Can I Learn to be Angry More Constructively than a Five Year Old?

How do we negotiate anger in an ethical way? I ask this question because it is rooted very deeply in a personal situation right now. But I think it is important, too, to think about in situations that are less immediately personal and more about community, about institutions and the people within them. The problem is not simply the negotiation of anger, though arguably that along is problem enough to deal with. The problem is negotiating anger within relationships that involve things other than just anger, relationships that cannot simply be severed either for pragmatic reasons or reasons nestled in the heart.

What I’m getting at is the question of how do you deal with anger while at the same time maintaining other emotions. Of course we deal with this frequently in small ways. A friend, for instance, may do something that angers us. But for the purposes of this reflection I’d like to draw a distinction between very temporary anger and more ongoing forms. What is bothering me is anger about situations that are not likely to change (or are only likely to change with great effort) and situations that cannot easily be smoothed over with apologies, heartfelt conversations, or other strategies of reconciliation. I am talking here, about deep and very painful anger.

I suppose I should start by confessing that I am bad at anger to begin with. It’s an emotion that I’m never sure how to shape into constructive form. But at a certain level there are people that I can at least feel angry at without making myself too uncomfortable. I am angry at the current U.S. president and this administration. I find this easy. I am angry at the history teacher who sexually harassed me throughout high school. Again, I experience this anger with very little internal conflict. I do sometimes feel twinges of guilt for the kind of anger that starts bleeding over into hatred because it does not seem to mesh with the UU principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” but there are ways to mentally overcome that hurdle. Eventually, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible for people to tarnish themselves through their actions to the point where their inherent worth and dignity is no longer visible to the naked eye.

Lately I have been thinking about a much more interally conflicted sort of anger. Perhaps it is easiest to start with the very personal example and move from there to the more generic question of pragmatic alliances forged despite anger. The short version of the story is that I am currently very angry at a friend with whom I have had a very tumultous friendship over the past three years. He is someone I care very deeply about and who has been very valuable to me. He is also someone who has treated me in ways that hurt a great deal during that time. And while we did discuss these behaviors and the way they made me feel, they nonetheless continued. And ultimately I find myself standing at what feels like a brick wall. On the one hand my heart is expansive and full of good will, happy memories, and recognition of the powerful influence this man has had on my life and my identity. On the other hand I am suffering from a long accumulation of hurt. And I am angry that my hurt has been left largely unaddressed and indeed sometimes even unacknowledged. I have expressed both my hurt and my anger. Ultimately the expression changed very little in terms of how I felt about it. I was still hurt. I was still angry.

And this raises the question for me, what is one supposed to do with one’s anger? I feel like a hysterical child caught in a temper tantrum, stomping my feet and yelling and screaming. I am angry. I am hurt. And I’m rather exhausted from all this screaming and stamping my feet. I feel like this hysterical child because I don’t know what to do next besides yell and scream. And the yelling and screaming itself seems both pointless and manipulative. I have expressed my anger. I know nothing is going to change, really. Little things might, but the larger issues almost certainly won’t. I can continue to express my anger, but that feels as if it demands some response. And what response is there really? Apologies are frail substitutes for actual efforts to remedy a situation. And, in this case, I am not really looking for a remedy. And this leaves me feeling that I cannot continue to relate to this person because there seems to be no solution to my feelings besides continuing a relationship that leaves me prone to histrionics and tantrums. Continuing the friendship on those terms seems damaging to both of us. The effort of the tantrums is exhausting for me, and unfair to him. And so I am left balancing this feeling of deep, probably unreconcilable, anger with an equally deep and unshakable feeling of care and regard.

This is uncomfortable and hard to deal with in my personal life, and a lot of my current emotional energy is spent on trying to ease that discomfort. At the same time, though, I have been thinking about how these dynamics play out in other situations. In my life as a Unitarian Universalist I spend a lot of time looking at dynamics of oppression. My home congregation is one in which issues of racism (and language-based oppression) are very salient and must be dealt with at an institutional level constantly. Sometimes things can be very contentious. And I’ve both witnessed and experienced a great deal of anger in that setting. Nonetheless is a community in which we, by the choice to form a faith community, remain in relationship with one another. And I have to wonder what the effect of this is. I have seen hurt heaped high. And I have seen people continue on and work in alliance with each other later, despite having expressed deep hurt at past points. I don’t percieve that hurt being worked through. Much like with my friendship that now hangs in tatters, that hurt just seems to be pushed aside indefinitely. And I wonder what damage that does to our ability to really be in relationship with one another.

How do we form alliances through anger? Most social movements involve some aspect of this. Those fighting to right their own institutional disenfranchisement often find themselves having to form connections with those who possess institutional power. And underneath that there is anger. If nothing else there is an overwhelming anger at the system. In many cases there is a passionate anger at all members of a group in power. But yet relationships are formed. And often they are not merely pragmatic. Often they involve real regard and trust (even if it is tinged with a patina of non-trust).

More importantly, what do we do with our anger? How do we express it? How do we use it. As a woman I am deeply angry at the systems of sexism that constrain my behavior and my perception in the world. I try not to let that anger become an anger at all men. But how do I express and anger at sexism without lobbing bullets at those who I love, who happen to be empowered by the system that I hate? How do I harness that anger for something constructive, rather than just letting it eat away at me and tarnish my relationships? How do I separate individuals I care for from the system of oppression that we all exist in?

From the other side, how do I deal with other people’s anger? How do I, as a white woman, process the anger of my non-white friends. How do I separate their, and my, hatred of a system of racism, from a hatred of white people, from a hatred of me personally?

How do we love despite hurt? How do we balance anger with that love? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt the innocent? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt us? I think these are questions I am going to be left working on for a long time.

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