I often say that I live a life with a lot of day to day contentment. I do not mean by this that I am never sad or depressed. I suffer the intermittent "small d" depression, and I find that the years make me more pensive. I've had my heart broken, my ego humiliated, and my sense of self-worth negated, in a mere four decades, as almost any thinking person has in any ordinary life. I have frustrations which I journal, and frustrations which I do not journal. The inescapable truth for me, however, is that if the world is cordoned off into one set of people who are happy and one set of people who are not, I fall within the fenced goats of happiness rather than the penned sheep of unhappiness.
I write tonight, though, in defense of righteous desperation. I've written before of my admiration for the sheer Americana of that series of inter-related movements now grouped under the analytical tent of "New Thought". New Thought took the idea that positive thinking impacts one's life, and expanded it into a full-blown theology that all life is controlled by the application of thought in harmony with a universal consciousness. In New Thought, "desperation", a negative thought, would be replaced by serenity. I am fairly certain that this idea that "desperation" is a always a "negative" to be avoided through "positive thinking" is in error.
Desperation, sadness and rage serve a real purpose, no less important than bliss and joviality. In this time, when we see misdirected rage by individuals and governments result in the loss of innocent lives, it's easy to see "rage" as always negative. When we see people who slake sadness with a desperate retreat into drug abuse, or even the all-too-human retreat into personal betrayal of another, it's too easy to see how desperation can be a kind of Patriot missile, often missing the target and yet exploding with such a disquieting violence.
I like to think that Rosa Parks had a burning determination, not that far removed from rage, when she refused to yield her seat to a white man on the bus on December 1, 1955. She said that she didn't remember it that way. "I don't remember feeling that anger," she said, years later. "I did feel determined to take this as an opportunity to let it be known that I did not want to be treated in that manner and that people have endured it far too long". I sometimes think that people need rage and desperation to motivate them to truly change, and to motivate them to work for change writ large. I also know that it requires something more than vague good wishes to not only hope for the best, but to do the best. Doing the best requires sacrifice, and, sometimes, deep frustration. Rosa Parks and her husband became unemployable in their Alabama county, and had to move to Detroit to live. She took the right path, and became a symbol of a movement, but her path was not picturesque--it was demanding, peppered with threats against her life and economic setbacks.
But her anger, or determination, define it as you will, helped give a face to the evil of racial segregation.
We tend to see life as an "ironman" competition, in which, as at a Sandhurst cricket match, one's hero is expected not only to win, but to tough out any hardship
with a smile and a suavity. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazis in Germany in the 1940s, until the Nazis executed him. When many Christian Protestant churches "knuckled under" to Hitler, Bonhoeffer
and other ministers with him opposed the Nazis, at first through protests, and later, in Bonhoeffer's case, through participation in the failed assasination plot.
Bonhoeffer had the chance to sit out the war in the United States. But he came to realize that this opportunity for safety and contentment did not work for him. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr that:
"I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people".
Bonhoeffer's return to German in 1939 marked the beginning of a six year era of activism, followed by prison, followed by execution. The people who knew him in prison have told glowing stories of his serenity and faith as he faced his 1945 demise. I think this is a tribute to him, but I also think that placing a "saint" on a pedestal is one way to overlook the difficult choices and real consequences of leading a good life.
I like instead this excerpt from a poem Bonhoeffer wrote in prison, in which, after describing the ways in which people praise him for his fortitude, he notes:
"Am I then really all that which others tell me, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all". I understand this man far better than I understand the saint at the scaffold.
I think that being angry at injustice empowers and motivates. Sometimes people, particularly women, are discounted when they are angry. Ani DiFranco phrases it well: "Men make angry music and it's called rock-and-roll; women include anger in their vocabulary and suddenly they're angry and militant". But I find that social change rarely arises from complacency.
I think that the "missing link" sometimes is motivation. Lewis Hine considered his photography a form of art. But he took his anger about child labor into his art, creating a haunting series of photos of children in factories which sparked deep sympathy for the movement to pass child labor laws. He turned his gift for photography into a force for change. He said "If I could tell the story in words I wouldn't need to lug a camera."
It's not enough, of course, to be angry or sad or desperate. It's a question of where one is to be led by one's feelings. I find no nobility in suicide bombers or crack houses, no matter how much desperation and rage they entail. I also do not say that every rage must result in a "righteous reaction". I think that many times emotions are to be savored and internalized and dealt with individually.
I mean instead to question the assumption which I sometimes make that tranquillity is the most important virtue. I think that we live in a time in which tranquillity is no longer freely available, and in which righteous indignation, despair which hits rock bottom and motivates psersonal change, and good, old-fashioned rage all have their part to play. The question is not whether one should be angry--but what is one angry about, and what can one do? After the rage is over, and perhaps a cup of mint tea has been drunk, what is the next step?
I like those little mute things that one places in a trumpet or coronet. The sound alters, and changes, and simmers. Francis Bacon suggested that desperation expands an artist's sensibility. Louise Nevelson suggested that most artists create out of despair.
I personally believe that one's mood or one's inner demons vary so much from person to person. I suspect all sorts of complex psycho-chemical interactions make each person'e experience a bit different, within a broad context in which most folks are the same.
But a point someone made here on LJ causes me to reflect that those negative emotions are part of life, too, and they can give birth not only to monsters, but also to fixity of purpose, and the chance to do something to make things better.