If I got my whole picture of the world from reading the news and people’s comments on it, I’d probably see the world as a place where everyone was in a state of perpetual outrage about something. People even get outraged about a dip in the overall level of public outrage. “Where is the outrage?” editorials demand. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” bumper stickers accuse.
One reason our culture sees outrage as important, I think, is that we tend to equate outrage with compassion and working for change. If you aren’t outraged about this government policy, the situation in that country, the acts of this public official, and so on, we assume, you must not care and you must not be interested in doing anything about it.
Non-Outraged Service Is Possible
But do we really have to be outraged to be motivated to serve others? In my experience, the answer is no. When I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter preparing meals for the guests, I didn’t do it because I hated homelessness or blamed somebody for it. I did it because I wanted a chance to serve, and I know many others who regularly do the same.
Mahatma Gandhi is a much larger-scale example. Gandhi’s strategy for bringing about India’s independence grew out of his spiritual practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Ahimsa, to Gandhi, didn’t just mean not killing others — it meant letting go of hatred and judgment as well. Although he didn’t hate the British Empire, he peacefully and successfully opposed its rule. Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King are two other well-known examples of people whose role in creating massive social change grew out of their spiritual practice and desire to be of service, rather than their negativity.
What examples like Gandhi and King also illustrate is that it’s possible to criticize some practice or policy without demonizing the people responsible for it. If we disagree with what someone said or did, we don’t have to make them our enemy to say what we think. We can calmly and firmly state our opinion without calling them a liar, idiot or sociopath. We can also take action from a place of inner peace.
Outrage and the Ego
In fact, I think, outrage is often a cloak for our ego — for our desire to feel superior to someone else. In a state of outrage, we’re almost always blaming somebody and portraying them as immoral, dishonest, selfish, or something else. And this gives us the momentary high of feeling like we’re more righteous, honest, or caring than them. Much of the news we watch and read seems devoted to giving us a “righteousness fix” — the obsessive coverage of scandals involving politicians, actors, and so on seems geared toward giving us someone to feel better than.
I’m not saying that anger, or even outrage, has no value and should be repressed. There are moments when we need to defend ourselves. If someone is physically attacking me, anger can be the fuel that mobilizes my body into action.
But the kinds of things we usually get outraged about aren’t threats to our lives. Political debates, conflicts in our work and relationships, and similar issues don’t normally endanger our survival. To put these situations in perspective — like I said in an earlier post — I think it’s useful, whenever we find ourselves getting heated and tense inside, to ask ourselves whether we’re truly in physical danger. And to take a deep breath, relax our bodies, and let that burning desire to be “right” pass away.
Inside Personal Growth Interview
I recently did an interview about my book, Inner Productivity, with Greg Voisen of Inside Personal Growth. We talked about many useful exercises for developing focus and motivation in your work, and how the ideas in the book can be useful strategies for living in addition to just getting your work done. The interview was a pleasure for me to do and I hope you enjoy it.