By Sam Huntington
According to a recently published University of Michigan study, which took place over a period of 17-years, people who are perpetually stressed and angry experience shortened lifespans. Anger is a normal reaction to external stimuli, and everyone experiences it. It is not unhealthy to have anger; it is unhealthy to hold it in, and inappropriate to lash out at others because of it. Anger is an emotion, aggression is a behavior.
We all experience some ire from time to time, but psychologists tell us that deep-seated anger comes from rejection at an early age, which is an obstacle to normal childhood development. There are many facets to rejection, and it may not even matter why a child has been excluded, only that those rejecting children are more often than not the same people who are responsible for nurturing and security in formative years. Rejection leads to maladjustment, bitterness, and anxiety. The greatest challenge to youngsters is in learning how to deal with changes that take them outside of their comfort zone; this is particularly true when they face unwanted changes.
Stress comes to us early in life, always involving a wide range of challenges. Some of these involve factors beyond our power to change: physical characteristics, mental capacity, sexual orientation, developmental timelines, the order of birth, and/or race and ethnicity. How does an unlovely child change its physical appearance or the color of their skin? Nor are children able to deal effectively with in-home abusive relationships, separation or divorce of parents, or homes where alcohol and drug abuse are common. How children deal with these kinds of problems follows them into adulthood; they are factors that impact their relationships with others —even, eventually, their own children. An insecure child grows into an anxious adult. A child with low self-esteem carries this problem with them throughout their life without significant intervention. Without intercession, the situation feeds on itself: low self-esteem leads to a greater sense of rejection. Bitter, anxious, resentful adults generally do not handle their anger very well.
No matter the cause of one's annoyances, people exhibit anger in fairly consistent ways. They react to unpleasantness with more of the same. Resentment increases whenever circumstances are perceived as unwarranted. Psychologists refer to these as emotional triggers. It might be something as simple as being cut off in traffic, a personal insult, or —dare I suggest it— the election of a president. It was quite disturbing to witness adults crying uncontrollably for no other reason than the fact that their candidate didn't win the election. The result of this was an outrageous level of post-election aggression: it continues even today.
Individual character matters, of course: people who are narcissistic, competitive, who exhibit demands of entitlement, those who have a low tolerance for life's frustrations, and the psychotics have the greatest incidents of angry aggression. The nature of external stimuli matters, too, politics being one of many. It is not simply a matter of the exterior factors, but also how they are perceived. A self-absorbed person may imagine that he alone knows best; other points of view simply do not matter. How dare anyone vote for a different candidate! When people already live in a state of perpetual anger, they are more likely than others to respond to these external influences with a disturbing degree of explosiveness. In the minds of such people, their aggressive behaviors are warranted, even though society eschews acting out irrational behavior. Such persons become even more isolated, over time their bitterness becomes more acute.
Ultimately, the expression of unnatural anger or aggressiveness leads to unhealthful conditions, both physically and mentally. The real problem, as it seems to me —particularly as it relates to political anger— is in not being able to let go of hostility. In our present toxic political environment people not only become angry because the "other candidate" won an election, they quite unnaturally remain angry. It is this perpetual anger that makes it easy to blame others for perceived injustices. Another term for this is denial. Perpetual anger makes it easier to lash out in various, often infantile ways, such as name-calling and liberal use of profanity, which is meant to shock others into silence. We see a lot of this in our country today, and nowhere more frequently than in matters of politics presented in the blogosphere and within the mainstream media where never-ending panels of self-styled political consultants resort to derisive commentary and ad hominem attacks.
Our society is dysfunctional and growing more so by the day. If the purpose of the family is to nurture and create new generations of emotionally stable human beings, then they have become seriously defective. Our population of mentally unbalanced citizens is increasing in leaps and bounds. Our society today is far too angry for its own good. This isn't the fault of our government, even though most of us deplore government policies.
What is surprising, however, is how various social institutions go out of their way to fuel irrational anger. Foremost among these are the political parties and the agenda-driven media, each of whom benefits in numerous ways from instilling our anger and then maintaining it. Our reaction is almost Pavlovian: they snap their fingers, we react irrationally. The American people are being manipulated in a manner, not unlike chessmen on a complex game board. Why do we trust any of these institutions to deal with us honestly? They want us to accept opinion as fact and lies and spin as unmitigated truth. Our anger, resentment, and frustration guarantee only this: a fractured society. As Maxwell Smart might say, it's the old divide and conquers ploy. To those who seek to manipulate us, our anger is the gift that keeps on giving.
Will Americans ever wake up to this scam? If we ever did open our eyes, what should we do about it? Democracies demand civic-minded citizens. If we want to live and raise our families in a healthy society, then we incur an obligation to participate in it as educated, thoughtful, citizens. We must learn to choose our leaders and representatives carefully. We can do this by consulting multiple sources to help us in distinguishing truth from fiction. We can do a more thorough job vetting political candidates before we vote for them. We have to hope for the best; we have to be prepared for the worst ... and when we have reached the point of doing all that we can do, then we need to let it go.
There are far more important things in the world than a political agenda. Finally, we need to realize that no matter what we do as individuals, there will always be irrational people who want us to react to their anger and frustration ... and unless these people fall within our inner-circle, we've got to let them go, as well.