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How To Be Properly Outraged (Thank You, Pete Seeger)

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“Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
The girls have picked them ev’ry one.
Oh, When will you ever learn?
Oh, When will you ever learn?” – Pete Seeger, Folk Singer, Activist, Environmentalist (1919-2014)

“A good song reminds us what we’re fighting for.” – P. Seeger

A diet of affirmations, rainbows and positive thinking can leave one, well, hungry.

Besides, affirmations typically used to transform negative self-perceptions simply don’t work. Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick, who have published their research in the journal Psychological Science, concluded several years ago, “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.” And, I venture to say that affirmations can be used by the misguided to suppress anger and rage.

Maa_Tara_2013-11-02_23-19I am all for compassionate action and forgiveness and have researched and written about the benefits of both. But there is such a thing as false compassion (misguided and misused). Furthermore, forgiveness is a process, not a simple proclamation. Both forgiveness and compassion are not to be used as a way to not engage in a fight. They are not to be used to ignore the suffering due to others’ wrongful behavior. When used to suppress or misdirect anger, they cause only more suffering. Depression is often referred to as “anger turned inward.” Internalized rage can wreak havoc on the body and mind.

I advocate for tolerance but have found too many women and men whose tolerance of abuse leaves them beaten down. I am tolerant, but I have my limits of what I will tolerate. Some argue that karma will take care of it. Wrong! This is using such concepts as karmic justice to help keep you passive and uninvolved. Life is for the living, so participate.

“Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.” – P. Seeger

With the staggering number of people on the planet and with less and less privacy, we are often fooled into assuming someone else is taking care of a problem, or we are numbed by everyone else’s apparent passivity. In this technological environment, we may rely on “unliking” someone or blocking someone on Facebook or Twitter as enough of a statement. It isn’t. This keeps us passive bystanders on fundamental concerns we have. We may be up to our knees in muddy water but everyone else on the boat is listening to the captain ordering us to “stay on course,” so we do too.

“It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That’s how it all begun.

We were — knee deep in the Big Muddy,

But the big fool said to push on”. – Taken from P. Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

I know someone who is a con artist. He has scammed many out of their money. He has held as many jobs as Imelda Marcos had shoes. Most of his jobs were some version of a scam. He is arrogant, abusive and totally self-absorbed. He keeps saying his ship is coming in but it seems it never finds its port. This “someone” sent me a Facebook friend request over a year ago. Not only did I not “like” him as a friend, I blocked him. But was this enough? In truth, many people around him have suffered due to his abuses and selfishness. I have never really done much about it (except keep my distance). So, I decided to write him a letter. (Over the years as a therapist I recommend people write such letters and then once written decide whether the next best step is to send it.)

images-3The pen, in so many ways, can be mightier than the sword:

“(Name withheld),
I noticed you want to friend me on Facebook.
Maybe your request is innocent enough; you are likely joining up and creating a list. Even so, I don’t trust you. My Facebook page is used as a professional tool for me to communicate with clients and students, both potential and present. I will not give you the opportunity to access these people through me.

I am not sure what you are up to these days “business wise.” After your three-times at selling plastic shoes went wrong, then the kiosk in the mall, to selling ads on the back of ticker-tape, to selling above ground pools to the elderly (and that fell through too), I ran into you in the parking lot of the Food Co-op where you said something about selling bags! Amazing really, how our life comes around. You began with selling bags back in the ’70s and now are selling them again. You have scammed your way through the inheritance money and put the family home in foreclosure.

These words are not nice but true. These words are also evidence that we are not friends. Yes, family make up some of my “friends” on Facebook, but I have blocked anyone I don’t trust or don’t want to be associated with. If I don’t trust someone (and trust is something one earns), what would be a good reason to have this person in one of my networks?

I believe you want things to be “nice”(and user-friendly) between us. So, I am being a good sister by communicating to you in this way. Not that I expect you will receive it correctly. You and I live in different universes. We don’t speak the same language. There is only a small chance you will understand any of this note. We are siblings by blood only. You have never really acted in ways I considered “older-brotherly.” Ever. You have always been out for yourself, the family money and for your own “fun.” You have harmed many on your way to your version of the good life.

The truth is you have nothing I want. You and I don’t owe each other anything.

