How Sadness Could Save The World

It seems like everywhere I turn people are angry.

Anger is my first response when things go wrong. If that surprises you, the shock will wear off as soon as I tell you that I grew up in New York State, where it was totally normal to get in a shouting match with someone you didn’t know. I would see people yell at servers or fast food workers only to be yelled at in return. And I have that same instinct—which I attribute to both the environment where I grew up and genetic predisposition. Nature and nurture.

But it’s not just me. It seems like everywhere I turn people are angry. Have you read your Twitter feed lately? Because mine is full of people incensed about something: the refugee ban, the fact that people are upset by the refugee ban, or tweets punched out with no goal but to stir people up.

And that’s the thing about anger: it has become such a commodity that the most powerful person in the world got to his position in part by harnessing people’s anger. On the campaign trail, President Trump saw people angry about how globalization is threatening their values and economic well-being. He saw this anger, harnessed it, and mobilized it. But he also exploited the anger of his detractors by building a furor that dominated the news cycle, drowning out other voices and galvanizing his supporters.

But thinly-veiled rage is not the only way to draw attention to your cause. I would argue that it’s not even the most effective way. I submit that sadness stands to be at least as effective. It’s more difficult, but it’s a hell of a lot more honest. What are you angry about? An injustice? Anger is a secondary emotion, what Mike Mason calls “an emotion going somewhere.” If you’re angry, it’s because you’re also feeling something else, something more fundamental. For me, that emotion is often sadness.

And using anger to mask my sadness … I’m as guilty of that as anybody. I can’t count the number of times I’ve apologized to my wife for getting angry with her when in fact I was hurt by something she said or did. I’ve become so habituated to giving vent to my anger that I don’t consider that I might be feeling something else. So if anger is “an emotion going somewhere,” I need to develop a rudder to guide it where I want it to go. The alternative is to let the anger lead me, and I don’t want to live that way anymore.