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Starting Point

It doesn’t pay to argue with rage


More and more I find my place in the radical middle. Whether it’s about civil politics, church life or just a family disagreement, I am drawn to seek the truth in the positions of both sides. I long for common ground. I wasn’t always this way. Perhaps one of the graces of getting older is less concern about being right and more desire for the truth -- the truth that leads to peace.

In a recent column, Charles Krauthammer wrote of two common myths: that conservatives think liberals are stupid and liberals think conservatives are mean. Perhaps I’ve been blessed to know too many brilliant liberals and compassionate conservatives to fall into that trap. Krauthammer was writing about civil politics. In the church, conservatives are cast as backward and anti-intellectual and liberals as irreverent and anti-establishment. Again, I’ve known too many who don’t fit the mold. But where to discover the truth among such passionate, knowledgeable, intelligent people who disagree? Might it not be in the radical middle? After all, radical means “root” -- and at our root we must be from the same stock.

One of the dangers of the radical middle position is that you can get squeezed from both sides. Since June I’ve been working with “Faithful St. Louis” -- an effort that is about providing a forum for thoughtful and considerate dialogue among Catholics in the archdiocese of St. Louis. While the vast majority of participants have given positive and even grateful reports of our first gathering on Sept. 21, there have been a few who are condemnatory. And these angry few are from the far left and the far right. A few who could be characterized as “on the left” vilify us for suggesting that we should find ways to work with our bishop to heal what is wounded and restore trust in the church and our leaders. Those who call themselves conservative castigate us for presuming that the bishops would benefit from the insight and cooperation of laypeople.

But what I notice about both sides is that the angry message is the same: “You’re wrong! You’re bad!” It’s difficult to make sense of what someone is saying when they are yelling. The content becomes much less important than the rage. One begins to wonder if rage is the content. That no matter what one does to ameliorate, compromise, negotiate -- still they are raging.

Rage becomes the constant. And you know you’re in the presence of constant rage when the face, even in repose, is angry: the scowl, the squinty, suspicious eyes, the set jaw. The mother’s threat has come true: “If you don’t stop that, your face is going to freeze that way!”

What can you do when faced with rage that will not be pacified? When you begin to suspect that, as unbelievable as it seems, the person prefers rage even to winning?

My first, less healthy tendency is to treat them like a dog gnawing on my leg. I throw them a bone. The fiercer they are, the more precious the bone. Would you like to go out to lunch? Be on the committee? Be the chair? But eventually it becomes clear that even the most precious bones will never satisfy; that what the raging one wants is … well … to rage.

So then what? Then I’ve found it’s best to get real quiet inside. It doesn’t pay to argue with rage. Better to continue to tell the simple truth, over and over again, if necessary. Accept that you are not going to be the agent for change in this person. And pray. That others will see the rage for what it is. That the damage they do isn’t permanent. And that even in the midst of their rage, they are visited with the desire for something better. What a sad life it must be -- to live with such rage. God bless them.

Paige Byrne Shortal is the pastoral associate at St. Francis Borgia Church in Washington, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002