I remember a distant time ago being concerned for your happiness. (Perhaps you can remember this also). But that is no longer true. I may miss the brother I never had, but you and I share nothing. There is nothing to miss. There is no one to “friend.” Your happiness or success, or unhappiness or failure is in no way fastened to mine.

I ask for nothing in response to this note. J.”

images-1This letter went unsent. But life offered me an opportunity this past spring when I unexpectedly ran into him while shopping for a used car for my daughter. My outrage surfaced in a direct, clear, and uncalculated way. He greeted us and asked me why I didn’t contact him to buy our car. The words that came out did so on their own: “If you were to give me a car for free I would happily accept it.” Besides, I didn’t know he was selling used cars. He walked away a bit stunned. I walked away with a decent car and a sense of completion. I did not buy the car from him but from another salesman, whom I knew. The outrage arose spontaneously without any collateral damage. (I am certain that the writing of the unsent letters and several poems on the subject helped.) For me there was no unfinished business, anger or wishes connected to him anymore. We were done. I told the captain to bugger-off and I turned my boat around.

It can be good, when the opportunity is there, for the outrage to have a place to go.

A Few Suggestions on How to be “Properly Outraged” (with little to no collateral damage):

Unknown-1• Write a book about what’s wrong with the world and what can be done about it. Writing such an article, blog, or book is a great way to empower yourself and others. A favorite author of mine, Jon Krakauer has used the pen many times to express his outrage. His recent title, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero Lost His Way is a great expression of outrage.

• If someone is unethical, cruel or even dishonest, maintain eye contact and speak to him or her directly. Depending on the situation, call that person on what you see. At the very least, engage with people in an honest way from your side. Research shows that if we want help while in a crowd, we need to pick someone out and ask for their help specifically. “Hey you with the blue shirt, I’m having trouble here, please help me.” This can work in other situations too – don’t look away, look toward the other.

• Take 100% responsibility for your experience.

• Speak up (even when you are the only one, or especially then). And, as the saying goes: speak up even when your voice shakes.

• Write the outrage down in your journal or in a letter. After you have written it, decide if you want to share it. (I did not send the above letter because I knew he would have shared it with our sick and elderly mother. Turns out he called her the moment I left the used car lot and whined about me not buying the car from him. He is 60 years old.)

• Practice saying, “NO.” Take your time and check things out before committing to something or someone. Con artists and abusers use the same language as religious leaders to induce a conversion experience. This also points to the value of knowing your own mind and what it is you want. Be on alert when someone else is telling you what you want. Feeling outraged at being bossed around is a good thing. Bark back.

omelas• Know the difference between guilt and shame. Feeling guilt is good, and helps us to feel our outrage. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular modern day myth, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, she tells how injustice in this utopia relies on the inhabitants’ inability to feel guilty.

• Don’t be willing to keep another’s secret as your own. Don’t hesitate to share your outrage and story with others. This is beyond just speaking up in the moment but letting others know about the offense. Point injustices out to others.

• Start local. Start small. Even if you find a larger global issue, is there a version of it that is local? Who around you is being mistreated? Let small acts of injustice bring forth relevant outrage. A local café in my area doesn’t give the tips they collect to the wait staff (who work for minimum wage). Instead the store donates tips, on the store’s behalf, to a cause. I don’t eat there and I let others know that the tips don’t go to the wait staff. I also had a conversation with the owner of the café.

• Write a myth (like, Le Guin above), a song, or a poem. The late, great musician and activist Pete Seeger shared his outrage through song and gave us all a way to sing out about injustice. The classic “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (referenced earlier in this article) is a good example.

“Some may find them merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I.” — Pete Seeger in Rolling Stone, April 13, 1972

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About Julie Tallard Johnson

Julie Tallard Johnson is a psychotherapist, creative writing consultant and concept manager for individuals and businesses. She has been studying the scientific basis of thought transformation, inspiration, and creativity for 35 years. She is the author of several books, her latest, The Zero Point Agreement: How To Be Who You Already Are is available now in paperback and Kindle. She is a writing instructor at the UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. She enjoys being a writer for Blogcritics and is in search of her next article. She lives in rural Wisconsin on 40 acres of restored prairie and woods.
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