"March for Our Lives"–A Poignant Display of "Healthy Anger"

Teens can constructively manage both suffering and the anger it arouses.

Posted Mar 24, 2018

I was deeply moved this weekend by the thousands of our nation’s teens gathered together across our nation, pleading for their lives by voicing concerns about gun safety. Energized by fear, grief and anger, at a time when adults have failed to sufficiently protect them, these teens have united together to constructively seek change. They assembled with the slogan “March for Our Lives” rather than isolate, fall into hopeless despair, destructively act out their anger or suffer in isolation.

They’re angry, maybe even rageful. But most of all, they are suffering. They feel that no one is listening, that no one even cares to hear about their pain. They’re forced to feel invisible against the words and actions of those who wish they would just go away. They feel powerless against those in government and those who financially support government–and those who may even promise action, but fail to commit to their pledge. And, it is glaringly evident that they recognize the inability of their parents’ efforts to protect them.

Observing the crowds and hearing their words, it becomes evident that this movement reflects a diverse coalition, galvanizing of people of different race, religion, ethnicity and region–coming together, not just to oppose mass shootings or gun violence in schools–but to show a commitment to reduce gun violence in all communities. It is a movement determined to wholeheartedly and genuinely affirm that all lives matter. 

123rf Stock Photo/Syntika82'
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/Syntika82'

The demonstration reflects the epitome of “healthy anger”, anger articulately and eloquently expressed in a constructive way– uniformly recognizing and acknowledging sadness, frustration and feelings of powerlessness–and life-affirming in both its message and purpose. It is assertive communication at its best, clearly and authentically stating a need for compassion, not only in words but also in action.  It is an example of healthy anger in response to a threat to the key desire for safety and life itself. It is an example of healthy anger in response to a real threat rather than one built on perception alone. And it is healthy anger in its clear plea for very specific actions to address their suffering. We could only hope that all teens could cultivate healthy anger in a manner they displayed today.

For far too long teens have been marginalized. They feel forgotten by adults who have forgotten what it was like to be a child or a teen. They feel forgotten by adults whose emotional lives have been constricted in empathy and compassion, distracted by other concerns they have chosen to prioritize. And all too often, it seems to them that compassion has eroded, as if compassion is finite and reserved for only select individuals and under increasingly narrowly defined conditions. They see compassion that is all too often expressed by words and not by action.   

The fact that this movement is being led by teens makes it that much more remarkable and powerful. With all the complaints about the negative impact of the Internet (many that are justly deserved) it is the Internet that enabled these teens to create a coalition. These are teens who have come together, face-to-face, rather than screen-to-screen, to share, to bond, and to be part of a cause larger than themselves.

Their cause them meaning, camaraderie, validation and support, something each and every one of us needs but which is especially meaningful for teens and healthy maturing. Regardless of anyone’s perspective regarding guns, how they coalesced and managed their demonstration has to be admired.

Each of us feels the need to be connected. This is especially true of teens. The tasks of adolescence include forming an identity that includes ways of dealing with frustration, increased independence, developing impulse control, and increasing the capacity for self-reflection. How they helped to form the event and the eloquence of their speeches can serve as model for all teens as a way to address this challenge. And so they organized, gathered together to channel their energies hoping that in numbers they can make their voice loud enough not only to be heard but also to truly impact how others treat them. They seek common sense legislation regarding guns.

This movement is fueled by the same idealism that has spurred any significant change that we have witnessed. It reflects the idealism that is so often part of adolescence, idealism that is too often and quickly mocked or minimized by adults.  

As a psychologist I have witnessed the everlasting pain in parents who have lost a child to gun violence. I’ve also seen individuals who have lost a sibling to gun violence. The teens that have amassed in our cities this weekend are determined to diminish such suffering. For that, they should be applauded.

Perhaps there is a reason why “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was written in this particular order in the Declaration of Independence. It was not “liberty, happiness and life”. We need to honor this foundational premise, not because of blind allegiance to the written word of history, but based on a need for compassion based on our shared humanity. This is the overriding message by the mass of teens that marched this weekend.

The challenge they now face is to translate their energy and focus evidenced this weekend into a committed and on-going effort to have effective and rational legislation. I wholeheartedly praise them for practicing healthy anger and thank them for their message and for once again instilling optimism regarding our future, as individuals and as a nation. I thoroughly wish for their success–for them–and for all of us.