Image: A young woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Komposita/Pixabay)
Yesterday I threw a tantrum and wrote about my anger and disgust at the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. The article hit a nerve: I rarely get such a large response to a post in its first 24 hours. Many of the replies I received had a single message: “Yes! I’m angry too!”
And when it comes to guns, we are really angry. Gun owners feel slandered by every other word from the anti-gun left. People who don’t like guns are angry when they hear “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to gun violence.
So one group of people say the problem is guns. The other group of people say the problem is violent people, be they mentally ill or just plain bad. (“Guns don’t kill people” etc.) Neither group is inclined to change its mind; we are at an impasse, getting angrier and angrier. We luxuriate in our anger; we fairly radiate it.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, taught me that we humans are prone to see only two answers to any given problem, and that the first thing to do when we are stymied is to look for other possibilities. Today I read an article that suggested another possibility at the root of our gun violence problem.
How to Stop Violence by psychologist Laura L. Hayes makes the case that it is a mistake to frame violent behavior as the product of mental illness. Mentally ill people are mostly harmless, despite what we may have learned in horror films. She cited some persuasive studies and figures:
Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.
Dr. Hayes identifies out-of-control anger as the real culprit behind the cascade of gun violence. She suggests that the answer to the violence is not to identify the “bad people” but each of us to take responsibility for the anger epidemic in the country. She concludes:
Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.
I’d like to take her analysis a step further. Anger is at the heart not only of this wave of violence, but at the political dysfunction that has paralyzed the nation. Why work with a political opponent when we can cuss him out and have a vast chorus agree with us on FOX or MSNBC? Why work on solutions when we can “enjoy” a permanent rage state on social media, complete with friends and enemies?
We don’t talk like adults about those who disagree with us – and we rarely speak with them at all. We call them hateful words like “idiot” or “moron.” We ridicule their bodies. We make up names like “Orange Cheeto” and “Pocahontas.” We are righteous in our fury and we are loud. Then, when we are worn out with name-calling and rage, we collapse. Nothing improves.
Even within our bubbles, we are poisoned by our rage. Both major political parties seem to spend all their energy on self-destruction. On the left, it’s rare to bring people together now and get anything but combustion: witness the Dyke March debacle last summer and the polarization around Antifa.
Back to gun violence: Whether we focus on mass murders, urban drive-bys, or the epidemic of murder-suicides connected with domestic violence, anger is at the core. Whether the angry person wants revenge on someone in particular or on the world at large, if they don’t know how to deal with their anger in constructive ways, violence is the result.
Most of us learn not to let our anger go so completely out of control. However, as we give increasing permission for angry behavior in others. Our own self-indulgence in anger makes us part of the problem.
Torah takes the issue of anger very seriously. Moses was barred from ever entering the Promised Land after he lost his temper and hit a rock with his staff. (Numbers 20) Readers debate whether that was fair or not, but the message in Torah is clear: losing one’s temper is a very serious matter.
Even God gets angry in the Torah narratives, and God’s uncontrolled anger usually results in disaster. In Exodus 32, God is so angry at the Golden Calf incident that Moses has to talk God out of destroying all the Israelites. This account is concluded with the following, telling line:
And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. – Exodus 32:14
Even God repented losing God’s temper! This strongly suggests that the ability to keep one’s temper and deal with anger is a Jewish value.
Proverbs 16:32 tells us:
Better to be slow to anger than mighty, To have self-control than to conquer a city.
Rabbinic literature goes on at length about the importance of self-control. Early on, we hear from Shammai, a rabbi who is known to have resorted to violence at a prospective student. Shammai seems to have repented of that behavior, because one of the sayings that come down to us from him is:
Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – Pirkei Avot, 1:15
Maimonides comments upon that verse:
“a pleasant countenance”: That is when he interacts with the creatures calmly and with pleasant and welcome words. – Rambam on Pirkei Avot 1:15:2.
…In other words, don’t run around angry. Learn to control yourself.
These are just a few examples from the tradition.
If I personally want to do something about the wave of gun violence, perhaps the place to begin are with the things over which I have some control. I can’t control what other people think. I am not the Queen of Congress. And maybe – just maybe – the people I disagree with are right: maybe if I got the laws I wanted, the only people with automatic and semi-automatic guns would be angry bad guys.
No, I will work on the violence problem by practicing self control and modeling it to others. Instead of ranting about how angry I am, I will channel my anger into effective political action – not just more anger on social media. Instead of passing my anger around, by writing more articles like yesterday’s, I will write about ways to maintain equilibrium in an upsetting world.
There’s more to say. For now, I will take a breath. I will say my prayers. I will do my best to be better tomorrow.