The Intersection of Ambition, Anger and Fear

In my book Two Cheers for Democracy, the correlation between anger and disgust (versus happiness) and being a totalitarian leader was clear-cut. China’s Xi Jinping fits the mold, leaving Betsy DeVos a wanna-be dictator.
Don’t let Xi Jinping’s smile or Betsy DeVos’s fear fool you; they’re both determined as can be.

Lately, I’ve been obsessing over how anger and fear are often two sides of the very same coin: fight-or-flight responses to danger. I got there, first, due to the three-headed monster of Covid-19, the resulting economic tailspin, and the justified civil unrest ignited by the murder of George Floyd. In every case people feel uncertainty, a sense of circumstances beyond their control. Where things get emotionally complex is that fear can turn into anger. That’s because the anxiety that comes with uncertainty can—in an emotional sleight-of-hand maneuver—be “resolved” by anger that offers relief from danger by compelling us forward to take charge of our destiny. (See my earlier blog, Anger Management: Emojis Cloud the Picture)

So I started my obsession by seeing how fear and anger intertwine around the issue of control. Then I started looking more broadly at another intersection: between ambition and a desire for control. That step brings me today to China’s leader Xi Jinping and to the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

I can’t think of anybody more ambitious on the world stage right now than Xi. From the crackdown in Hong Kong, to almost daily military incursions into the waterways and air space of Taiwan, to suppressing the birthrate in the Muslim province of Xinjiang, China is on the march. And that’s just a part of Xi’s goal of overturning the previous century of Western domination. Look at Xi’s facial expressions and the one constant is low-grade smiles tightened by the presence of anger. And yet underlying that anger is concern about whether China’s Communist Party can maintain its control over its vast population. 

Turning to America’s home front, DeVos’s facial expressions on national TV this past weekend were a study in fear. How to justify sending students and teachers back into the classroom this fall with a pandemic raging and no meaningful federal government response? From Fox News to CNN, DeVos dutifully made the media rounds: angerly supporting Donald Trump’s threat to cut off funds to school districts that don’t comply by opening up again soon. At the same time, however, that DeVos’s words ran hot her face betrayed anxiety whenever she was challenged by a news anchor to explain how this will all work. Open-eyed looks and rising eyebrows did nothing to convey assurance that this will all work out as not-planned. What didn’t waver was DeVos’s long-cherished goal of challenging the validity of public schools, given her faith- and class-based preference for “saving America” with more private, parochial schools.

This week’s new podcast is also to no small degree about fear, anger and ambition. My interview of novelist Siri Hustvedt concerns the character of S.H., who moves to New York City to become a writer and must cope with isolation, self-doubt and slights, large and small, from various men –culminating in a guy attempting to rape her. That scene falls at literally the midpoint of the novel, with half its pages still to follow. And there at the heart of the book occurs a change of heart, as S.H.’s greater assertiveness is manifested most clearly in the pocketknife that she begins to carry around with her for self-protection.

Now, not everyone carries a knife (or a gun). But in every case, anger can become a virtual weapon—perpetuating harm—or a benign source of self-empowerment. The choice of how we utilize anger lies at least somewhat within our conscious powers of control. Stay tuned: anger and fear aren’t going anywhere. Those two emotions will undergird almost every major news story you read for the rest of 2020. Of that much, I can assure you.  

Coping with Danger: How to Build Up Your Resiliency

Mysteries of Time & Memory

Released today: episode 10 of Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight podcast, featuring Siri Hustvedt, the author of the novel Memories of the Future. Listen to the clip below and click on the image to get to the new episode.

Esteemed novelist Siri Hustvedt foreshadowed the #metoo movement with her novel about a young women who fights against male condescension.
The novelist investigates the vagaries of memory as recollection changes every narrative.

How Do We Write Our Personal History at the Same Time That It’s Written for Us?

The Literary Review (UK) has called Hustvedt “a twenty-first-century Virginia Woolf.” She’s the author of seven novels, four collections of essays, and two works of nonfiction. Hustvedt has a PhD in English literature from Columbia University and lectures in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the European Essay Prize.

Topics covered in this episode include:

  • What it can mean to be a heroine instead of a hero, including in regards to which emotions might conventionally be considered “off-limits.”
  • The role that the author’s over-a-dozen drawings play in this novel.
  • Musings on what the roots of ambition might be, and how ambition and shame, as well as memory and imagination are often intertwined.

Dan Hill, PhD, is the president of Sensory Logic, Inc.