Rage is a famously difficult subject, which is why I’m trying to take some ways of expressing it one at a time. Reframing, for example, is an essential technique for angrily dominating someone in an argument. Silence, in the face of a friend or family member’s expressed concern, or in answer to a direct request for a conversation, is one of the most potent weapons in the war of rage. It has the virtues of being subtle and deniable (there are MANY reasons for silence), but it is also highly effective, dramatic and deadly, in my experience.
Silence can be a great blessing, of course, like when an overbearingly loud noise finally stops. When quiet descends we feel our breathing calm, we can focus and concentrate. Silence (as opposed to blurting something) can often be very useful when confronted with vexation, it gives you time to gather yourself, deliberate and react more productively. Silence is golden, as those prone to uttering cliches will sometimes say in a quiet moment.
Silence can also be used as the ultimate, uninterruptible, elegant last word in a spasm of rage. One obvious beauty of using deathly silence this way, (to the practitioner), is that it’s the anger expression technique that keeps giving, the silence will continue to irk the other person until they can forget about it and the meaning of the silence itself can always be debated, ill will denied vehemently.
Silence is just silence, the practitioner will insist if confronted, though it might feel like the “silent treatment” to an oversensitive eternal victim type. “… and, you know, though it might well be possible that my silence actually does express my utter contempt for you, you overweening baby, you will always get an unwinnable argument from me about why you are totally wrong to construe it that way. It’s just silence… no meaning to it whatsoever, it’s all inside your messed up head… and typical of you to blame me for the outpourings of your corroded imagination.”
The genius part of this defense is that it’s often true — people fail to respond for many reasons, including being busy, distracted, overwhelmed, truly not knowing what to say. I used to be offended when I heard nothing back from friends I’d send random bits of gratuitous creativity to. Now I understand there is no intention to be hurtful — most people have no experience with a need to feel creative and simply don’t know what to say when someone sends them a thirty second bit of original music. Musicians know that “nice” is a perfectly satisfying reply if they like the thing, but, most people feel overmatched to respond to a drawing sent out of the blue, an incoherent bit of calligraphy, a poem, or whatever the fucking thing is. “Nice” seems mechanical, I guess, something original probably seems in order, and what to actually say to someone who insists on “sharing”– I have no idea.
For our purposes here I am talking about the silence that is a refusal to speak, after being asked to. If you ever experienced this kind of bruising silence, you know what I’m struggling to bring out here.
It is an integral part of the game of rage to always have an argument ready to justify your anger and the actions it caused you to take. (The passive voice, we note, is always good in this case: righteous anger caused me to do this, it was clearly not my choice to be so provoked by you, asshole!)
The argument an angry person makes doesn’t need to be sound or have any chance of prevailing based on what actually took place, the only point is to contest the other person’s right to their feelings. Anger is a zero-sum game — one winner (innocent, 100% right), one loser (infuriating asshole, 100% wrong.) It’s an angry fool’s reductive way of looking at life, but there it is.
This readiness to fight, and the devilish quickness to justify any harsh action, are hallmarks of the perpetually angry person. That raging reflex to deny, no matter what, is what is so infuriating about people addicted to that intoxicating surge of righteousness anger provides. Compulsive Contrarians will fight you angrily, out of an insatiable need to fight, no matter what the cost, to the death and beyond.
To be clear about the kind of anger I’m talking about, it is an unyielding reflex to remain angry and to win the fight. We all experience anger, it is an inevitable part of our condition here as humans. Unfairness, disappointment, bad luck all make us mad. A mark of maturity is being able to keep these things in perspective, to learn to fix what we can and not dwell forever on everything that makes us angry.
The kind of anger that demands the regular harsh punishment of others is an attitude toward life. It hardens into a stance of eternal grievance, a much different, more destructive force than what is released when we sometimes get pissed off at the ordinary frustrations we all have to deal with.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.” We need to be ready to forgive, when the time is right, we have to stay receptive to another person trying to make amends — hence, the permanent attitude. Being ready to accept an apology is a philosophical stance. The same goes for letting go of, or holding on to, anger. We can stay focused on a grievance forever, and act accordingly, or learn to repair what we can and coexist with things that enrage us but that we can do little about, without being mad and ready to fight all the time.
