Steeve Elam came up to me for the first time on February 1, 2018. Our community center meeting had just ended. He was offering help. A slender young man with dark hair, passionate and enthusiastic, he knew how to bake berry pies. He wanted to fundraise for us by baking these pies. He wanted to be a partner in our project to raise up a new place, the Middletown Green Community Center, on the ashes of the old place dying out.
I saw that he was a good man, who meant well. His voice was manic and his manner abrasive, but I could see he was a good man. He wanted me to respect him, so I did. We spoke for a few minutes.
Steeve preferred his name spelled with two “ee”s in the meat of the word. I didn’t know him long enough to find out why. I connected him with farmers so he could grow his berries. I connected him with a doctor so he could “walk with a doc.” (He actually wanted to create a parallel “running” group beside the doctor’s walkers.) But I never got to taste one of his blueberry pies. He never got to walk or run with my doctor. Instead he went berserk and blew up a local emergency room—his car weaponized as a bomb.
I understand Steeve Elam. The times we met I couldn’t hear the voices in his head. But now I do. “The rage I feel in my heart needs to incinerate the world.” I understand Steeve Elam because sometimes I feel the same rage. I understand Steeve Elam because I have met hundreds of people like him over the past eight years. But, unlike him, they keep their rage bottled up inside, and, along with their isolation, this rage destroys their health.
I work with low-income people in community health clinics and libraries across Connecticut: some of them are just out of prison; others are obese and diabetic, with knee pain that drives them to distraction. Some are children still in the bloom of hope; others are close to death, riddled with cancer. Some are schizophrenic and homeless and collect bottles and cans for cash; others live in tiny rooms and cradle a broom on the handlebars of their bike to make a living sweeping. Some are cynics; others are depressed. Many of these people work in health care—at the lowest levels, for the most meager wages—just like me.
Perhaps the Germans understand us better than we understand ourselves. Peter Sloterdijk, a philosopher, speaks of “rage banks”: “ever more irritated and isolated individuals find themselves surrounded by impossible offers . . . [and this creates] an impulse to hate everything.”
I have just listened again to a voicemail from Steeve Elam sent at 3:30pm on February 5. He not only offers to bake us pies but also says “I have a chess table that I’m building, and my goal is to have it be there for all the people of the North End, or whoever’s part of the community center, to play chess on. I’m going to hand carve all the pieces, and I’d love to show you pictures of it. I’d really just love to donate to the center.” Two weeks later Elam had crossed over a sea of pain—I have no idea how—and no longer wanted to give of himself to improve the world and build community with us; he was now ready to “hate everything.”
A young man with skills and enthusiasm and a willingness to help simply wants to be part of a community. He needs a place to feel useful and loved. He demands respect.
I didn’t hear the voices in his head then, but I do now. “The rage I feel in my heart needs to find a place to rest. Will you help me put it to rest?”
Rage banks are as plentiful now in our nation as food banks. Community is a need that cannot be ignored. Climate change is not only about the warming of our earth; it is also about the hardening of our hearts and the freezing over of our bravery. As more and more money is taken away from our work building healthy communities, as the arts fade into irrelevance, we need to stand together and speak as one, telling those who want to control our lives: we do not fear you. We will build together to keep the rage at bay.
“The rage I feel in my heart needs to find a voice.”
Jeff Hush ’84 is the founder of famtusa.org (Food & Movement Therapy).