Anger comes in varying shades. Not every shade is dangerous, but unchecked anger always has the potential to explode into rage, which is the main thing to avoid. Anger is a threatening emotion, difficult to sit with, and anger that is denied, pushed down, diverted toward people who don’t deserve it, is as corrosive as sulphuric acid.
Anger often starts as annoyance, escalates to feeling provoked. Sufficient provocation gives rise to a righteous and difficult to control desire to strike back. Depending on the situation, anger can easily turn to rage. Recognizing the initial signs that you are becoming angry, and taking as many breaths as needed to avoid the easy cycle of anger, is crucial to not flying into a rage. Not flying into a rage may be the best we pitiful earthlings can do when we are provoked to anger. Important work, friends, learning to not fly into a rage, even when sorely provoked.
I have been in this cycle of provocation and escalation countless times. Over my childhood angry confrontations were a regular occurrence in the little house I grew up in. I was a kid, and did the best I could in an insane situation where everyone was screaming at each other. Much of the anger came straight out of my parents’ frustrations with their own lives. Neither of them ever learned to control their anger very much, certainly not when it came to the two ungrateful children who presented such challenges to them. In terms of dealing with their anger, both of my parents were essentially children.
I had a friendship for a while with a New York City criminal court judge. He was a brilliant man, if also deeply troubled. Sekhnet, who has a talent for hitting such nails on the head, said of him “Bill’s a child. A brilliant child, but a child.” The same could be said for my father, and to a great extent, my mother. Both were highly intelligent, both had been raised by domineering mothers who frequently made irrevocable vetoes of their child’s deepest wishes.
Each overbearing mother had broken up the most exciting romance of each of their childrens’ lives. My mother’s mother chased off her daughter’s first fiance, simply would not stand for this dashing young con-man becoming her son-in-law. In my father’s case, it was a longterm relationship with a Christian woman, a young widow a couple of years older than my father. There are photos of them together before World War Two in Connecticut and after the war in Syracuse. My father never looked happier than in those couple of black and white photos. It appears to have been some kind of love story. In the end, the overbearing mother won, the lover was extirpated forever from my father’s life.
There is the kind of anger that makes people lose their minds. When angry, they feel they are simply fighting to stay alive. Anything is fair to somebody in this hopped up state. This is very common with anger– it convinces you of the rightness of whatever you do in that state. Defend the homeland!!! Death to the infidels!!! Death before dishonor!!! Take it out of their skulls!!!
I am thinking about anger today because yesterday, once again, I spent a considerable amount of time on the phone with someone who called to tell me, essentially, that I had no right to my feelings. No matter how much I may have been hurt and provoked, the caller told me, or how many times I may have been hurt in the exact same way, they love me, I am like family and the thought of me not in their lives is too painful for them to deal with. All this was happening, I was told, because I was not looking at myself deeply enough, not finding a way to forgive a series of escalating provocations that were very aggravating, true, but completely, or at least largely, unintended.
It was an aggravating conversation with a person I like very much. It was aggravating largely because the person had no idea, outside of endless, limitless forgiveness on my part, for what I should do going forward with a friend seemingly incapable of not provoking me in every encounter. Aggravating because I’ve thought deeply about all these things, studied the situation over the course of the last few months, consulted friends whose opinions I respect.
In the end, I had nothing, and nobody else could see any way forward, outside of the miracle of an old friend suddenly discovering how to be a mensch, something completely out of my hands. I gave this old friend every opportunity not to keep attacking, but he was unable to refrain from being on defense and offense instead of seeking a way out of the toxic cycle that was killing our friendship.
A few times during the conversation yesterday I got angry. Each time the person I was talking to squawked, hurt and mad that I was expressing anger at not being heard. Each time I took a deep breath and quietly expressed the thing that couldn’t be heard when I expressed it with anger. In the end little that I said seemed to have had much effect, but the exercise of not exploding in anger was a good workout. A sad, mutually unsatisfying conversation ended calmly enough, with neither of us telling the other to fuck off.
No matter what else can be said about the difficulty, sometimes, of not exploding in rage, it is always a good idea. It is hard work, Jack, very goddamned hard work. Especially if I keep denying your right to feel hurt by something I did to you, no matter how unfair I admit that thing was. Keep bringing it up, I will keep shifting the blame back to you — you are unforgiving, you are heartless, rigid, you don’t see yourself, you exaggerate, you betray. If you look deeply enough into yourself, I will say, you will see that you are wrong — it is possible, isn’t it, that you are wrong also? Love conquers all. I will lay down the love card, the final card, the card only someone without love could deny. I could not have really hurt you that badly because I LOVE YOU.
You respond that love is not words, no matter how beautiful, but actions, how we treat the person we love. If I treat you harshly you have every right to expect a sincere apology from me, if I care about your feelings. If I can’t give you an assurance that I understand the harm I’m doing, will do my best not to inflict more of it, there is no way forward.
I will insist, if I am that type of person, that you are no saint either. You betrayed my confidence by writing on a blahg that you know a person who has a faulty memory. I would never do that to you! You have no idea how hurtful that public betrayal was to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if you wore a wire on me when we talked the other day. Are you wearing a fucking wire on me now, you fucking fuck!? I’ll bet you are.
And away we go!