Stop Telling Me Anger Is A Vice
Are you finished? A wild-eyed, panting, nine-year-old boy is throwing chairs at the wall. The room is emptied of people but full of feelings. Shoulders bunched and eyebrows furrowed, he expends his energy through his arms and legs. Toppling over desks and throwing chairs, scattering pencils and markers, and ripping up paper towels and tissue boxes. He kicks a backpack across the floor, throws his head back, and howls.
The anger expels itself in jerky movements. Fire brimming from his heart like a slightly too ripe peach bursting in the heat. Standing sideways by the closed door, I shoo away the teachers gathering in the hallway. Outbursts of repressed pain invite attention like car wrecks invite rubbernecking and chum invites sharks. He’ll feel cornered if they circle him, trapped like a wild animal.
As I watch him pant, exhausted, that three-word question above comes unbidden to my mind. That was the question I got as a child. If I cried during a lecture or set down plates at the table a little too hard out of frustration or huffed under my breath in anger, that question greeted me. Did you get that silly want to be treated as a person out of your system? Are you done thinking your little emotions matter? Is the desire to be anything other than the obedient, respectful, quiet child you should be extinguished? A friend told me yesterday, “Sometimes, I wonder who you would be if your spirit hadn’t been crushed in your childhood,” and I admitted I’ve wondered that about many of the people I’ve met.
When I was a child, I was told that being angry was wrong. My parents meant both the emotion itself and the unhealthy expressions of anger: hurting others, hurting myself, screaming at the top of my lungs. When I was older, I learned of the stereotype “the angry black woman.” While only a few people have actually invalidated my emotions by using this stereotype against me, she was in the back of my mind for years.
I tend to stuff anger down in the name of letting things go. When I inevitably hit a breaking point (about three times a year), my laid-back and congenial self explodes. I’ve screamed into pillows. I’ve punched the wall in my room. I’ve thrown things across my apartment. Things I was grateful no-one had ever witnessed. Embarrassing, foolish things.
Humans can create whole universes with three words. Entire novels can be found within three words. “I would never.” “I am pregnant.” “You’re good enough.” “She’s too crazy.” “He’s too intense” “Want some more?” “I love you.” “You’re nothing special.” “We screwed up.” “Go for it.” “We’ll be there.” “I missed you.” “Protect your happiness.” “Hold my hand.” “This will pass.”
Though I was raised in a strict, black-and-white, good vs. evil binary, the world has proven over and over that most of life is awash in grey.
Last week, I pictured Mother Nature and the universe laughing as we looked over my life. How people around me assigned arbitrary values to slips of paper, to things, to people. How I spent too many days chasing money to pay bills and buy things I didn’t need or want to please or impress people who couldn’t care less to achieve goals I’ve been told matter and trying to appease imaginary holy beings I’ll never meet. How I called it living until I was quite literally stopped in my tracks. Without the frantic pace of the rat race, I’m discovering old and new needs and dreams in equal parts.
Though I was raised in a strict, black-and-white, good-versus-evil binary, the world has proven over and over that most of life is awash in grey. Submerged in the mess. Buried in the almosts. Found in the nuance. We chase the thrills yet find ourselves pleasantly surprised or bitterly disappointed when it was the quiet moments that set our hearts aglow. There are five three-word phrases I say often enough in conversations for them to almost be verbal tics. Knee-jerk reactions.
Leave me be: Said when someone says something that touches a hidden part of me. Translates to: You get it, you see me. Is that weird?: Asked about my emotional reactions to people and things when I feel safe enough to be seen. I love you: Said whenever I’m feeling it. You know what: Said when a joke hits too close to close to home. Usually used with “leave me be.” In my defense: Said when people are surprised I haven’t picked up on their emotional cues or when I’m way behind the times. Always said jokingly because when the situation is serious, I don’t tend to think I have “permission” to defend myself.
Many of us, including me, are starting month five or month six of this collective lull in our lives with different or reconfirmed values. Realigning ourselves. Shifting while the world recalibrates. Figuring out anew what we want to live for, what we can live with, and what we can’t live without.
In quarantine, conclusions on life and myself I’ve been percolating on for the past few years out of fear are emerging in rapid succession. In a year where people are expressing anger in multiple damaging ways and others are condemning that anger in equally damaging ways, why would I extol the virtue of this emotion? Horrible time to be having beautiful breakthroughs, but I’ve always done things by opposites so why stop now? From being raised in a Christian faith where anger was akin to murder to the damaging angry black woman stereotype to a pretty meek and laid-back personality in general, anger’s not a readily accessible emotion for me, to put it mildly.
I wish I had been told when I was younger that anger can be healthy and valid. That sometimes anger is pointing out a true wrong, a real injustice. That something needs to be made right, healed, or heard.
Now, nothing justifies hurting another person. We can’t use anger as an excuse for abuse. “I only did that because I was angry” isn’t a real apology or valid reason. It’s childish. Regardless of how we feel, we are accountable for the pain we cause another. Beneath any intense emotion is a deeper reason. Pain is usually behind anger. At times, grief. A power-taking hurt that wounds us more if we stuff it inside.
Venting our anger is necessary, but there has to be a way to do that in a constructive versus destructive way. How do we allow the space for a person to be angry without judgment? Without fear of reprisal? Anger does have a place: when a person is being abused or exploited. When condemnation and oppression are taking place.
Recently, I’ve been remembering moments of anger from the people closest to me. Family fights where I played peacemaker or read in the corner until it was over. Friendships where I instinctively distanced myself because who wants to be friends with me if I’m going to make a big deal of things. Working with students where I wanted to validate that frustration instead of dismissing it. In every single situation, there was a catalyst. Rarely, it was one big action. Most of the time, it was small, loosely gathered moments scattered across days, weeks, years even.
You know what has to happen for a person to never feel upset or frustrated or angry? They’d have to value nothing enough to fight for it, view nothing as too sacred or something to not be violated, and be able to tolerate many kinds of injustices. They’ll have no warning signal for when situations or people are bad and no demands for themselves or others.
When I lay it out as starkly as that, not getting angry is not the badge of honor bestowed on the good woman I was taught to view it as. There’s got to be a place for a person to say, “What do I do with this? I’m angry and bitter.” Otherwise, you’ll get a person who’s been emotionally abused to the point of almost being stunted. Someone who doesn’t care much what happens to them. Fighting for everybody but themselves. I don’t know who I would have been if my spirit hadn’t been crushed, but I think I’d be slightly angrier (especially in 2020). I want to be angry for you. I want to be angry for me.
The boy marks a winding trail of destruction back to me and begins swinging his fists wildly at my thighs and stomach. After a minute, he looks at my face with tears falling from his eyes and collapses, spent, against my chest. Pulling him close, I wrap my arms around him for the pressure and rock us back and forth. You cannot completely extinguish anger from a human’s spirit without breaking them first. We will sway on our feet and talk of better ways of showing that anger. We will sway on our feet without smothering the fire into ash. We will sway on our feet for as long as it takes.