Back to the angry use of silence in situations where dialogue is needed. Political examples of this, the brazen refusal to honestly answer a straight question, for example, are ubiquitous. No point to cite specific cases, there are too many every day, every hour, to start naming. Besides, our current political idiocy is too sickening and bringing it into the discussion is a distraction that will take us off course. I’ll stick to the personal here, keep it clean and straightforward, in hopes of making a point worth making.
The epoch we’re living in now is a worldwide Age of Anger, (or Age of Rage, if ya like a rhyme on yer page) to an extent not seen on this scale in almost a century. Since we’re all forced into offense so much of the time, by news designed to make us angry (and watch the ads ), it is best to see anger as the personal thing it always is. Anger is personal, totally, for every person who feels it.
Working to understand our own relationship to our personal anger, and what specifically makes us mad, is probably the best we can do, and a first step toward making our own lives, and the lives of those around us, less contentious. It’s also one of the hardest things to do, especially if you’re prone to getting pissed off. We live in a world of constant provocation at a historical moment when the dial is turned up to 10 all day long (and all through the night).
Here are a couple of examples of angry uses of silence from my life, as succinctly as I can lay them out (I’ve written about each of these vexing kerfuffles here when they happened.)
Let’s recognize first that silence can have different meanings, depending on how we were raised. These meanings determine our feelings about silence and our sensitivity to it. In some households silence may be a proper initial response to a perplexing question. It can indicate respect, the person is thinking deeply about your question and will give a considered opinion after they have thought things through. In another home you’ll be taught that silence as a reply means “never,” the silence about your expressed concern will go on until the next time you bring it up, when it will be answered by an identical pointed silence and so forth, ad infinitum.
Nobody who expresses a concern likes to be ignored (nobody that I’ve ever met, anyway). It is a cruel thing to do to a child (or a person of any age, actually). It amounts to neglecting them emotionally by ignoring their fears, desires, questions and concerns. Is it as cruel as daily beatings, making the child go to bed hungry, humiliating the kid publicly? That depends on how diligently silence by way of response is wielded.
In my own life I’ve come to understand, as a fairly old man, that what I thought of as my father’s relentless cruelty (he made very effective use of strategic silence as a weapon) was in large part his relentless inability to do any better than he did. He was the victim of unspeakable abuse in a home ravaged by poverty, ignorance and rage. He did the best he could, I understood finally, though his best did a good deal of damage. This understanding of my father’s helplessness against his pain and anger came only after a lot of pain and conflict in my own life. My eventual understanding of his limitations erased virtually none of it, but it makes the world make much more sense to me.
As he was dying my father made a seemingly incomprehensible request, asking me to understand that, in a real sense, our long war was “nothing personal”. I thought about this Zen koan for a long time before its meaning emerged. His mistreatment of me had nothing to do with me personally — he would have done the same thing to any child of his, no matter who he or she had been. He was reiterating what he’d said earlier that last night of his life: it had been him, not me, who created most of the intractable problems between us. Our endless war had little to do with me personally.
If I was traumatized, as a young kid, to suddenly learn about the Nazi death machine, by seeing black and white film clips of a guy wheeling a wheelbarrow of jiggling skeletons and dumping them into a pit of corpses (an image that caused me to vomit), and agitatedly asked my father about it, what did I really expect him to say? He was not emotionally equipped to say what he probably wished he had:
“You saw some of the most horrible images in human history and you’re asking a terrible question that the greatest minds in the world can’t really answer. You’ll learn about racism, scapegoating, the terrible violence angry mobs are capable of when whipped up by hate-filled maniacs. You’re right to be upset, especially at age eight when you have no way to put any of this into context. I’m sorry you saw those clips that I tried to spare you from seeing, I know you can’t unsee them, but believe me, a lot of the horror you’re feeling right now will start to fade pretty soon. We humans are very adaptable, you’ll feel much better tomorrow, I guarantee. I understand why you vomited, you were right to vomit. You’re safe now, and we can talk more about this later. As you have questions, just ask and I’ll do my best to explain what I can.”
