Fighting with the Only Weapon They Have

It’s a fairly safe assumption that someone who regularly suffers from a physical condition he reasonably believes is caused by rage is frequently angry.   He may not often know exactly why he is angry, or even that he is so angry, but then a car cuts him off on the road, his skin cracks open, his spine painfully seizes up, and he literally can’t move without agony.   So angry, he can’t even scream.

There are releases from the choking grip of anger.   Vigorous physical exercise, for example, is frequently thought of as a great outlet for stress, including rage.   You work up a sweat, breathe hard, drink in oxygen for your hard-working muscles, endorphins are released,  you experience a sense of well-being.   In movies we often see a persecuted protagonist sweatily taking out her frustrations on a punching bag,    It is better to pound a heavy bag than your own head against a wall, for sure.   Probably also better than the fake catharsis we so often see in American movies, vengeful violence as the final and best answer to unbearable pain.  I’ve found that writing clearly while thinking through something thoroughly can sometimes make a difference, help me contextualize, understand  and digest my anger.

Many people don’t see anger as a chance to work through an aggravating issue that has long plagued them, but something to repress at all costs.   If a friend you admire is secretly screwing the girl you love, a young woman who then inexplicably scorns you, well… that’s something for a novel you might dream of writing some day.   Bros before hos, yo– no reason to get angry about even a double betrayal.    A person given to repressing anger, no matter how reasonable that anger might be,  will not be tolerant of someone who sees anger as part of a process to be worked through, with important insights to be gained.  

For example,  if you feel yourself getting angry there are steps you can take to control how you express that anger.   That modicum of self-awareness and self-control is sometimes the only thing that can prevent violence.  The first essential thing is learning to recognize the initial rising of anger, that is the moment when you must become super clear in your mind and body about what you need to do differently than what the chemicals coursing through you are now urging you to do.   It is not an easy process to get better at controlling an angry reaction, but I have two friends who’ve made great progress controlling their tempers and I take courage from their examples. 

“Yeah, but he still makes that face,” a mutual friend will observe with a wry smile.   OK, but making that face is much different than following it up with a provocative insult, violently smashing things or bashing your face, isn’t it?  A much better reaction, the face, with no violence in word or deed beyond that.   I’d say that is tremendous progress, and I find it inspiring.   Plus, you can’t help the look on your face, beyond a certain point.

To someone at the mercy of  the constantly percolating violent impulses of repressed anger, there are only the tools at hand to crudely express it.   This is where the passive-aggressive playbook comes into play.   Anger is threatening and must not be expressed, but I am enraged.  I am also terrified, because if I express anger there’s no telling how cataclysmically destructive the violence will be.  The best course of action, for someone with a mortal fear of anger, is passive aggression.  In fact, it’s often the only course of action available to people afraid of conflict.

“You are a judgmental motherfucker,” the individual I have in mind here snarls, departing from his usual high civility.

We are all judges here, friend.  We judge what we can accept and what we can’t, what is proper and what is out of bounds, what is fair and what is unfair.  We judge crime and punishment.   We all do this every day, in many choices we make.   We judge this better than that, this one a friend, this one an acquaintance, this one an enemy.  

“Only vicious people like you have enemies,” says the person too angry to be angry.  

I rest my case.

“Yeah, easy for you to set up a straw man and knock it down, with nobody here to contradict your pontification,” says the nonjudgmental one.  

Nothing could be easier, buddy.  

So here’s what you do, the only power left to you.  You withhold.   I know all about the power of this, having been raised by a father with many weapons, but none more effective than this one.   You listen to the heartfelt expressions of someone close to you who is in pain, you read them laid out at length in writing, if necessary, and then reply, simply:

You’ve expressed your view of things here very clearly and I truly appreciate the mildness of your formulations.  

Period.  

Many people would find this reply to a long, thoughtful letter inadequate, annoying, perhaps even provocative, but no matter.   As all decent writers learn at some point, no iron can stab the heart like a period placed just right. [1]  

 

[1] this truth was expressed by the great Isaac Babel in his wonderful story about writing and editing “Guy De Maupassant”.

 

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