I have always believed that these are not the worst of times, nor are they the best of times. Nostalgia, like selective memory has always struck me as misguided, at best. Not that a story like Selma could be called nostalgic by any stretch. But upon watching it last night it stirred up a lot of mixed old feelings nonetheless. Mostly personal, even though my life experience could not possibly be any further away from Dr. King's. And yet, I have considered him one of the great ones ever since I first heard his "I have a dream" speech.
Great speeches tend to reveal great minds, as long as you're not easily impressed. When famous American writer Gore Vidal passed away a couple of years ago, it prompted me to revisit the way his mind worked. I looked up a speech he gave in '92, "(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents". As I began reading the text, I was reminded from the start what made him a great writer. But as I read on, I almost had an out-of-body experience: a part of me was transported back to the 90's, while another part refused to drink the Kool-Aid of nostalgia. One side of me was cheering Vidal's speech, feeling that adrenalin that kicks in when someone stirs up passion within you, and the other side was left looking at the angry young man I was twenty years ago.
When I use the word angry, I feel I need to qualify the context: I was not "Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand" angry. I was more of Billy Joel's "with his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand" angry. And apparently, I also enjoyed a touch of Gore Vidal cynicism. Who knew. But either way one thing has become clear to me: most people I meet eventually reveal some level of anger in them, and they tend to refuse to call it that.
I've been dedicating a significant part of my adult life to understanding the nature of anger and/or cynicism (a sanitized form of anger anyway). And one thing I've learned is that it doesn't matter who or what the target of anger is, the source is always within. Must be that silicon chip we all have inside our heads.
As in any life-consuming addiction, anger will inevitably dump you in a ditch on the side of the road. Whether that's literally or not, it doesn't really matter. Either way you wake up one day asking yourself the same question: how the fuck did I get here??
The irony to me lies in the observation that my own cynical judgments were full of causes that paid plenty of lip service to freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from violence, freedom from entitlement. You name it. Just add the word "freedom" in front of it.
So why is anger in the name of freedom an irony? Well, I finally realized that something life-changing happens when you are able to free yourself from anger. Dr. King brilliantly reminded me of it again last night: when you overcome anger you begin to understand what freedom is, for the first time in your life.
And therein lies the paradox... the more that injustice affects people's lives, the more difficult it is not to sympathize with the anger that it generates. It seems to me that black Americans experienced a tipping point moment during the civil rights movement. At that crossroads, a great number of them were faced with the decision to line up either behind Malcolm X, or behind Martin Luther King. Fight fire with fire, or take the higher road.
MLK must have known something that only a handful of men and women throughout recorded history have truly understood: that anger is the ditch on the side of the road of humanity. And as some of the brutal images from Selma were flashbacked again on the big screen, it hit me: when anger reaches its boiling point, it becomes hate. At which point you cannot tell it apart from cowardice.
I have amassed an impressive artillery of cynical things that I can say about all the economic, political and social dysfunctions that bombard us every day. Whenever I happen to stray and choose that beaten path, I notice the usual dead-end results: some people get angry alongside with me, others get angry at me. And pathetically both sides are wrong.
Every time I'm confronted with a problem, I try to remind myself of a simple lesson I've learned from the likes of MLK: anger is the problem with the problem. Figure out how to remove it, and you are left with a clear understanding of what the true challenge is.
A Tribute to MLK:
I Have A Dream / Amazing Grace