This week’s newsletter is taken from our course and presents a cautionary tale against descending into rage; In the spirit of Dr. King’s ‘Beloved Community,’ we encourage our students to make the hard decision to channel their anger and transform it into love.
First, the antihero.
Much like denial, anger is a coping mechanism often used in moments of chaos and stress as a way to take control of a situation outside of one’s control. There is nothing wrong with being angry about the loss of life, social ties, physical connection and interconnectedness that has come with Covid-19 and its subsequent challenges. The problem lies when we dwell upon our anger, let it fester, and enable it to control us. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, since merely being angry doesn’t change anything.
Villain Study: Emperor Commodus
In the film Gladiator, Emperor Commodus is a selfish, vengeful, petty ruler who wastes the coffers of Rome on “entertaining” the people with gladiator fights so they don’t notice the rot and decay in their own lives. All of Commodus’s rage and pettiness stem from his inability to overcome the weight of his father’s disapproval. Ironically, the negative qualities he exhibits — lack of discernment, shallowness, and brute strength — are precisely what leads to his father’s disapproval. But instead of changing his behavior for the better, his anger over his father’s objections leads to a juvenile possessiveness that gives way to murder and violence. There is a lesson in this: if you feel anger and you do not let it pass, you can fall prey to it, allow it to take you over and descend into even more chaos as a result; and you can unwittingly use your misery to inflict misery onto others.
And now, for the hero.
As many of you know, we teach the writings of James Baldwin in the Theory of Enchantment Course and we just celebrated what would have been his 96th birthday on Sunday.
Hero Study: James Baldwin
James Baldwin wrote extensively on how to challenge racism, bigotry, and other unjust aspects of American society without losing yourself to fits of rage & madness in the process. He argued that to lose yourself, to allow yourself to be corrupted and turn against your fellow man — and even to hate him for his injustice — was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. Indeed, at a debate at Oxford University, Baldwin argued that the spiritual condition of those engaging in racist acts was far worse than those they inflicted their hatred upon. More particularly, in an essay called, “The Fire Next Time” Baldwin surveyed the spiritual landscape of both white America and black America, including reactionary groups like the Nation of Islam.
He concluded that racists in both communities created mythologies to reinforce supremacist ways of thinking because they ultimately lacked an honest, “sensual,” loving relationship with themselves. In a basic sense, their insecurities led to self-contempt and they overcompensated for this with rage and murderous violence.
The answer to breaking out of this cycle, no matter how tempting it is to cling to, is to love: Develop a real relationship with yourself, make peace with your past, with who and what you are, and love. And then after you have done that, you will be ready to love others.
And according to James Baldwin, to love is not only a tremendous responsibility, it is the only one.
1. Consider the following quote from James Baldwin:
“Now, I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to white Southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there because Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama cannot be dismissed as a total monster. I’m sure he loves his wife, his children. I’m sure you know he likes to get drunk. You know after all, one’s got to assume he is visibly a man like me. But he doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun, and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”
- What do you think Baldwin means when he writes this? Journal for at least five minutes.
- What does it say about a person if he or she is willing to engage in this type of violence? What does it say about Baldwin’s concern and care for this person despite his bad behavior?
- How do you think you can model this kind of behavior in your own life? Do you think you can? Why or why not?