By now certainly you've heard of Steven Slater, the flight attendant who, suffering one too many abusive passengers, cursed the last offender over the intercom, activated the plane's emergency escape slide, grabbed a beer and slid to the tarmac. Slater became an instant folk hero. "Free Steven Slater" T-shirts are popping up all over the country.
Slater had finally had it with wrongs he was supposed to accept. When that passenger slammed the lid of an overhead bin on his head, airline rules told him he had to act with restraint. This time, he didn't.
Americans identify with Steven Slater. When economic recovery means upticks on the Dow and no real progress in creating jobs, we're supposed to be accepting. When our country engages in misbegotten and/or unwinnable foreign adventures, we're supposed to watch the coffins coming home and salute. When our elected leaders fail to even address serious problems like climate change and energy, we're supposed to wait until the next election, as if that will change a system of governance corrupted by money and cowardice. When we see the gap between rich and poor destroying the very fabric of our public life, we're supposed to try harder to be rich ourselves.
But mostly we are angry because we sense we are being deprived of hope despite the rhetoric of a hopeful President. External forces from Lehman Brothers to BP to the government of Pakistan seem to control so much that affects the quality of our lives. How many of us would like to scream, as did Howard Beale in the 1976 classic Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!!" How can anyone be surprised at the Tea Party's success in riding this wave?
There's a second story. Tuesday night there was a brawl in major league baseball between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals. Fights happen in sports and the only thing special about this one was the reaction on sports talk radio the following morning. The consensus among hosts and guests was that the brawl was a good thing, not just because it had helped revive flagging interest in baseball, but that it added juice to fans' lives. It became clear, listening, that both pundits and fans agreed that violent anger in sports generated excitement in fans when so little else in their lives did. So bring it on.
Nobody expressed the thought quite this way, but the point of these commentators and their call-in guests was clear: we Americans have lost the passion and energy that makes life fun and exciting, and watching others lash out (and presumably lashing out ourselves) can pull us back from the land of the living dead.
Put these two stories together. The reaction to Stephen Slater shows how angry we are as a people at the injustices and incompetence that steadily are demeaning our economic and social lives--while we are being told to stuff that anger and accept the hands we're dealt by forces over which we perceive we have no control. The reaction to the baseball brawl offers an outlet: exercising our anger through applauding violence makes us feel better; it wakes us up and rekindles our passions. This outlet is not just for sports fans. The message is that if you see someone or something you don't like, then let your anger rip, perhaps not with a punch, but by shouting threats, sending vitriol to the local newspaper, posting anonymous crap on websites--or applauding those who do. Do this, and you'll feel alive again.
These are limited and dangerous choices. I see another option. For almost 30 years I've been a leader of the Giraffe Heroes Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to move people to stick their necks out for the common good and to give them tools to succeed. Over this time we've honored over 1,100 "Giraffe Heroes," people acting with courage and compassion to help solve the public problems they care most about. When we tell the stories of these special people, others are inspired to take on the problems they see. It's a simple strategy. It works and now we're doing it worldwide.
Giraffe Heroes take on tough and sometimes dangerous tasks. When we ask them what gets them started and keeps them going, nearly all of them tell us that their motivation comes from doing something that's meaningful to them, something they care about at the core of their beings.
Is this an answer to America's anger? What if we reacted to injustice and incompetence not by throwing a real or figurative punch or sliding down an escape chute, but by zeroing in on some problem we really care about and then taking action to helping solve it, whether that be at home or further afield? What if, like Giraffe Heroes, we saw these problems as challenges calling forth not just our anger, but our passion, creativity, and our commitment to genuinely make things better? What if we met injustice and insult by pouring everything we've got into taking the risks, making the moves, forging the networks and partnerships needed to get the results we say we want? What if we countered every lie we hear with truth, and accepted the conflicts that result? What if we challenged every complacent bone in our bodies, and in others' bodies and stuck our necks out to make a difference?
What if, after, "I'm not going to take this anymore," we added, "and here's what I'm going to do about it?"