Instead, frustrated and overwhelmed, my father snapped that he’d warned me not to see that goddamned movie, forbade me, in fact, but I never fucking listen to him, that I’m a drama queen always trying to claim a special right to feel like a victim. He told me angrily that just because many members of our family died (people he referred to as “mere abstractions!”) at the hands of Nazis and their helpers, it gave me no special right to feel in any way like a holocaust survivor, and so on.
He was overwhelmed, upset, not at his best, would have felt shame if I played a recording of what he had said to “console” his young son. Obviously he’d much rather have said something along the lines of the more humane response I set out above. On the bright side for him, it was years before I asked again about the slaughter of at least 15 great aunts and uncles and their entire extended families.
You grow up, reach an understanding of things that hurt you and hope to do much better yourself treating other people well. As Hillel said: what is hateful to you, don’t do to others. As you also learn — it is best to avoid people who can’t do this.
If you send a professional writer friend a piece you talked about, something you hope to publish, pages he said he’d be happy to read and comment on, and you never hear back? Shades of that hurtful silence, especially after two or three follow-ups when you still don’t hear back from him. In the end, if the guy claims you’re the asshole for being upset after only three or four tries for feedback, that anyone but a schmuck would have persisted, that, in fact, he probably did read the piece, likely even replied at the time (it made no impression on him either way, understand) you know the story with him. It’s not personal, in a true sense.
If an old friend offers legal help with a painful legal situation you find yourself entangled in and winds up playing devil’s advocate throughout the aggravating weeks and months, then loses his temper a few times that you keep getting upset, then apologizes, but later feels compelled to tell you he only apologized because you are such an irrationally angry person that groveling was the only way he could get you to calm down — you have learned who your old friend is, on a primal level. He operates within a very narrow empathetic bandwidth, to put it charitably. When he claims to have carefully considered every point you raised about the sad pass things have come to, while responding to none of them (and insisting he’s still been given no clue), his hurt silence is predictable, and finally welcome.
On down the line, I have other examples from my own life but I think the point is made. Again, as the sage Hillel told the man challenging him to put his Jewish faith into a single sentence: what is hateful to you don’t do to someone else. We all know what is hateful to us. It’s a good principle to try our best not do it to others. When we know we’ve failed, we should be quick to express our genuine regret.
When you know your personal kryptonite (in my case silence wielded as a final response to an expressed concern) all you can do is tell the people in your life, when you feel them doing that, YOW! THAT SHIT IS MY KRYPTONITE, please don’t wave it near my face! When they know what hurts you most, they have the final choice about whether they will deploy it against you or not. They will decide what the silence at the end means.
Almost never is that silence the blessed kind that restores calm, unless they are silently figuring out how to take care of another person’s hurt feelings and are going to get back to you.
At the same time, with deathlike silence there is something healthy and refreshing about the way the ugly noise finally stops. In fact, there are few things better, when things have already turned ugly, than the peace that comes when somebody who sincerely doesn’t know how to treat people finally shuts the fuck up.
Thought for a future post:
The mass media has long known that “if it bleeds, it leads”– all the research has shown executives that a larger audience will tune in to breaking news about violence, murder, mayhem, teased loudly in an alarming headline. The more recent refinement to this theory was among Mark Zuckerberg’s great innovations in monetizing the universal human desire for connection: rage is contagious, spreads like wildfire and there’s fucking GOLD IN THEM THAR FUCKING HILLS!!!
Speaking of rage and gratuitous best-selling violence, I would love to punch that particular noxious piece of shit in his smug, grotesquely monetized face. I’m pretty sure Mark would like it, too. And if not, it will be nothing personal, I assure you.