I was sitting at one of my favorite breakfast spots this morning reading the paper and half-way listening to the news on the TV screen behind me. The announcer said an 18 year old man in St. Louis was shot 17 times last night by police. My heart just sank. I started thinking about how much anger there is in our communities, our country, and our world. Anger doesn’t even really describe it anymore. It’s rage.
And the number of shots fired on this young man – 17 shots – brought me back to a Bruce Springsteen song, “41 Shots,” about a man mistakenly identified as a killer by police in New York who shot him 41 times.
On these streets
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight
… It ain’t no secret … no secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
The whole story of this most recent event in St. Louis is just coming to light, so I’m not going to discuss issues of racial bias. And even if it’s true this young man fired shots first at the officer, how do we make sense of 17 shots fired at him? Again, I’ll tell you how – fear and anger turned to rage.
Is our society really coming apart at the seams the way it appears to be by glancing at the newspaper or 24-hour cable news cycle?
Bill Clinton was asked this recently on one of my favorite shows, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and answered astutely that the trend lines for global poverty, illness, multi-national cooperation, etc. are all trending up, but that our society focuses on the negative. We are driven to action for financial and political purposes by being made to feel anxiety and anger and rage. Thus we have the MSNBC versus Fox News shout-downs. And where does that leave us?
It leaves us as the most self-medicated, self-harming, and psychologically fragile cohort in American history according to another of my favorite authors and researchers Brené Brown in a TEDx talk a couple years ago. “[People] don’t want to feel [emotions],” she shared. “I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.” And based on what I see in my patients, that’s on a good day. A bad day can include full on binge drinking, binge eating, and purging into the wee hours of the morning.
Anxiety, anger and rage. We take it out on others. We take it out on ourselves. We shoot bullets at each other. We shoot heroin into ourselves. We shove our beliefs into another’s brain. We shove our guilt and shame down our own throats.
The great sages of all time have talked about the purpose of anger as being a motivator for personal and social change. I don’t see anger as a negative emotion. But at what point does anger tip over to rage, and rage into self- or other-inflicted violence? That’s such a tough question.
I don’t have an answer to it or to the violence perpetrated and broadcast on the hour. I’d be a rich man if I did. All I can say, all I can hope for, is that we take stock of those behaviors we turn to as salves for the rage; that we try wherever and whenever we can to help each other find another way to handle it, to reflect, to calm down, think through the consequences, and put down the tools of violence and self-harm.
One moment at a time is what I ask my patients to deal with. That’s the best any of us can do.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.