other and speaking to it, from one’s own place of dignity.

All too often, we explain away our outbursts or aggression as a response to what someone else did or said. But this means that we live our lives in reaction to others, rather than from our own core. A crucial question to ask ourselves is not “What do I want to do in the world?” but “How do I want to be in the world, regardless of what anyone else does?” I know from my own personal experience that developing this type of grounding can be challenging at times, but I also know that it is well worth the effort because of the way it transforms relationships.

Many of us want to make the world a better place, and schools try to instill this aspiration in students. It is heartening to see young people apply themselves to innovative thinking to help those in need, or who address injustice with a problem-solving mindset. We need this. But it is equally important to cultivate kindness. I believe a kind person can generate more valuable change in our society than an outraged person, even when addressing injustices. A kind person is not a push-over, but someone who has a grounded awareness of self and others.

You can read the short article about Dr. Arun Gandhi’s talk here.

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Copyright © 2017 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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