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May 9, 2013

Anger, Injustice and Guns: a deadly mix

It’s strange how my “crunchy granola” blog often kick starts ideas for this blog. Today I just wanted to discuss anger, but then I realized, this is something worth discussing at length.  The Buddha quote got me started, and a few paragraphs are the same, but this take a different, darker direction.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” ~Buddha

I’ve always loved this quote because anger was, is, one of my personal demons.  So many times when I listen to my students, I hear so much barely suppressed anger that it’s no surprise that many of them are involved in incidents of violence.

Just this week, the topic of fighting came up in our class discussion. They actually asked me if I had ever been in a fight, and since I don’t lie to my students, I said, yes. Shocked (seems professors have never been children), they wanted to know when. I said something like not since before high school. Again, they were shocked. That long ago?

These are students who routinely see violence. Many come in with black eyes, broken noses, broken hands, split lips. My students have seen violence on the street, and a sad minority have seen friends killed in front of them. Mostly the young men, but sometimes the women. This is not hyperbole, but then I teach in New York City. As their writing teacher, I get to see some of their saddest and scariest memories. It’s an honor to read them, but some days, emotionally shattering.

The discussion evolved into learning to keep our cool and choosing not to engage.  They weren’t ready to embrace this stance at all. In life, I told them, we almost always have the choice not to engage. We can ignore or even diffuse the situation with calm or humor. Some thought that choosing not to engage showed weakness.  Perhaps in certain neighborhoods it does, but I’m not preparing my students for life in those neighborhoods. For most of them, I’m preparing them for a life in corporate America.

I know that learning to control anger is a lifelong process, and I know that for student who grow up in a world of violence and inarticulate rage in so many people, it’s even harder.  As a society we deplore violence; we preach against it and vilify guns.  While I have no problem with stricter laws about who can get their hands on weapons, I also see that this isn’t the answer to America’s violence problem. There are countries that have lots of guns. The much-bandied statistic that Canada has almost as many guns as America is well known to people who pay attention to the gun control debate.

When I lived overseas I realized it wasn’t so much that Americans have too many guns. It’s that Americans are more willing to use them than people from other countries.  Americans are relatively quick to kill.  I’ve often tried to trace why this is so, but that is a project for when I have more time on my hands. A lot more time.  And I’m sure it’s not just one thing, but a mélange of factors.

But today I realized that anger must be a significant part of that deadly mix.  Anger in my students can be understood—they come from under-employed, under-educated, un-respected neighborhoods. They are surrounded by angry people, and it builds and builds.

And in this country, right now, anger is growing and growing in more segments of society. People who were safely middle class no longer are. More families are holding on by fingertips, facing unbelievable stress thanks to money. Housing, education, medical care and pensions are threatened, while corporations earn more and more money.  This anger translates into hotter tempers and the word “desperation” is used much more often than it used to be.

It’s senseless, mass shootings that outrage America and galvanize the gun debate, but these account for only a small percentage of gun deaths in this country. In the US in 2010, there were 11.078 gun murders. I was a bit suspicious of that number till I saw that in New York City alone, in 2011, there were 515 deaths classified as homicide. Of those, 61% were killed by guns. That’s 314 people in one city in one state.

This growing anger and dissatisfaction is growing yearly since I returned to America five years ago. I’ve written in this blog about whether or not we were like Rome, but more and more, I’m reminded of Versailles.

As a nation, this anger needs to be addressed. Where there is justice for all, there will be freedom from much of the violence.  Anger management and social justice are overwhelming topics, so they are often shelved. It’s time to bring these topics to the table.

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