On Friday night, I heard the news — Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away. I momentarily felt disbelief, and then a surge of anger. Congressional Republicans would surely use her passing as an opportunity to jam through a right-wing justice. That would further skew the Supreme Court, which may decide on and influence the processes of the upcoming election, throwing the election to Trump. And over the next decade, how many cases could the Court rule on that would further erode the fragile pillars of democracy? What could we do? There was nothing we could do. I felt powerless, anger pouring into frustration, turmoil, and panic.
In our brains, anger focuses our intentions on a violation of our principles, of our bodies, of our families. We sense danger and the ancient brain structure called the amygdala provokes us to flee in fear or fight in anger. Anger provides us with clarity, pushes our attention towards that violation, and motivates us to act against it. Anger can crystallize for us in a moment exactly what we must do. And as with my reaction on that Friday night, when anger moves against a violation that cannot be directly touched, it can build up, multiply, and coagulate in our bodies, hardening our emotional core against further pain.
In this moment, it helps to pause, to breathe, to remember what initially fueled this anger. It helps to reflect on where we can direct our anger. This is not about snuffing anger through rationality. It is about pairing our analytical cerebral cortex with our reactive amygdala, leaning into all of what it means to be human. It is about sensing our feelings, joining them with our thoughts, experiencing all of this in our bodies.
I do not have the will, the desire, or the power to enact my anger directly against President Trump, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and other elected Republicans. And even if I did, my rational brain tells me that this would not address the true source of my anger, which is the system that creates injustice and suffering in this nation and world. Trump and McConnell hold some power in this system, which is the power that comes from manipulation, from fear, and from hatred.
But we hold the power of love. In my words, this idea sounds sentimental and hopelessly idealistic, so I need to turn to someone who can express this idea much more effectively than I can, Dr. Martin Luther King:
“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
We have the power of a love which corrects all those things which stand against it. We can join our anger with power and love in compassionate rage that tears down the life-choking systems of racism, patriarchy, and runaway capitalism — systems that lead to the killing of unarmed Black men in the street, to violence against women in our homes and in our ICE detention facilities, to environmental degradation and climate destruction that always affect Black and Brown people the most.
Of course, we must channel our compassionate rage into small, discrete acts that are achievable. I cannot destroy racism, but I can advocate to my local elected officials to slash funding for our police department and send the funds to social services. I can stand aside to make space for my coworkers of color. I cannot destroy patriarchy, but I can demand that the government shut down ICE. I can interrogate how I show up in my workplace in a way that marginalizes the contributions of my female colleagues. I cannot destroy runaway capitalism, but I can call for the passage of climate legislation. I can push myself, my friends, and my family to live more sustainably. Discussing these small acts can start to disconnect me from my feelings of compassionate rage. As a white man especially, I can start to slide into complacency, to just living my life within our current systems. So I must intentionally reconnect to my compassionate rage. I must constantly rediscover it and focus it.
And now, in this moment of Justice Ginsburg’s death, I must cultivate this compassionate rage, and channel it. I must channel it toward holding the Senate from confirming a new justice until after the election. I must channel it into writing letters, text-banking, and phone-banking to get people out to vote in November. I must channel it, whatever happens in November, into advocacy at all levels of our society — local, state, and national.
There have been so many moments this year that have filled me with sadness, with hopelessness, and with anger. There have been so many moments these past four years. There have been so many moments in my life. We all have those moments. Those moments give us energy and purpose. May we remember Justice Ginsburg’s life, and may this be one of those moments. May we continue to cultivate our compassionate rage in response, directing it through ourselves and towards justice.
We need to intentionally cultivate all of our emotions, which include both anger and joy. Please check out my companion piece, Cultivating joy.
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