Remaining Sanguine In A World of Rage

roller coaster

The question of the hour: How do we stay focused in the era of trolls and beet-red faces? Vital issues lay buried beneath the controversy du jour, as witnessed in a recent deluge of this-can’t-be-happening headlines. While smoke from the Amazon Rain Forest blackened Sao Paulo’s skies …

  • Western leaders sniped over an ice-coated island. President Donald Trump urged the United States to buy Greenland from Denmark, even reportedly joking he’d trade Puerto Rico for it. Predictably, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frekeriksen dismissed the proposal as “absurd,” which hurt Trump’s feelings. He labeled her comments “nasty” and canceled his scheduled Denmark visit. A tiff now ripples through NATO as premiers roll their eyes.
  • Trump glanced to the sky and claimed to be the “chosen one” while explaining the China trade war, prompting renewed speculation over his sanity. A video gives context and would nullify the more wild reactions but for this: He approvingly quoted a conspiracy theorist hailing him in Messianic terms. The president’s three combined tweets: “Thank you to Wayne Allyn Root for the very nice words. ‘President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world…and the Jewish people in Israel love him…. like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God…But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore. It makes no sense! But that’s OK, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s good for…..all Jews, Blacks, Gays, everyone. And importantly, he’s good for everyone in America who wants a job.’ Wow!”
  • Yet another Trump quote: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
  • And a tweet that frayed Wall Street’s nerves: “‘… Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China …”

My point: This is a normal week in post-2016 America, where the daily crisis shoves substantial concerns to the back pages. Brazil’s jungles – the so-called “lungs of the planet” – were on fire, but a newly-brewed Trump-Denmark tiff conspired with presidential tweets to mute the real threat.

Equilibrium and levelheadedness, where art thou? Joe and Josephine Christian want to know. They hear the summons to a theology of the common good and long to engage in public policy, but they’re choking on rage’s careening toxicity.

Alas, progressives are no help – especially those on the Christian Left and among embittered ex-evangelicals. Many spill snark in the name of open-mindedness. John Pavlovitz, for example, tweeted to Jack Burkman on August 22: “Could I have the names and addresses of your 16,000 followers, so that I can avoid ever having contact of any kind with them for the rest of my life?”

Granted, Burkman’s tweets are galling, but slamming all his twitter followers – many of whom monitor his misogyny and extremism – smacks of the same trolling Pavlovitz criticizes.

Perhaps it’s time to remember time-honored sages, with the first step to calmness coming from wise pagans. The ancient Stoics sought to achieve apathea, not to be confused with modern apathy. Apathea refers to a “state of mind in which one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word ‘equanimity.” We achieve blessed disinterest as we withdraw from 21st-century rage (the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of disinterest: “having no personal involvement or receiving no personal advantage, and therefore free to act fairly”). According to Epictetus (circa 55 to 135 AD), the pathway to such serenity begins with the recognition of  our own limitations: “Some things in life are under your control, and others are not.”

How true. We cannot stop the world from slinging its vehemence and capricious calamities; but, said the crippled philosopher and freed slave, we can govern our own reactions and remain poised. Think of Stoicism’s 21st-century poster child, former President Barack Obama. All the birther accusations barely troubled his basketball and golf games.

But Stoicism eventually rings hallow. Epictetus’s solution leaves us spiritually and emotionally aloof. Again, there’s Obama: Staffers described a different persona than Ellen Degeneres’s affable guest. He was detached and distant. He only opened himself to a small circle of friends. Vice President Joseph Biden said he possessed “nerves of steel” while Richard Holbrooke claimed ice water ran through his veins (bear in mind that Holbrooke, whose inflated ego collided with many and ruined friendships, fell out of the president’s favor).  Something must fill the void in the wake of the Stoic retreat. We must find a different path to engage with the outside world. Saint Augustine pin-pointed it: “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you would hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you would cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.”

Stoic apathea helps us regain our footing. We then come before God and saturate ourselves in his kingdom and its ethos. We ooze what Apostle Paul described in a passage often recited at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

True love, it seems, transcends rage and sees beyond its realm. It declines the invite to its roller coaster and the day’s shrill but shallow controversies. Love, because it flows from God’s kingdom, views the world with God’s eyes and dwells on God’s priorities. The deed to Greenland’s property is a non-issue, since God is the world’s ultimate owner and we’re merely squatters. It focuses on God’s first command to humans (caring for creation; see Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) and views all humanity as bearing God’s image (Genesis 1:27). No one — including the unborn, the prisoner, the poverty-stricken, and the foreigner — comes from an expletive deleted country or people group.

True love must not be mistaken for sentimentality or naivete. It sees evil in all its ugliness but opts for grace instead of revenge (Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us …” 1 John 4:10: “And love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”). It recognizes the existence of genuine enemies who long to harm us, but it chooses to draw down Heaven: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

The Stoics invite us to step away from the trolls and those beat-red faces. Love allows us to touch them once more — but, this time, we startle the living daylights out of them with our soft, wise smiles.

That’s fun.

 

 

 

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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