By Celia Coates
1954, like 2017, was a time of investigations, divisive politics, and anger. Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun his rise to prominence in 1950 and by 1954 he was the center of the Army-McCarthy Hearings. That was the year Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, published this poem,
The Angry Man
The other day I chanced to meet
An angry man upon the street –
A man of wrath, a man of war,
A man who truculently bore
Over his shoulder like a lance,
A banner labeled “Tolerance.”
And when I asked him why he strode
Thus scowling down the human road,
Scowling, he answered, “I am he
Who champions total liberty –
Intolerance being, ma’am, a state
No tolerant man can tolerate.
“When I meet rogues, “ he cried, “who choose
To cherish oppositional views,
Lady, like this, and in this manner,
I lay about me with my banner
Till they cry mercy, ma’am.” His blows
Rained proudly on prospective foes.
Fearful, I turned and left him there
Still muttering, as he thrashed the air,
“Let the Intolerant beware!”
This is light verse on a non-light subject. I don’t know whether Mrs. McGinley (as this proud poet-housewife was called) was commenting on the current events of 1954, but in an interview with Ingrid Wendt she said, “In times of unrest and fear, it is perhaps the writer’s duty to celebrate, to single out some values we can cherish, to talk about some of the few warm things we know in a cold world.” *
And here is a paragraph from my favorite how-to-guide by a pediatrician,
There is something about pacifiers that upsets parents, particularly fathers. I have a vivid memory of a father of a patient of mine who was chomping and chewing on an unlit cigar, saying to me, ‘If there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s a pacifier.” When I pointed out his own oral activities, the best he could reply was, ‘Well, that is different.’ He did not specify what ‘that’ was or even how it was different. The best answer to this father and others in the anti-pacifier wing of this country was supplied by a precocious pacifier-user aged three. He was sitting quietly in a chair, sucking on his pacifier in a roomful of his parents’ friends. A lady who caught sight of him launched into a strong attack against pacifiers. She complained that they were a bad habit, they were ‘dirty,’ and she could not see how parents could let their child have one. The child listened for a while, turned toward the speaker, and said, ‘Hurts you?’ ” **
Both of these quotes are about strong attacks by people who feel they are at liberty to express their intolerance. The speaker in Mrs. McGinley’s poem chooses to walk away and that’s certainly one way to deal with people angrily expressing their opinions, but I think there is brilliance in the question – “Hurts you?” – that the three-year-old asks.
It is wise to begin with his question as we wrestle with intolerance. Can we understand what might be hurting that aggressively opinionated person, that “man of wrath”? This is not a time of calm and comfort and most of us are invested in very strong opinions on one side or another. Sometimes I find myself puzzled, affronted, or impatient with other people’s views. “How can they think like that! I don’t get where they are coming from!” My lack of understanding can become intolerance pretty quickly. “They are just wrong!” Then I can feel my anger increasing. Intolerance springs from our own emotions, so we need to investigate what is “hurting” us, what’s threatening us and making us angry. It’s easier to believe that the problem lies in those “rogues” who “choose to cherish oppositional views,” but it might be better to start by understanding and coping with our own feelings.
Anger is a gift – it is part of an alerting system that helps us defend ourselves. When we are angry, it’s useful to ask, “What is the threat here?” And to explore an answer to the question, “What am I afraid of?” There is a battle of opinions going on around the world – it’s a loud and destructive fight as people struggle to defend themselves and their ways of life. The problem is that the battle is often going on inside us as well as around us. It is really easy to be intolerant of intolerance and to fall into the trap of The Angry Man, but we can refuse to add to the world’s turmoil.
(It is also important if we want to “go vertical” – as last week’s post discussed – to master our out-of-balance emotions.)
* * * *
* Ingrid Wendt, “Turning to Poems” in Valparaiso Poetry Review quoted in Wikipedia
** HOW TO RAISE CHILDREN AT HOME IN YOUR SPARE TIME, by Marvin J. Gersh, M.D., Stein and Day/Fawcett Books, 1966
With thanks to Carol Snarr for mentioning the poem by Phyllis McGinley.