The Role of Rage (or When “Gratitude” Is NOT Good)

Gratitude is GOOD, say gurus in integrative medicine and pop psychology. In fact, according to Dr. Tanmeet Sethi of Seattle, Washington, “gratitude practice” works better than a pill and can transform patients’ mindsets as they grapple with chronic illness, pain, loss of function, and even their own mortality. She makes several fair, even important points: food is medicine, daily health practices often dictate medical outcomes, we can choose the lenses through which we view painful situations, etc. In Dr. Sethi’s captivating TEDx Talk, she shares how “gratitude practice” helps her cope with the illness of her son, who struggles with the debilitating, degenerative effects of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (MD). Gratitude, Dr. Sethi, explained, helped transform her pain into empowerment and more importantly, appreciation for every moment, even difficult ones.

Okay, gratitude IS good. Except when it really isn’t. Recently, Dr. Sethi appeared on The Record with Bill Radke on KUOW-Seattle, here. The interview becomes cringe-worthy in parts: how can we humans embrace gratitude in the face of war, oppression, poverty, rape, murder, income inequality, political disenfranchisement, etc., Radke asked? Dr. Sethi served up some unsatisfying platitudes and then answered the question later in her blog, When life feels unfair or cruel, is there really any space for gratitude? Dr. Sethi offered:

We must create so much light around and within us that we transcend this darkness.
And one way to create that light is through gratitude. Every small step (no matter how minuscule you may think the step is) of gratefulness we can find in the midst of burning pain, the fact is we are creating a spark of light in the darkness.

This explanation, however, makes as much sense to me as the word salad spit out by the Deepak Chopra random quote generator, HERE, like “Your desire is a modality of exponential destiny.” And if those words mean what I think they mean, then they echo the meditations of Elie Wiesel, famed Holocaust survivor and author of Night, on gratitude in the face of adversity. But Wiesel recognized a truly important distinction that is missing from Dr. Sethi’s discussion about the role and efficacy of “gratitude”–namely, the critical difference between horrors visited upon humanity by

Acts of Nature (God) v. Acts of Man

Acts of Nature (God) include major life events over which we humans have very little control such as death, aging, chronic or terminal illness, the loss of our parents, genetic anomalies and natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, etc. These life events strike everyone in some way, at one time or another: rain falls in every life, I’ve learned. And no doubt, they strike some more cruelly and frequently than others. These Acts of Nature (God) remind us of our ultimate powerlessness over matters as important as our own health, safety and death. Anyone who has faced such ultimate issues, with themselves or with loved ones, has probably already dredged up that weary feeling of helplessness just by reading this sentence. I get it, and when such life events strike, “gratitude practice” probably helps heal many hurts, psychological and physical. After all, “gratitude practice” is simple cognitive reframing, a tool in every mental health professional’s toolbelt.

But “gratitude practice” can also dull us to REASONABLE RAGE resulting from Acts of Man, both on the macro and micro level. Micro Acts of Man include interpersonal breaches like murder, child sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence . . . terrible acts perpetrated by another human, with volition. Macro Acts of Man, by contrast, include the creation and maintenance of social, economic, educational, corporate and political institutions that perpetuate the systemic oppression of others, such as wealth inequality, race discrimination, gerrymandering, pollution of low income areas and Native lands, white collar crime, voting restrictions, unequal pay, sexual harassment, educational resource disparities and the opportunity gap . . .

These Acts of Man are not accidents either; rather, they are the intentional byproducts of a conservatism unwilling to share power amid a rapidly changing American demographic.

“Gratitude practice,” as an ostensibly rational response to these Acts of Man, risks replacing RELIGION as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions . . . the opium of the people.” In effect, “gratitude practice” intentionally overrides rational Rage about these unjust Acts of Man and is, therefore, palliative not curative.

One of my favorite anecdotes involves two college girlfriends who were returning to our school together from winter break. As they made their way through the grueling Chicago traffic, one of them heard a strange noise coming from the car and remarked, “I hear a weird noise coming from the car.” In response, the other simply turned up the radio. Loud. Really loud. Bon Jovi, Man.

I screamed with laughter when I first heard this story decades ago, especially since it turned out that they had a flat tire. Really flat . . . with sparks flying off bent rims. What a silly response to a problem, I teased. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve observed that many people–maybe even MOST people–would rather turn up the radio than fix the tire. In effect, they would rather FEEL better about the problem or make it EASIER to IGNORE than take reasonable, rational steps to rectify it. The current opioid crisis highlights a swath of Americans who would rather dull the pain of their life circumstances than improve them, as though powerless to affect meaningful change. Heck, most Americans are so device-distracted that they simply do not notice (or choose not to notice) the measurable lack of progress with respect to important social reforms initiated over 50 years ago:

  • LBJ’s War on Poverty has become an all-out War on the Poor, as the GOP cuts benefits for millions of Americans who need them. In fact, Trump recently announced that states may require Medicaid recipients to WORK for benefits.  Given that 2/3 of all Medicaid recipients are medically unable to work, this policy position is ridiculously cruel.
  • The great 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that culminated in the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stalled out at least 15 years ago based upon several metrics:
    • the progress of women, African-Americans and Latinos toward achieving Official/Manager jobs;
    • on-going job segregation patterns, whereby minorities/women occupy low-paying jobs, and Asians and White disproportionately occupy higher-paying technical and managerial positions;
    • the disparate impact of market fluctuations across racial and gender classifications, such that economic downturns affect African-Americans, Latinos, and women far more heavily; and,
    • the on-going sexualization of working women, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement; etc.
  • The income inequality gap continues to widen despite repeated rhetoric about how the recent tax cuts benefit the middle class and how the GOP is the “party of the people.” When viewed through the multiple lenses used in sound public policy analysis, the GOP’s policy positions have proven downright harmful to Earth and ALL its inhabitants, except their mega-rich donors.
  • The opportunity gap (i.e. the socioeconomic conditions in which poor children lack resources to nurture their talents but rich children have enough resources to contribute little to society) continues to broaden.
  • Trump just branded nations with brown citizens as “shithole countries,” laying bare his blatant racism against most Americans.

Instead gratitude for these “Acts of Man,” we SHOULD feel Rage. Unlike Acts of Nature (God) with external and uncertain loci of control, we humans in Western society have organized ourselves into political and legal systems where redress is theoretically possible, especially through COLLECTIVE ACTION. Rage rouses us to ACT: instead of turning to gratitude for the crumbs our damaged political and economic “machines” have dispensed to the majority of Americans, the majority of Americans SHOULD allow their socioeconomic Rage to transform the political milieu that keeps these machines humming along . . . instead of attempting to feel better about these realities through “gratitude,” religion, drug and alcohol abuse, and the semi-conscious state of “device dementia,” we should draw on our Rage, join with others, and actively seek change.

Rage plays an important role in societal change. And perhaps gratitude practice and Rage are not mutually exclusive, a blossoming middle ground whereby gratitude and Rage can exist side-by-side. For example, over 20 years after earning Master of Social Work and Juris Doctor (Law) degrees, I am grateful that the cruel inequalities all around me still inspire me to grieve, to rage, to speak and to work. I am grateful that my Rage connects me to other people with a passion for similar issues. I am grateful for hope and the belief that collectively, inspired by Rage that comes with simple observation, we can pave the path forward for the generations marching behind us.

But first, we must get mad.


Merrily S. Archer, Esq., M.S.W.

January 12, 2018