I open Noam Chomsky’s e-mails on weekdays and forward on to him those I can’t take care of, at a second e-mail address. Once in a while I open up a nasty rant from a person who doesn’t like his politics, most likely because they misunderstand his point of view (the beauty of a blog is that I can say what I think, plus, I have been reading these messages for twenty years).
Putting aside his significant work in linguistics, Noam is a prominent human rights activist, a defender of mistreated and voiceless individuals, groups, and countries, and an exposer of problems with mainstream media and US foreign policy. He’s concerned about fracking, tsunamis, the so-called drug war, and the survival of the planet. He participates endlessly in debates and discussions, is an inexhaustible lecturer, holds interviews two days a week in his office, and responds to e-mails through the early morning hours. He does much of this at great personal expense, traveling extensively both within and outside the country until he’s too tired to stand, and the only time he sits is to write, and sometimes eat.
More than a few times I’ve been tempted to hit “reply” and give an enraged writer hell, telling him how terribly misinformed he is. I would tell him that Noam doesn’t fabricate numbers, statistics, or facts – you can find almost everything he quotes in a journal or newspaper article, or book. I would point out to them that sympathizing with Palestinians doesn’t mean he hates Jews. He’s a pacifist – a guardian of peace, he believes war is unjustifiable.
Many of these ranters suggest he leave the United States and live somewhere else. I would insist that his criticism of the US government’s policies doesn’t mean he hates being an American. I would remind them of the first amendment, which guarantees “the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government.” And I would suggest that they become more informed about the real facts – and maybe actually read something Noam has written with an eye toward understanding.
But it’s my job to pass all messages not directed toward me onto Noam, whether an e-mail from a colleague or a note from one of his grandsons, and thousands of others in between, many from people he’s never met. So, once I've added any essential piece of backup for clarity, I pass them on, even the few I would prefer to send to the trash with one simple keystroke.
A few months ago, when I was angered by one of these slanderous e-mails, I jumped out of my chair, gathered up some travel and scheduling items for an impromptu meeting, and stormed into his office. Ok, I didn’t actually storm. Noam doesn’t respond to that kind of drama.
I excused myself for interrupting his reading, asking him if I could talk with him for a minute, then I launched right into it. “Noam, don’t you ever get upset with the nasty, antagonistic e-mails from enraged people? Considering the [immeasurable] sacrifices you’ve made, how do you keep from getting angry?” I asked.
Noam replied, “Do you get angry with a hurricane?”
“No, I don’t get angry with the hurricane, but I am upset when people are hurt by a hurricane.”
Noam repeated, “But do you get angry with the hurricane?”
“No,” I said, becoming frustrated that he wasn’t sharing my outrage.
“Well, people are hurricanes,” he said.
I thought, what the hell does that mean, ‘people are hurricanes? Judging by what I know about Noam, he wanted me to think, and to figure it out for myself. I guessed he was reminding me that anger can be a big waste of time unless you harness it into action. Also, hurricanes are unpredictable, and they erupt, just like people. And I suppose when you find yourself in the path of a hurricane, it’s prudent to protect yourself, and keep out of harm’s way, as you can’t control it any more than you can control a person. These are my thoughts.
As with most things, I went home and talked this over with my partner Laura, a psychotherapist who has witnessed anger and frustration in a multitude of sizes and shapes. She said, “I think there’s a way in which people carry their own weather systems. Weather is affected by both internal and external experiences – past and present. By what they’ve learned, what they’ve eaten, their assumptions, and by what’s going on around them. There are some people who walk in the door and you can feel the storminess around them, and sometimes you feel something more subtle.”
I wondered whether that was what Noam intended to convey to me, as well – people have their own unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s best to put on your raincoat and boots and wait it out. Weather isn't something we can control any more than we can control other people.
I had to check with him again, so I recently asked Noam to give me some insight on how he keeps from reacting to a writer’s fury. I worded it in a way that wouldn’t hint that he was possibly answering a question I was supposed to have figured out for myself. He said “People usually have reasons for being angry, however distorted and unpleasant. And there's always some hope that they can be dealt with. Sometimes it even works, after a lot of effort. But what's the point in being angry about it? A three-year old doubtless has a reason for an annoying tantrum, but do we get angry at the kid?”
I realized two things as he said this. First, something that I keep learning in a circular manner, that even an unpleasant and hostile form of discourse can be a step toward understanding.
And second, he was talking about compassion all along.