Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.

At the Heart of Anger is Sadness

A sense of meaninglessness underlies most unhappiness.

Complaint is not a very useful or attractive way of relating to the world. This is what makes much of our political discourse so unappealing. Instead of constructive ideas about what each of us can do to solve problems, most politicians and people who comment about politics prefer to blame those they disagree with for what is wrong. Often this takes the form of a sense of victimization in which the other side is portrayed as seeking to oppress, deceive, or otherwise disadvantage the forces of reason and righteousness. These complaints can reach absurd levels as when the white, privileged majority feels attacked by those arguing in favor of the wealthy paying more taxes or keeping religion out of public schools or the government out of medical decisions. These feelings of being threatened by a changing society have increased as it has become apparent that by 2050 the majority of our citizens will be non-white.

The absurdity of these fears is demonstrated by the recent finding that the wealth gap between whites and minorities has grown to its widest levels in a quarter century. According to census data whites on average now have 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of hispanics ($113,000 vs. $5000 to $6000). And yet a significant segment of white society feels threatened and protective of their advantages. Our political discourse has been degraded by the rise of an angry and self-righteous minority that thinks it is legitimate to impose their vision of the future through threats to damage our political and economic systems if they don't get their way. This is but a short step to violence, which, for example, among some religious extremists has replaced peaceful protest in the area of reproductive rights. When hateful accusations replace reasoned discourse, compromise, the basis for any democratic system, becomes impossible and all we are left with are statements of faith and assertions that some people are better than others in interpreting God's will. In this direction lies theocracy and loss of the freedom of each of us to follow the light of his or her own conscience.

The role that fear plays in this process is obvious. If we imagine that others wish to impose their will on us in the name of some belief system, we feel justified in opposing this process "by whatever means necessary." If we feel the need to arm ourselves to constrain the power of our own government, we have lost some basic trust that our voices will be heard and that we can effect change by peaceful political means. If we believe that our President holds office illegitimately because he was not born in this country, we are making a statement that is not just divorced from provable reality, it is a fear-driven, delusional rejection of our system of government. Like all conspiracy theories it satisfies some fundamental need to see ourselves as victims who must resort to extreme measures to protect what we are and what we have against nefarious forces that would obliterate us. It also implies contempt for those who disagree with us. Who can be tolerant of or seek compromise with those who threaten our very existence?

How can reasonable people argue against such fears? When treating patients in the grip of anxiety, a diffuse form of fear, there are limits to logical argument. As I have commented elsewhere, It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place. In our political discourse we see numerous examples of people behaving illogically, as when elderly people who benefit from Medicare and Social Security rage against government entitlement programs, especially universal health care. Or people who buy guns after a mass shooting. Because most of our fears are misplaced (Remember the summer of the shark attacks or the relentless advance of the killer bees?) we are at risk of fulfilling them by our irrational reactions. The stock market, driven by fear and greed, oscillates wildly in times of stress and economic uncertainty. We spend thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on wars when threatened by stateless terrorists who respond to our invasions by moving their operations to other countries.

Just as in psychotherapy, there is no substitute for looking below the surface of the stories we are told, identifying the sadness and fear that underlies anger, the insecurity that expresses itself in arrogance, and the sense of meaninglessness behind most unhappiness. If we can apply this understanding to our political battles we might be able to disagree with each other with a little more humility and a little less certainty that only those who believe as we do deserve to be saved. And in this process we might just find more to like and admire in each other - and in ourselves.