A friend of mine who’s spent a lot of time knocking on doors recently advised that there’s a lot of anger “out there.” In particular, though they’re not the only targets, anger at politicians and the political system. My friend puzzled as to both cause and effect of this discontent; he wasn’t sure where it was all coming from, nor where it will lead, but he was running into it daily.

I’m hardly surprised; while I often encountered citizens grateful or shocked that anyone still had the faith and energy to work for change, also common was the unopened door or hard head-shake from folks unwilling to engage, sometimes accompanied by the exasperated eye-roll or outright scowl. More than I’ve ever seen, many are now so disgusted with civic affairs that they dismiss everyone involved, from the president to the precinct worker, including candidates who share their dismay at corruption and incompetence.

I don’t blame them. As a bumper sticker says, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

OK. Anger doesn’t necessarily indicate awareness. Polls show that nearly 1 out of 5 Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, half outright deny what the federal government really spends most of our money on, and 80 percent don’t know what was in the health-care bill. Ignorance clearly doesn’t prevent anger, and probably aggravates it.

But to dismiss all public outrage as uninformed is also wrong. People have a good gut-feel of their own condition, and there’s plenty to be upset about.

While we live with modern marvels like iTunes, the Internet, and real medical miracles, the overall quality of daily life is now more stressful than post-war. Forty years after the first Earth Day, the planet is in overall worse shape. A quarter-century of galloping increase in American economic inequality threatens to undermine democracy itself. My ancestors fought for the 40-hour week, yet I know too many who, in mid-life, are working draining 60-hour weeks, or are underemployed. Millions of jobs have vanished, in an economy where two workers must support most households. We’ve been at war for longer than either WWII or Vietnam lasted. The health-care battle both infuriated and exhausted. Governments spend at record highs, while telling us that cherished basics, from Social Security to libraries, might be unaffordable luxuries. Citizens wonder, is it now the public’s job to work for government, rather than the other way around? I could go on, but this is a finite column, and I don’t want to tarnish my image of constant cool-headedness.

Although anger at all these things is arguably a natural, appropriate response, that politicians should respect, what happens after that emotional reaction determines whether things will get better or worse. Disengagement or detachment, common manifestations of interpersonal anger, rarely improve a relationship. In the body politic, such behavior can be fatal.

Not voting because of disapproval of government makes no sense. One will still be elected. What would more delight those who mismanage and manipulate the system, than if citizens who have paid attention, and are angry, check out and stay home? Moreover, most good stuff government’s ever done, from establishing civil rights to jump-starting wind energy and high-speed rail, grew from citizen initiative and involvement.

This election is not ordinary. It offers dramatic choices between candidates’ philosophical approaches to what vexes us. Some would increase spending or taxes; others would swing an axe at budgets. Advocates for a sustainable future confront climate change deniers. Those who would support a more peaceful foreign policy face opponents who would further grow our security apparatus.

There are not only big differences, but critical, close contests. In Illinois, the Senate race may well determine whether an arms treaty or climate bill gets signed next Congress, and the governor race will likely determine if we’ll reform school funding. And the Internet has made it easier than ever to find opportunities to volunteer, attend, or simply become more informed. Not just here – we can now follow and impact close races anywhere in the country.

Meanwhile, elections are hardly the only way to tackle our problems. From pitching in with a beach cleanup, prairie restoration, or budget discussion, to helping with a youth jobs center or literacy group, myriad groups and meetings offer outlets for feeling, after giving a few hours, that in some small way we’ve tackled some of our needs. More than placebo, these small acts really do add up.

Activism, not apathy — more engagement, not less — is the best medicine for fixing what ails and angers us. And those who’ve been paying attention are best positioned to make a real difference.

That knock at the door, that call on the phone? It’s opportunity. Answer the call. Open the door.