Last night, I listened to Cat Stevens’ Peace Train and Bad Religion’s New Dark Ages, two of my favorite songs.
And I found myself singing along angrily, even to Peace Train.
Most people who know me, I suspect, would not say that I am a particularly angry person. I rarely raise my voice. I rarely yell, or punch things, or stomp out. I rarely hold a grudge.
And yet, I have always found myself feeling waves of anger that tense my muscles and force me to curl my hands into fists with such intensity that I wish that my nails would draw blood, so at least there would be some kind of competing sensation.
When I was in the fifth grade, we were asked to do a totem animal assignment. Today, I would say I am most like the dolphin: Gregarious, fun-loving, intelligent, playful. (And yes, smartasses, I am also a very sexual being. Fill in the blanks as you please).
But for that assignment, I chose the snake. I felt that a snake was a coiled up ball of anger, lithe and intense, hiding anger.
I wrote a short story about being a Seminole tribesman with that in mind, about a conflict with another tribe.
I’d say most people who knew me as a child would be surprised by that sensation. I generally smiled and laughed. I wasn’t getting into fights, I wasn’t disruptive in class (usually).
I see now that the punk and protest songs I listen to fill me with rage because I see injustice and know we can do better. I see news reports of pain and destruction and want to stop it. I get angry because I care.
But I don’t think the rage has ever really controlled me, and I think I’ve figured out why, and I suspect this may be a useful anger management technique.
The anger isn’t something to resent. We say sometimes that anger is a poison, but it’s more that holding onto a feeling of anger and letting it dictate your cognitions instead of allowing your cognitions to control it is a poison. Any feeling becomes a poison when we don’t process it, letting it go into the ether.
I do not bottle up my anger. I express it. I will write a story, write a journal entry, direct it towards art, or just rant to a friend on the phone.
But I do box it away.
Since I have begun striving to the highest level of my writing and engagement, trying to spread the hope I feel, I have found myself feeling spikes of fury. Like something surging up through my chest. I find myself punching a pillow.
I say that I don’t know where the anger is coming from, but that isn’t entirely true. I may be surprised by the timing of the flow, but I know exactly what the wellspring is. I want so badly to see what I feel as valuable spread and change lives. That unfulfilled want grinds at us when we keep it in our cognitions. I have to hold onto that want in order to keep moving forward.
Many activists are going to feel this anger at some point. Many changemakers, from police officers to good and moral attorneys (yes it’s not a contradiction in terms, jerks), will find that rage ruining their nights. I suspect many of you reading this find yourself on occasion dealing with wrath that just moves you and grips you and seems to refuse to let go.
Try imagining a box to put that anger away into.
Mine I imagine to be roughly the size of those cardboard take-away boxes used by the nicer restaurants, with the tabs and such, in that trapezoidal shape. I imagine it as intensely bright white flowing light, so that there is an aversion to it, so that I don’t want to open it randomly or thoughtlessly. Whatever visualization works for you will be fine.
Now, what I have found about this approach is this:
The anger in that moment will fade away.
But this process will make you remember the moment where you were angry. It will connect it to other moments.
When you need that anger, you need only open that box.
And here is perhaps the best part.
Instead of losing strength, I have found that that anger, put away, builds up in intensity. It’s in a battery, being stored and contained, instead of discharging uselessly.
There are times when we need anger. When we hear about things our politicians do, when we hear about war and death, when we hear about someone in our life who has been hurt and victimized.
I hope this process helps you.
As for me, I know that I will continue to feel anger. I am human. As much as sometimes I would like not to be human, that isn’t possible and it isn’t even necessarily a good thing. Humanity is functional. It is noble just the way it is. There is nothing wrong about human essence, just our choices. I have forgiven myself for that anger, and forgiving myself has let me let it go.
But that anger doesn’t control me anymore. It flares up and then fades away. And instead of it leaving me drained, those fight-or-flight instincts uselessly exhausting my muscles and stressing me, I find myself invigorated.
Conquering that anger has been just one of the many things I have been very excited about, and it all came from finally accepting totally the things I believe.