I don't say this lightly. I'm not a believer in anger. Anger is an emotional appendix, a feeling that has long outlived its evolutionary purpose. In our world, expressing anger does not get constructive results. It does foment violence in the home, in the schoolyard, on the streets, and between states. It drives couples apart, traps children in the middle of divorce, turns town meetings into free-for-alls, furthers the causes of reactionaries who shout down information they'd rather not here, and thus furthers the descent of this nation, this world, into the inferno of climate change. Anger gets us nowhere.
I've believed this most of my life. Expressing anger, however justified, has never yielded a result I coveted. In fact, however I have expressed my anger--and that includes the vaunted "I statement"--has always made matters worse. Always.
And yet I feel it. However dedicated I may be to detachment, however logically I may seek to talk down the passion stirring in me, I feel it; and as is so often the case with my anger, it is impotent.
What's angering me is news I received from my son, Sean, yesterday afternoon. He was fired.
For those of you who haven't met Sean, or heard me talk about him, or read what I've written about him, here's a capsule summary: Sean barely survived being born. A flaw in his pulmonary system kept him from breathing properly for the first four hours of his life. This trauma created a cascade of other physical issues, most of which he miraculously overcame within a few weeks. He was left with one visible scar--a Harry-Potteresque lightning mark on his forehead from a leaky IV--but the real damage did not manifest itself until he was four, and began to suffer from seizures. His brain had rerouted itself around the damage done by that neonatal trauma, and the result was epilepsy. It took years to bring the seizures under control--drugs were useless; the magic bullet was a bizarre, rigorous diet--but he rarely experiences them anymore. The developmental delay, however, was permanent. Meeting Sean, who is now 22, it might take you awhile to realize he's different. At first, he just seems like a tall, nerdy young man, with slightly immature cultural tastes, who's friendly, polite, and empathetic. Because he does have an emotional intelligence, he knows when people are being cruel and making jokes at his expense. Unfortunately, he lacks the quick wits to react in fruitful ways.
Sean worked for Sam's Club, a Costco-like warehouse store chain operated by Wal-Mart, as a cart associate. If you bought a TV, he'd be the young man pushing the cart out to your vehicle and helping you load your purchase. Sean was proud of his work, and his friendly attitude was well-received by patrons of the Idaho Falls store. Friday, one of those patrons engaged him in a conversation.
I don't know all the details. I do know this: the man had a bumper sticker that used the word "Libtard." (I've looked it up on Urban Dictionary, and I don't think it means what the man thought it did.) He apparently asked Sean how he felt about the sticker, and Sean responded, quite honestly, that it was offensive to him. Sean considers himself a liberal, but the offense runs far deeper: for people with his challenges, attaching the suffix "tard" to anything is an assault on basic human dignity. The man reacted to Sean's comment with a tirade, telling him it was people like Sean who were fucking up America, and that he would come back after work and beat Sean up. He then went into the store and complained to management about Sean who, when he reported for work the next day, was informed that he had been fired.
Before I go into why this makes me angry, I'll stipulate several things. It is never a good idea for an employee to enter into a philosophical, moral, religious, or political discussion with a patron. Further, when encountering an individual with an ax to grind, the best course of action is to politely turn down any efforts by that individual to engage in any conversation that might bring up such issues. Wal-Mart as a privately-owned corporation with a non-unionized work force is well within its legal rights to dismiss employees without cause, and to do it with impunity, making no allowance for any explanations, excuses, or conditions those employees may have for whatever actions they took that violated corporate policy. And finally (and this is a calculation I do internally whenever I find one child bullying another), I know that aggressive behavior like that displayed by this particular patron almost certainly grows out of experiences of being abused emotionally and physically, and of conditions of unemployment and disempowerment that have left him bitter, angry, impotent, with no way to address his pain other than to bully a disabled cart boy in the Sam's Club parking lot, then get him fired.
I understand all this. I stipulate it. And still I'm angry; and like the anger of the man with the offensive bumper sticker, it's an impotent anger, because I know there's not much I can do about it.
As much as I understand where this man's bullying nature came from, I'm angry at individuals like him who, when I was a child living in Idaho, bullied me mercilessly. I'm angry at others like him who did the same things to my younger brothers when they were growing up in Oregon. I'm angry that they visit their pain on the less powerful rather than seeking help. I'm angry that the systems surrounding them did not intervene and offer them that help (as we do in the schools where I teach). I'm angry that these same systems so rarely identify both perpetrators and victims, and that when a victim attempts to take a stand and resist the violence, he or she can become as much a victim of the system as of the bully.
I'm angry at the system, angry that a huge corporation can bully its way into a local economy, forcing prices to collapse and small businesses to close, then becoming the only employer for desperate workers who have no choice but to accept lower wages, reduced benefits, and soulless managers who can and will fire them for little or no cause.
I'm angry and I'm impotent. Wal-Mart doesn't have to care about losing me as a customer. I rather doubt that I've made more than two or three purchases at a Wal-Mart in the last decade. It doesn't have to worry about its abusive policies hurting its bottom line in Idaho Falls, either. There's no real competition; and that's true of most local economies where Wal-Mart and Sam's Club operate. There's also no competition for workers: the company can always find more drones to replace those who leave, whether involuntarily or on their own. I can write to Wal-Mart, as can people who know Sean and are angered by this action, and it may even get him his job back. But it won't change the corporate culture that sides with a reactionary bully over a disabled employee. Wal-Mart is simply too big to care.
I've got no power when it comes to the bully, either. He's an anonymous jerk to me, just another angry man in a truck taking out his own impotence on someone with even less power than he has. I've been threatened by men like him on rural roads in Oregon, who take apparent delight in frightening runners and cyclists. I've had them follow my car, blasting their horns angrily because it had a pro-gay rights bumper sticker. Such encounters leave me shaken, angry, and with no recourse.
Sean's angry, too, and far more rightfully than any of the rest of us. He's learned a hard, painful lesson about the way the world really operates, a lesson I wish he could have been spared. It will be tempting to blame the bully, to blame the managers, to blame the corporation they work for, to blame the unforgivingly conservative atmosphere of Idaho; but this could, and does, happen anywhere. With the help of his case worker, he can take steps to try to right the injustice, and he may even get some satisfaction.
But he shouldn't have to. And that is why, again and again, I come back to the pointlessness of staying angry: the world should be a better place for people like Sean. Human beings should be valued simply for being human; and when their quirks, foibles, weaknesses, disabilities interfere with their work, their managers should work with them to transcend those problems and, if possible, capitalize on them.
I've expressed my anger here, and I expect I'll share it in other ways in the days ahead. I will be careful not to channel it into my workplace, and I will, in the coming days, think carefully about situations that anger me, knowing that what I feel may be amplified but what has happened to Sean. In the end, I'll have to let it go. Hanging onto it leads to resentment, fury, depression, and will not change anything.
I hope Sean can learn this lesson, too. I suspect he already has. He's never been one to nurse a grudge. If anything, I could benefit from following his example.
But not today. I'm too angry.