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By Dathan Paterno, Psy.D.
Numerous polls indicate that the American people are dissatisfied. The sentiment isn’t static; it’s growing. Mild displeasure is devolving into antipathy and repugnance. More and more segments of the population are displaying exasperation and rage.
Voters are irate; their fury would register on a Richter scale. Advocacy groups wage desperate, often violent protests. The “Knockout Game” grows more popular. Athletes throw tantrums that would embarrass most 3-year-olds. Race relations simmer at a constant near-boil, while our leaders engage in enough posturing and name-calling to look more like a modern version of “West Side Story” than the servant-citizens who should inspire peace and mutual respect.
We seem to be witnessing an anger pandemic, spreading like a plague.
Many of my patients struggle with anger. There seems to be some striking similarities between the individual struggles I see in my practice and the broader cultural trend we now witness.
Here are seven reasons I believe Americans are angrier than ever:
1. Poor role models
The potential list of modern quality role models runs short. To whom can children and adults look to learn how to cope with frustration, pain and injustice? Professional athletes? No way. Political figures? With few exceptions, no. Hollywood stars? The characters they usually portray? Pop stars? No, no and no.
As I argued in the book “Ladies and Gentleman,” classic films and television had their fair share of violence, but heroes were rarely rageful. Today’s media heroes, on the other hand, are poster children for anger management courses.
Of course, conservatives know that a child’s primary educators and role models are his or her parents. However, the dreadful economy forces many parents to focus precious time and energy on survival, leaving less time to shepherd and guide their children, especially to teach them how to cope with a world full of hurts and injustice. Granted, many parents could learn to forgo some of the niceties of life in order to preserve these primary parenting duties.
2. A profound perception of injustice
There is a great deal of righteous indignation coursing through America’s veins.
Anger is comprised of two essential ingredients: pain and a perception of injustice. Without satisfactory justice, pain and suffering will be projected onto those responsible for securing that justice.
Does anyone believe that our justice system, including the Department of Justice, is impartial, competent and benevolent? Many perceive both as a farce.
It is no wonder that many groups are furious with the perceived lack of justice.
3. Rejection of God, His law and His grace
When people reject God, what follows is a greater emphasis on temporal, creature comforts. After all, if this life is all there is, then why not focus on squeezing every last bit of pleasure and enjoyment out of this fleeting existence?
Then there is the virulent anti-theistic movement that displays loathsome spite toward those who have faith in God. And, as much as atheists deny it, one of the natural consequences of atheism is a rejection of the special value or worth of human beings. When human beings are devalued, they need not be treated with respect. We witness the consequences of this perspective daily.
Finally, the church continues to be deeply imperfect in its ability to follow Jesus’ dicta to “Love your enemies” and “Turn the other cheek.” When God’s people ignore His plan and His grace, unrighteous anger will follow.
4. The poor economy
A staggering number of adults do not have work or have given up finding work. Those who have work need to work longer and harder. Even those families who are blessed enough to have employment often must have both parents work to stay afloat, leaving less time for the essential duties of parenting.
Dimness casts shadows on our economic future. Less hope translates into despondency, which breeds resentment and blame. Factions toss around blame like a hot potato, with no one taking ultimate responsibility.
The poor are told that they have been robbed by the wealthy – that they are victims. Victimhood – the exaggerated perception of injustice – fuels enmity and rage.
5. Distance caused by technology and geography
Social psychologists inform us that one’s attitudes, feelings and behavior toward another person is largely influenced by the proximity between the two. The closer one is to another person, the more motivated he or she becomes to create and maintain peace with that person.
Communicating increasingly through screens, where one can debate, argue, call names, or make veiled threats from thousands of miles away, engenders a sense of false security – and often a false bravado. This distant communication, often involving group think (“allies” bolstering the sense of security and bravado), robs people of the proximity necessary to resolve conflicts peacefully. Without resolution, anger and resentment fester.
6. Poor leadership
This abbreviated list amply demonstrates how our current leaders foment anger:
- Half the country loathes Congress and the president, while the other half judges the first half as hateful (and racist).
- Congress exempts itself from many laws to which it holds Americans accountable.
- Our president and his allies lie to us. Repeatedly.
- Obamacare – our president’s signature “achievement” – directly violates millions of Americans’ consciences by forcing them to support murder.
- The government that is presumably sworn to protect the Constitution seems bent on bending or ignoring it in order to achieve a temporal, progressive agenda.
- Laws rob the spoils of labor from some to give to those who do not work.
- The current progressive agenda places an overwhelming financial burden on future generations.
- Our leaders lack respect for our historical faith, boundaries and traditions.
Each of these naturally produces righteous anger. In concert, they breed a level of holy outrage that can hardly be measured.
7. Psychiatric drugs
It boggles my mind that our culture has yet to learn this simple, incontrovertible fact: Psychiatric drugs damage the brain – especially its emotional regulation center. Far too many Americans unwittingly hinder their capacity for self-control and empathy. With an increasing number of children and adults on powerful psychiatric drugs, it is inevitable that many of them will fall victim to a hamstrung capacity to be human and damaged ability to regulate emotions with self-control.
What is the antidote for this pandemic? Most importantly, America would do well to put anger in its proper place. There is a time for righteous indignation, seeking justice and rebuke. But rage belittles both the prey as well as the predator:
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too
But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.
– Isaac Watts
Dathan Paterno, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and is clinical director of Park Ridge Psychological Services near Chicago. His published works include “Ladies and Gentlemen: Why the Survival of our Republic Depends on the Revival of Honor” and “Desperately Seeking Parents: Why your Child Needs a Parent in Charge and How to Become One.”