Posted by: jevcat | March 9, 2010

On Anger


 Does anyone really understand anger?  I don’t mean the kind that happens when a bike messenger whips around a corner, nearly running you over and you yell epithets at his (and it usually is “his”) vanishing back. I mean sustained rage that becomes part of a person’s life.

 I’m thinking about this lately because of a recent discussion/argument with a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook.  It all ended fairly amicably in an agree-to-disagree sort of way, probably because  I was, on this occasion at least, able to heed the proverb “a mild answer turneth aside wrath,” but it’s got me thinking about the nature of anger.  I’ve struggled with it for years.

 My own anger, like my mother’s, tends to be of the Irish, thunderstorm variety:  sometimes fierce and flashy but quickly over and followed by sun.  Dad, on the other hand, was a brooder.  My brother and I learned, when an inexplicable explosion occurred over something minor, to wait.  The initial outburst would inevitably be followed at some point by something like “and what about that night last week you didn’t get to bed on time!”  Things took longer to come to a head than with Mom and longer to blow over, but they mostly did.

 But for this person I was communicating with (at least I hope I was communicating) and for a few of my friends, there seems to be a sort of free-floating fury that seethes continually, seeking targets both intimate and distant.  The enemy is always present, even when he’s not.  There’s always a “they” who have perpetrated something:  immigrants, those trying to reform healthcare, a child, a spouse.  Sometimes it’s just someone with the same goal but a different opinion about how to get there, and sometimes it’s just someone conveniently there at the right (or for them the wrong) time.

 I understand the being angry part, both for personal and systemic issues – at least some of the time.  It’s the degree of the anger that baffles me, and their ability to maintain the anger at that level for that length of time.  I don’t have that kind of energy – and if I did, that’s not how I’d want to use it – not to mention that that sort of anger tends to cloud judgment.

It’s as though some people enjoy their anger, holding it close and feeding on it, even as it feeds on them.  There’s always something to be angry about, if you look for it, and they do.  No joy is untarnished, there’s a fly in every jar of ointment.  I see the fly too, and will try to do something about it, but the ointment still smells sweet – and maybe next time there’ll be no fly.

I’m not advocating we all don rose-colored glasses or make peace with oppression – or even that we refrain from reminding children and partners that dirty laundry belongs in the hamper, rather than on the floor.  I’m unpublished, unemployed, and scared.  But the sky is blue today, the snowdrops are up, and spring appears to be more than just a rumor.  My partner’s health is iffy but he’s here and he loves me, and I love him.  If healthcare reform doesn’t pass, we’ll get cry, re-group, and start again.  There’ll be anger – you bet.  A lot.  But spring will still come, and there will be work to be done.

 I feel for the people who hold onto the rage and wish I could help them – especially the ones I love.  You can’t hold onto rage and joy at the same time, so they lose the joy.  Even to my own ears, it sounds smug, self-righteous, and condescending to say to them, “I’ll pray for you,” so I don’t say it.  But I do it.

 I may not be able to comprehend a constant state of anger – or maybe the thought is so painful I don’t even want to try – but I do understand prayer (at least a little), so I’ll stick with that, pray for them, and pray that my own anger, when it comes, is appropriate, used effectively, and then released.  Because spring will always be coming again.



  1. Thank you, Janet, for your good writing.

    I’ve been thinking about anger too, as my Dad, who is in the hospital, sounds so angry lately. He’s angry at the hospital, angry at the nurses and doctors, angry at his girlfriend. Listening to him makes me feel bad for everyone involved. If I had my way, what I would hear each phone call is him expressing gratitude for any help he’s getting, faith that all will be well, belief that he will recover, and love for me, of course. But, anger covers everything. I understand he doesn’t feel well right now. And, I do pray for him and love him very much. But, it’s still difficult to be exposed to such expressions of anger.

    Then, I remembered from all those psychology books I’ve read, that anger is a familiar and comfortable emotion for my Dad, and I’ll wager for many people. Anger is a major theme that sells TV programs (think Jerry Springer), movies, and newspapers (think road rage stories). We know what it looks like, tastes like and feels like. It’s an intensely strong emotion. It gives one the feeling or illusion of power. It is easier to take than some of the other negative emotions that make us feel vulnerable — emotions obscured by anger — helplessness, fear, disappointment. Even embarrassment and shame. Not to mention the knowledge of one’s own mortality.

    I’m not sure if it’s generational, different for men versus women, ethnic or a universal experience of simply being human. But anger is an easier emotion to manage than those that make us feel exposed.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express this. It makes me feel less angry.

    • And thanks for your kind words, Robin, and for feeling free enough to give words to what you’re feeling. Maybe part of the attraction of anger is it makes us feel as though we are doing something, even though we’re usually not doing anything except expending energy being angry. And for someone sick and feeling helpless, being angry just seems to be a natural reaction. The hard part is when it touches loved ones.

  2. Great post! I was just reading about this issue in today’s WSJ.

  3. I also know a few people (perhaps some of the same ones you know) who seem to cultivate their own anger. It is sad. It’s sad for them and for the people who care about them.
    Yes, it does sound condescending to tell people you’ll pray for them. Like you, I do that without talking about it because I don’t want to alienate anyone.
    It occurs to me, though, that one factor in the equation might be whether you are a person who prays. Like you, I’m inclined to be scared these days. I’m underemployed, insecurely housed and dealing with very difficult family relationships. I’m starting the process of menopause, which makes me feel old and vulnerable. Prayer, though, is an exercise (among other things) in presence. I think my ability to appreciate this beautiful, sunny day, the food I just finished eating; the way my cats look when they’re curled up in tiny, purring balls…all of that is cultivated by daily prayer. I’m not saying that people who don’t pray are unable to “be here now” and appreciate what’s good. But prayer does seem to make it easier and more natural.

    • I don’t doubt prayer is a factor. I always think of one of the things Joseph Campbell said in his interviews with Bill Moyers, which was a quote from someone else (I never remember who) about feeling sorry for anyone who has “no invisible means of support”.

  4. For those who are perpetually angry at anything and “for no reason”, anger provides proof of their own existence. It replaces something missing in themselves. It gives them something to hold on to and demands of others, “See me. I am here.” People who do not have a close relationship with anger are aware of their self worth and seek validation in constructive ways.

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