By Cary McMullen
I recently went to see the movie version of “Les Misérables.” I was familiar with Victor Hugo’s classic story but not with the musical, and frankly I didn’t care for it. Way too overwrought for my tastes.
However, there was a line among the many (many) musical numbers that piqued my interest. It was the anthem of the revolutionaries, and it begins, “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men?”
I thought to myself, “Now there is a song that captures the spirit of our age.” Everywhere I look I seem to be surrounded by angry men and women.
You can’t turn on the TV or radio or log on to the Internet without getting blasted by the heat of people angry about Barack Obama, John Boehner, the Congress, the economy, taxes, corporate greed, global warming, crime, sexual abuse, animal abuse, underfunded schools, food shortages in Africa, water shortages in Florida and … whew.
We amuse ourselves with Angry Birds, and even our fast food has a hot emotion – Burger King has introduced the Angry Whopper. We have road rage, the rage of mass murderers and just the unfocused anger so famously voiced by unhinged TV newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Beale’s rant could be the moment when we began the transition from the 20th-century period that poet W.H. Auden dubbed the Age of Anxiety to what we might call the Age of Anger. (I thought about calling it the Age of Rage, which has a poetic quality, but rage has the connotation of anger that is out of control, and our society hasn’t reached that point yet, thank God.)
Anger has traditionally been looked down on as an emotion that needs to be controlled. In fact, it was once considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Displays of anger were seen as immature, an exercise in self-indulgence. Rather than exercising restraint and self-control, someone who lost his temper was seen as weak and selfish.
The writer Frederick Buechner commented about anger that of the Seven Deadly Sins it is possibly the most fun: “(T)o smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
We didn’t arrive at the Age of Anger overnight. Two or three self-indulgent generations now have been perfectly willing to consume themselves with anger and don’t mind taking others along with them.
To be sure, there are injustices that make us angry.
The poor people and the revolutionaries of mid-19th century France had plenty to be genuinely angry about. But by comparison, the anger of early 21st-century America is one of frustrated expectations and imagined grievances.
Indeed, the white middle class that seems to be the source of so much disaffection these days would be the legitimate target of the anger of those upon the barricades of Paris.
We need a healthy dose of stoicism these days to give us balance and perspective. Putting a check on anger can not only lead us to see that it is unwarranted, it can save a friendship or a marriage or – who knows – prevent a war.
Something to remember next time you’re tempted to sing the song of angry men.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached at [email protected]