The On Being Project

What’s an Angry Quaker to Do?

Return to the most human, nothing less
Will nourish the torn spirit, the bewildered heart,
The angry mind: and from the ultimate duress,
Pierced with the breath of anguish, speak for love.

— May Sarton, “Santos: New Mexico” (excerpt)

I’m a Quaker. I stand in a religious tradition that asks me to live by such values as community, equality, simplicity, and non-violence. As a result, I frequently find myself in deep oatmeal — especially when it comes to politics, where I seem to have an anger management problem. Not long ago, a friend with whom I’d been having a heated political argument gave me a black t-shirt that says “One Mean Quaker.”

Does anger have a role to play in the life of someone who aspires to non-violence? For better or for worse, it’s a reality in mine. Exhibit A is the anger I feel toward our new president who, among others things, lies with astonishing abandon. The man has an amazing ability to deny having said things that were captured on videotape and, when the tape is played back, to call it “fake news.” As one journalist has said, lying has become “the defining feature” of his presidency.

To add injury to insult, his is not the garden-variety dissembling we often expect from politicians. He tells weaponized lies that can harm and even kill people. Those at risk include immigrant parents and children who now must worry about keeping their families intact; Muslims, Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ folks who find themselves in the crosshairs once again; people whose one-time jobs in coal mines and factories will not be resurrected; and, ultimately, democracy itself, which dies when we cannot trust our leaders or each other.

So, yes, I’m one angry Quaker when it comes to this president and his staff who keep insisting that the emperor has new clothes, then blame and ban journalists for not telling the world how good he looks in them.

Occasionally, I’m taken to task by people who regard anger as a spiritual flaw to be eliminated. But I beg to differ:

  • When something is morally wrong, it does more harm than good to put a spiritually positive spin on it. Whitewashing in the name of God doesn’t improve the world — it discredits religion as yet another source of delusion. If I weren’t angry about the lies so brazenly told by the President and his surrogates, I’d fear that I was as feckless and reckless as they are.
  • I’m all for forgiveness as an antidote for anger. I agree with those who say that forgiveness is key to carrying on, and I love Anne Lamott’s quip that, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” But forgiveness, I’ve discovered, is not always mine to give — especially in relation to someone who has a long history of malicious acts and remains unrepentant. Sometimes I have to pass the forgiveness baton to higher powers, as Iris Dement does in her tragicomic C&W song:

    “God may forgive you, but I won’t. Jesus may love you, but I don’t.”

  • I know that anger has the potential to harm the person who’s angry, and others in his or her orbit. But three deep dives into depression have taught me that anger buried under piosity poses more threats to my well being — and that of those around me — than anger expressed non-violently. Repressed anger is dangerous. Anger harnessed as an energy we can ride toward new life for all concerned is redemptive.

Before I’m condemned by the “spiritually correct” — whom I regard as more dangerous than their “politically correct” counterparts — please note that my anger is aimed at the president, not at those who voted for him. That’s a big change for me, brought about by inner work I’ve been doing since Election Day when I was angry at all of those voters and the horses they rode in on.

Setting aside those for whom I have no compassion — e.g., hardcore anti-Semites, white supremacists, and wealthy tax-evaders who don’t know the meaning of “enough” — I’ve come to understand that many who voted for this president did so for reasons connected to the challenges they face.

The words of the poet May Sarton helped me get started on this journey of empathy for my fellow citizens. The first verse of her poem, “Santos: New Mexico,” appears at the head of this column. Here’s the last verse, where she describes an alchemy that can transform anger from a death-dealing force into a power for new life:

Return to the most human, nothing less
Will teach the angry spirit, the bewildered heart,
The torn mind, to accept the whole of its duress,
And pierced with anguish, at last act for love.

What does it mean to “return to the most human” as we work to morph our anger into acts of love? For me, it means returning to my own story in order to reconnect with the stories of those who differ from me politically.

I’m a straight, white, upper-middle-class male who has benefited from all the perks this society automatically bestows on people like me. At age 78, I have few of the financial concerns that animated a lot of votes in the last election. The education I’ve been able to afford — along with the time and inclination I have to read a variety of news sources — has made me less likely to fall for fake news, “alternative facts,” and false reasoning. And for decades, my work has blessed me with a diverse band of colleagues and friends whom I love and respect, so the fear of “the other” that drove some votes is not a driver for me.

If I’m unable understand that my life story gives me good reason and a few tools to understand people whose lives and politics diverge from mine, then I’m as heartless and witless as I believe our leaders to be.

What does it mean, in the words of May Sarton, to “at last act for love”? The answer depends on one’s gifts and callings. For me, it means at least this: I want to redouble my efforts to help us renew our capacity for civic community and civil discourse. I want to ride the energy of anger toward work that brings citizens together in life-giving live encounters — knowing that if the reality of “We the People” continues to fade into mist and myth, we’ll lose our democracy.

One vehicle for this ride is StoryCorps, where I play a minor role as a thought partner for founder Dave Isay. Dave and his colleague Mike Garofalo are developing a new outreach to inspire Americans to talk and listen across our political divides. For a moving example of what they have in mind, check out this vulnerable and brave conversation between a conservative father and liberal daughter who’ve been at loggerheads — but who came together to seek a way forward and found grounds for hope.

StoryCorps is looking for folks to help them test this approach. Interested? Call 301-744-TALK, leave your name, where you are calling from, your contact information, and a few words about who you want to talk with and why.

I’m also an occasional thought partner with my friend Joan Blades, who co-founded Living Room Conversations (and also  MoveOn.org). Over the past five years, Joan and her colleagues have found simple, practical, and effective ways to help people with radically different political convictions find common ground. I highly recommend their work, including their programs with faith communities.

In addition, I’m continuing the work I launched in 2011 when I published Healing the Heart of Democracy. That work that has been greatly enhanced by my colleagues at a non-profit I founded, the Center for Courage & Renewal, who provide online resources to help folks find ways to reclaim the reality and power of “We the People.”

Finally, to keep myself honest, I want to continue to “live the question” I asked at the top of this column: “Does anger have a role to play in the life of someone who aspires to non-violence?”

As I do, I’ll take solace from Psalm 58, where an angry but certified holy man petitions God to “smash the teeth” of those who spread poisonous lies. The psalmist does not recommend direct action of this sort, and neither do I — radical oral surgery should be left to the Almighty.

But if the psalmist’s petition were to be granted today, I can imagine at least two positive outcomes. The lying would cease for a while since it would be too painful to talk (which seems only fair since it’s become so painful to listen). And we might get a healthcare plan with better dental coverage.

Spirituality and anger (and humor) are not necessarily at odds. Or so it seems to “One Mean Quaker” as I continue to stumble through life — well aware that, before too long, I’m likely to find myself in deep oatmeal again.


Author’s note: My first On Being column appeared on March 18, 2014. So this piece marks my fourth year of showing up weekly in this space, a run that, like all things, will someday come to end. I want to thank my friends Krista Tippett and Trent Gilliss for giving me this opportunity. Special thanks to Mariah Helgeson whose careful, insightful editing has helped me become a better writer, and Marie Sambilay whose skill at layout and design makes these pieces look better than they are. I also want to thank On Being’s readers for their informed, thoughtful, and generous responses to what appears on this site. If these sensibilities infused more online communication, the internet could play a bigger role in healing the heart of democracy and empowering “We the People.” I may be one mean Quaker, but I’m also one grateful man!

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