I don’t think I’m someone that most people would describe as an angry person, mainly because I work my butt off to contain myself when I’m angry about things that don’t really call for anger.
But, in fact, I think of myself as an angry person.
I’m angry a lot.
Part of me feels entirely justified: like, there’s a lot of injustice and stuff in the world, and also a lot of people just being jerks.
While it might not always be effective, anger about “injustice and stuff” seems, well, justified. What matters in that realm is what you do with that anger. Just like you can harness the power of anger to make yourself actually do double tours, you can harness the power of anger to help power you in the ongoing struggle for justice.
And getting angry (or at least annoyed) when people are jerks is kind of human nature. You have to learn how to manage it, of course, but I’m pretty sure even the Dalai Lama occasionally feels at least a little irritated by the actions of his almost-eight billion siblings in this life. Even the Buddha and Jesus got angry now and again, and the Hebrew scriptures of full of good people (and not-so-good people) who get angry at each-other and even at G-d .
I mean, one of the ways to translate the name “Israel” is “wrestles with G-d,” and Judaism allows, and sometimes even encourages, us to have it out with the Being Upstairs.
So this isn’t a screed against anger.
Anger has its place, and usually when we try to Just Not Be Angry, what we actually wind up doing is Being Angry Anyway But Bottling It. And when we say “we,” I mean “I.”
I’m hoping your upbringing and experiences have taught you healthier habits–but, if I’m honest, looking at the way most of us act behind the wheel of a car, I’m probably not alone, here.
Strangely, when you bottle something that can be produced in almost limitless supply, you tend to wind up with a lot of it. Ask anyone who’s ever been to Burning Man or had to spend a day or two without a toilet while plumbing repairs happened . Pee Jars proliferate in the dark like some kind of invasive life-form.
It can be hella cold in the desert at night, and if you don’t want to don fifty-seven layers to sprint to the nearest Portos, a Pee Jar is your very best friend.
Likewise, just as it’s a bad idea to repurpose an empty one-gallon cranberry juice jug as a Pee Jar, it’s a bad idea to construct within one’s being a vast reservoir for the storage of anger. Because it’s large, you can procrastinate for much longer before doing the necessary work to empty it. Because you can procrastinate for much longer before emptying it, it’s very likely that when you do, you’ll find that the contents have been magically concentrated into a vile stew of immense potency.
What do you mean, “That reference seems oddly specific,” eh, buddy?
So I am, on the inside, part being attempting to learn to live with lovingkindness and part gigantic bottle of acidic stank.
But that, in fact, also isn’t what I’m reaching for (or, well … except when it’s time to empty the jar, I guess: now, where did I put my chem-lab respirator…).
Instead, what I’m reaching for is something I know I’ve written about before, but which bears revisiting. And it’s this:
Fear Is Under-Rated
You’ve probably heard my argument about how laziness is, in fact, an extremely valuable asset in terms of the long-term survival of a species (perhaps ours most of all, since it gives birth to at least as much innovation and creativity as does its dour-faced sister, Necessity, and the ability to invent–that is, to adapt–is our stock-in-trade).
Well, here’s another one: fear is also an extremely valuable asset.
In fact, I would argue that it’s a much more important one than laziness. Sure, it seems reasonable to assume that our moderately-lazy ancestors likely got a bit of a Darwinian boost by conserving their calories and putting them to use when it really mattered … but our moderately-fearful ancestors probably had a huge boost.
Like, honestly? As much as we tend to worship this ideal of fearlessness, really fearless people are excellent at getting themselves killed early in life.
And, of course, dying early in life somewhat limits one’s chances at contributing generously to the overall gene pool.
So not only does a healthy dose of fear help us stay alive, but when we treat fear with respect, we’re respecting a great gift that our ancestors gave us.
So, like, fear can be a great, great thing. Obviously, you can have too much of it–when it prevents you from living your life, that’s roughly as problematic as the all-too-common end result of having too little fear and dying in some stupid way because your nervous system didn’t bother to say, “HEY! This is stupid, and not how we should die. Could we maybe rethink this plan?”
But, on the balance, fear is a helpful gift.
So, then, what (you might by now, quite reasonably, be wondering) exactly is the problem here?
The Problem With Fear (and with Anger)
The problem, for me, is threefold.
