Sunday, March 3, 2013

On the Virtues of Anger

One of my family's most frequent criticisms of me since I a) started taking anti-depressants b) started dating my current boyfriend and (unbeknownst to them until recently) c) started reconciling with my own sexuality is that I've become "angrier." The summer of Anti-DepressantGate, for instance, I would come home from class in a rage about my fellow BYU students' reaction to the teacher's presentation on the problems of Barbies (sidenote: none of them could understand why the "traditional" differences between "boy" and "girl" toys was problematic, and I was annoyed).

I wouldn't necessarily classify myself as an "angry person," whatever that means, but I do tend to be vocal about things that annoy me. In particular, I tend to be a lot more vocal now than I ever was as a child. I was the kind of kid who was inexplicably terrified of her parents and never wanted to ask for anything--I was scared to ask for toys I really, really wanted, for instance, which is why, alas, I never acquired an official Spice Girls Barbie doll (see above paragraph for my mixed feelings on this). I was the kid who lurked in the background to make sure everyone was happy and who spent hours cleaning the house when my parents were gone because I wanted them to be happy. At the same time, especially moving into high school, I definitely had pet issues I would get mad about. My first Major Political Issue that I had feelings about, for instance, was prostitutes, after reading the complete Les Mis in the 9th grade. One of my then-conservative friends (who was also two years younger than me and, let's be real, growing up anywhere kids just parrot their parents' political views, and in Provo, Utah, those tend to be incredibly conservative) started talking about how he thought prostitutes were immoral and bad, and I exploded at him. Drawing from the example of Fantine, I talked about how prostitutes were often forced into their lives by circumstances beyond their control, and that poverty is terrible and forces people into terrible situations, and that prostitution is horrible and degrading to women (and men) and is sexist and terrible and the worst. I effectively cowed him into submission. You go, little 14-year-old self.

That was one of the only moments I expressed an opinion as a kid, though. Which isn't to say I didn't have a lot of pent-up anger. One time in the ninth grade I slapped this kid in my math class--a mild, tiny, glasses-clad blond kid who was about a foot short than me--for saying, completely off-hand, that he didn't really like Pirates of the Caribbean, which had just come out that summer. I remember his glasses flying off and spiraling across the room. I also slapped another kid for saying that German was better than French--but he was taller than me and had a history of goading me, so I felt less bad about that one. Still, those two incidents were both strange and abnormal. I don't think I've slapped anyone since then, and I still feel bad about poor little Michael and his glasses. Still, those were the only two moments of violence and anger in my childhood.

Something happened during anti-depressantGate 2009 that changed how vocal I was about my opinions. Part of it was my study abroad to England with a group of vocal, outspoken humans, not all of whom were liberal and not all of whom were conservative. But when you're hiking with the same group of people for 12 hours a day, you have to talk about something, which means being vocal, which often means telling stories and sharing opinions and explaining things that you've never explained to yourself or anyone else before. I was in a situation where, to pass the time, I actually had to talk.

I discovered that talking was nice. And now, I talk all the time. I have a lot of opinions on a lot of things. And I felt comfortable expressing anger and annoyance at things that I used to just shut up about. I was tired of being a doormat and of letting other people walk all over me. So I decided to stop.

I'm still not very good at this. I still let people talk at me and lecture me and walk all over me. Especially when I'm around my family, because I don't want to incur more negative feelings against me. And obviously different attitudes are appropriate in different contexts--I act differently when teaching my class than when I'm on facebook, for instance. But I've come to the conclusion that without anger, nothing gets done. Nothing changes. Think of Gandhi--we use him as the example of pacifism and non-violence, which he was, but that was the form his particular anger took. He was pissed about colonialism and poverty, and the way he chose to deal with it was to lead protests and strikes. The Civil Rights movement came about because people were pissed off. And Jesus even gets super pissed that one time and makes himself a whip to beat moneychangers out of the temple. Go figure.

So now, after a long life of being a doormat, I've decided that I'm tired of it. I'm going to get angry about the things I care about. I'm going to speak up and try to let my voice be heard. Which doesn't mean I need to go around slapping poor innocents. But it does mean that I'm angry about a lot of things, and I'm going to try to use that anger to make the world a better place.

And now to conclude with a nice, somber piece from Louise Gluck's absolutely amazing exploration of nature and suffering. This poem is about pacifism and acceptance, which are important and complementary to getting angry and upset and vocal. Have a good week, everyone!

The White Lilies
As a man and woman make
a garden between them like
a bed of stars, here
they linger in the summer evening
and the evening turns
cold with their terror: it
could all end, it is capable
of devastation. All, all
can be lost, through scented air
the narrow columns
uselessly rising, and beyond,
a churning sea of poppies--

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.


  1. Someone once told me that Jesus gettin' angry about people turning the temple into a den of capitalism was OK because he takes the time to braid himself a scourge, instead of just pulling a Magic Finger and turning them into doves and oxen or something (which would admittedly have been more awesome). Instead of letting himself be driven by his anger, he uses it as motivation for positive action.

    I think it illustrates nicely the two responses to anger; you can either let it blind you to reality or you can bridle your passions and get shit done. I don't really know what I'm trying to say here, but I think it's something like "you're a lot more like Jesus than you are Walter White, and that's nice."

  2. Another lovely poem.

    Be strong! Be vocal!