We’ve all got good at shouting says Mark Greene, but is it about the right things?
Here’s a theory: when a society loses the capacity to care about things that really matter it ends up caring far too much about things that hardly matter at all.
But we’ll come to that.
My wife and I have been entrusted not only with two sons but also with one daughter. Her name is Anna-Marie Gabriella Greene and she is 12 years old. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself getting angry about something. I hope you are finding this very difficult, nay almost impossible, to believe.
Anna-Marie’s response was to tell me to: ‘Chill out, Dad. Listen to your tone of voice.’ Now, you need to know that she is quite the best debater in our family and I would back her to get a pay rise out of Scrooge, an apology from Paxman and a recantation from Cranmer. Anyway, Anna-Marie’s exhortation, I have to confess, only served to wind me up tighter. I was now angrier for two reasons: 1. because my anger was showing and thereby ruining my self-image as a paragon of paternal patience 2. because she was suggesting that I was angrier than was appropriate.
Surely, I wasn’t that wound up? I was perfectly calm. Telling me to chill out – harrrumph. And, oh, what a clever tactic: suggesting that my response was disproportionate to the crime or peccadillo or minor inconvenience involved. I would like to tell you that my daughter’s assessment was entirely wrong but, alas, and alack, and thrice ‘woe’, she was right. The question is: why was I reacting disproportionately? Well, this isn’t Hello magazine and it certainly isn’t the Jeremy Kyle show so I’ll keep it to myself.
Suffice it to say that over-reaction is often a symptom of deeper issues. King David, adulterer and murderer of a captain in his own army, calls for the death sentence of a rich man for stealing a poor man’s lamb – a disproportionate response triggered by the unconfessed guilt of stealing another man’s wife.
So here’s the question: do we see evidence of a similar disproportionality in our society as a whole? And if so, what is it concealing?
As I write this in late November, we are at war in Afghanistan, we have 2.47 million people unemployed, our planet is sick from the ocean-floor to the tip of the ozone layer, and what do we really care about? Jedward. Apparently millions of us care passionately. One of the reasons we care, I suspect, is because the twins, and specifically their lack of singing talent, have raised issues of fairness. Is it fair that people who sing very poorly should survive longer in a singing competition than those who can’t? In addition, Jedward’s survival (until they were voted off on 22nd November) also raised the question of whether Simon Cowell’s decision not to send them home when they came in the bottom two was actually an indication that the ratings of his show (and therefore his earnings) are actually more important to him than his duty to judge talent impartially. Emails poured in excoriating him. Others called on the public to stop watching X Factor.
People hate injustice
At least, people hate the injustices they care about. So the good news is that we have a Britain with people who hate injustice – at least we hate the footballer’s dive in the penalty area or Henry’s handball in France v Ireland. The bad news is that, on the whole, we get worked up about the wrong causes.
But, oh, we do get worked up. Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder whether ‘rage’ is the new cool. Rebecca Adlington is insulted by Frankie Boyle on Mock the Week, and she not only demands an apology but considered legal action. The Prime Minister, who is in the middle of the worst financial crisis the country has faced for 70 years, finds time to handwrite a letter to the mother of a dead soldier but misspells her fallen son’s name. Well, we can certainly understand her disappointment and hurt but the media went after Gordon Brown with all the restraint of a pack of wolves in pursuit of a baby deer. There was absolutely no consideration of the fact that here was a Prime Minister who takes the death of each soldier so seriously that he makes time to handwrite a letter. Yes, someone should have checked it. However, what does it say about us, when we are so eagle-eyed about small errors and so blind to the bigger picture?
We have lost generosity of spirit and we have lost the great biblical virtue of forbearance. The more we recognise how much we’ve been forgiven ourselves, the more we are likely to restrain our ire. We count to ten, not simply to restrain our tempers but to reflect on grace received.
That said, beyond these manifestations of anger, there is a wider trend to dignify intense emotion. People no longer give 100%, they give 110%. People no longer give 110% they give 180%. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of hyperbole to make a point but in the end this endless emotional inflation makes almost all statements of emotional commitment meaningless.
Indeed, everywhere we turn in our culture the emotional temperature has been turned up. We are not meant to just like our Blackberry’s but ‘love’ them, we are not just meant to appreciate our shampoo but to find ecstatic erotic pleasure from using Herbal Essence. Similarly, the coverage of the ups and downs of football results reveals an almost hysterical, hyper-overreactive disproportionality. One defeat and Manchester United are no longer title contenders; a month of bad form and the best central defender in the UK is a has-been hack horse who needs to be consigned to the knacker’s yard. One loose word and you are my enemy forever.
Now, this broader trend towards disproportionality may have several roots. In the case of anger, it may stem, and probably does, from our lack of national purpose and identity, and a sense of growing impotence to affect the direction of our own lives.
It may stem from a lack of forgiveness of others and ourselves. How many people are angry with their bosses, angry with their companies, angry that they feel trapped, angry that things haven’t worked out as they wanted, angry that others in their family are angry and disappointed with them for not being able to leave home later, get home earlier, make more money?
Our disproportionality of response may also stem from the reality that we are, as a nation, stressed and exhausted. Indeed, tired we are. We still work longer hours than anyone else in the EU and probably spend more time commuting. And Christians are not immune. The survey LICC conducted with 3,000 Spring Harvest guests revealed that 55% of them cited tiredness as the No 1 barrier to their own spiritual development. Stress was No 2, also at 55% but just a little farther away from 56%. It’s not just kids who behave badly when they are tired.
Still, it’s the combination of tiredness and purposelessness that’s really devastating. After all, it’s one thing to be stressed and exhausted in the middle of the Second World War, at least you have a noble cause that’s worth being tired for, but it’s quite another to be tired when you don’t think your life is very significant.
So, our increasing emotionalism as a nation, our increasing predilection to anger may actually be not only symptoms of our emotional hollowness and fragility but in some cases an attempt to give our lives a sense of importance. ‘See, how strongly I feel about this. I’m alive. I care. I’m a real person. Listen to me.’ In Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album, there’s a song about Outlaw Pete, an evil man who did evil things. His constant refrain is: ‘Can you hear me?’ As if his terrible behaviour was simply an attempt to get some love and attention.
Can we hear?
And can we develop our own ability to respond with appropriate levels of emotion? We are, after all, created as emotional beings and as Matthew Eliot put it in his book Faithful Feelings: ‘To be like Christ is not only to behave like Christ but also to feel like Christ. Christ could act out of his emotions because his emotions were based on the right things. To be conformed to his image is to be able to act out of feelings because the feelings are based on the truth of the gospel.’
Naturally, I’m aware that diagnosing a nation’s pathology and offering a path towards a biblical emotional literacy takes more than 1,200 words, but I’ve go to stop NOW. You have no idea how incandescent those Christianity editors get when I write too many words.