Friday, October 13, 2006

The Plain Truth about Anger

I'm tired. Over the last few days and weeks, as the abortion wars have heated up here, I've felt angrier than I've felt in a long time. I've snapped at my child and partner out of frustration at the state of the world and this state. I've felt hopelessness at the prospect of continuing this battle that never seems to end. I've gotten to a point where I cannot see the humanity in the opposition, and that is never a good place to be. It is how war is justified.

But I can't not be angry, either. There are people who are deliberately misleading the public in order to sway voters. After making numerous statements about the crafting of the abortion ban and the purposefulness with which they allowed no exceptions, spokespeople for the ban are now arguing that there are exceptions and that those who say otherwise are lying. They are also touting EC after doing everything possible to make it nearly impossible to get - and they are telling the public that it can be taken up to two weeks after intercourse, when it is only effective up to 72 hours after intercourse. I am angry because these statements and actions place women at risk.

I need to believe that they are doing all of this out of the mistaken belief that the ends justify the means. I have to believe this because to believe otherwise, I have to see them as evil. And once I do that, I've slipped over into a mindset that does not allow me to see people as fully human, in all the complexity that being human means. Many times, I've ended up on that side, along with some of my political allies.

On that side also are those who believe that Planned Parenthood is a monster, a heartless corporate monster that only wants to line its pockets. But I know the real people who work there - I was one of them. They are my friends. And I can tell you that they are not evil, nor are they lining their pockets. They are people who, much like those who believe that banning abortion will result in saving lives, are trying to create a better world.

For this moment, I have to leave aside all of the arguments about abortion and related issues. I have to focus on one thing: the overwhelming hate that threatens to fill my heart when I allow myself to become drawn into the battle. When I come up against the kind of hate and violence I spoke of the other day, I react in kind. And I'll let you in on a secret: it's not such a mystery to me how that group of people who call themselves "pro-life" could react as they did last weekend. I know what that rage, that frustration, feels like. I remember, years ago, a woman chanting to herself as she left a flyer of fetus pictures on my windshield. I snatched it up and went up to her, intending to simply hand it to her and say, "I'm not interested. Please don't leave your propaganda on my car." I intended to say this in a civil and kind manner. But when I reached her, my hands began to shake, my heartbeat accelerated, and suddenly I was red-faced and shouting, forcing the suddenly-crumpled flyer into her closed arms while she continued chanting about killing babies. I backed away, still shaking, suddenly near tears. My anger had overwhelmed me.

Eight years ago this month, a doctor in my city was murdered in his own home. Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed by James Kopp in act of Christian extremist terrorism. I remember the feeling that persisted in the city over the next months. We were afraid to gather in protest, but we did it anyway. When Operation Save America declared war on Buffalo, we were there to keep the clinics open. When their supporters phoned in death threats to the area's gay bars, we were there to watch for suspicious behavior and to call 911. When I walked down the street toward the protest and a woman who prided herself on her Christian ethics screamed - without provocation - "you fucking slut!" at me; when the protesters who streamed into Western New York from Kentucky and Tennessee set up their loudspeakers and informed us smugly that, "since we didn't see you in church last Sunday, we're going to bring church to you"; when an 8-year-old child's parents sent him across enemy lines to approach me and ask me why I wanted to kill babies; when all of this happened, I hated. The battle lines had been drawn, and they stood on one side, while we stood on the other. They were not my neighbors. They were my enemies, coming in from foreign places to do us harm.

In South Dakota, my neighbors and I are often very different, yet we know each other in contexts of our similar lives. I talk to the people I meet in line at the coffee shop or the ones I sit next to at the playground. We talk about the coffee, the kids, the weather - we find our common ground. We rarely talk about our political differences. Political differences, after all, have little to do with such real-life interactions. And so this is how it is that my son's adopted grandmother and I have diametrically opposed politics. This is why it is that I don't discuss homosexuality with the women I know from childbirth class - strong feminists, but also committed conservative Christians, so that the very language we use makes it hard to talk about these issues. We try, patiently, to find the things we have in common, and we forge these bonds across our differences.

As I drove home from work two days ago, I passed several "Vote Yes for Life" signs showing each resident's support of the abortion ban. Suddenly, these people were no longer people in my mind. They were not the women I meet in the grocery store, the acquaintances I run into at the gym. I envisioned them all as cloned Leslee Unruhs (a local anti-choice activist whose humanity I am having particular trouble remembering). They were not my neighbors. They were the enemy.

When we look at each other and see the enemy,

And so when I forget that the people I write about, wrong as they might be, furious as they make me, are flawed and human, just as I am, then I have failed. To be clear: I haven't failed the pro-choice movement, or any other political movement, because political movements depend in large part on rhetoric and a constant, unquestioning focus on the goal of the movement. Hate is sometimes a by-product of political movements, not because movements urge us to hate but because they urge us to see things in black and white, as dichotomies, and our tiny minds cannot allow us to simultaneously have intense feelings about an issue, have this polarity, and see people on the other side as just like us.

So I have failed myself and I have failed my God. I haven't been the person I want to be. And you can see this in my writings about abortion. I don't know how to be rightfully, even righteously, angry and yet not hate.

It is too hard, we think, to try to get along and work together. And it really is - it's too hard. But if we don't do it, then there really is no hope.