First, by nature, I’m a bit of a bad ancestor. As much as I’d like something more impressive, if I had to choose a heraldic motto for myself, it would probably be best to use, “Quod citius ad me, ut per me stultior.”
My Latin is very much limited to the sphere of sacred-music latin, so that’s Google Translate Latin for, “The faster I go, the dumber I get.” If something is incorrectly declined, blame Google. Caveat emptor, etc.
I am the kind of person who has, thus far, avoided major injury by a combination of genes that make me naturally suited for fast-moving, dangerous feats and no small measure of sheer dumb luck. It doesn’t matter how good a skier you are when some other jackwagon careens into you at the speed of sound, after all, and skill and good reflexes can only account for so much, and I’m pretty sure the Divine Intelligence of the Universe isn’t really in the business of pulling morons like myself out of fires that we have ourselves first constructed and lit. At least, not most of the time.
Second, my childhood taught me to be afraid of the wrong things. So, in addition to being what you might call your typical high-adventure-tolerance hyperactive/impulsive ADHDer, I was conditioned to disregard any misgivings my brain might actually bother to produce with regard to most kinds of physical danger, but also conditioned to be completely freaked the feck out by emotional vulnerability. I didn’t even have the example of an early childhood in which fear was met with compassion and comfort–neither of my parents had the wherewithal for that, back then.
So–and this brings us to our third point–I learned to transfigure fear.
And, of course, the easiest thing to turn fear into is … you guessed it.
At The Bottom Of Anger, There’s Usually Fear
While finally catching up on housework, I’ve been binge-watching Call The Midwife. It’s one of the rare non-documentary series that I can really enjoy: the characters act like actual people, instead of drama-flogging wackos in the worst kind of middle-school fanfic.
Anyway, I’m on series 2, and yesterday saw an episode in which fiercely-independent twins Meg and Maeve lock horns with our friends from Nonnatus House. At one point, one of the Nonnatans says something like, “At the bottom of anger, there’s usually fear,” or something equally wise.
And that, in turn, might have primed me to recognize that fear was at the root of an episode of anger I experienced while driving to class tonight.
I make no bones about the fact that I deeply dislike the way people drive where I currently live. What looks like normal driving to people here looks, to me, like reckless (though sadly not wreckless) disregard for safe following distance, and indeed for the laws of physics. Where I grew up, we have this thing called winter, and even though we’re pretty decent at clearing roads, learning to walk, and then bike, and then drive on snow and ice imparts a healthy repect for leaving some frickin’ space, ya turkey.
So there I was, driving to class, getting angrier and angrier because, well, people were driving like they always do (except when it rains, in which case they drive at the same speeds and, well, lack-of-distances, but as if they’ve never been behind the wheel before in their lives and have indeed just now awakened unexpectedly at the helm of this incomprehensible four-wheeled Death Buggy).
But OF COURSE I was angry, right? THEY were behaving stupidly and recklessly and risking their lives and each-others’ and mine for NO GOOD REASON, and MY ANGER WAS COMPLETELY ABOUT THAT because that kind of behavior is STUPID and SELFISH and UNJUST and–
And then I pulled into the studio’s parking lot.
And then I spent 90 minutes dancing in my own little box, with my mask on, and not thinking about it because if you can think about anything else in ballet class, you either need a day off or a better class (and this was a very good class) or, possibly, you’re on week 3 of Nutcracker and your brain is just DONE.
And when, at least, I found myself back in my Ballet Wagon, I was swamped by a sudden resurgence of Automotive Anger.
I’m defining this separately from Road Rage, since Road Rage is usually used to describe behaviors directed at other road-users, and my Automotive Anger often takes the form of unexpressed interior seething.
Sometimes at moments like that, I automatically talk to myself out loud, because my mental translation software does better with abstract stuff (like feelings) if I either write it out or speak aloud. This is one of the sticking points of being a non-verbal thinker: language was practically invented for abstract stuff that’s hard to parse through sensory imagination and the experiential states we call emotions.
At some point in this conversation, I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to get back on the highway but taking surface streets takes longer and I just want to get home.” And then I asked myself, “Why don’t you want to take the highway?” and I answered, “It’s too stressful,” and I asked, “Why is it stressful?” and before I could say “Because people are jackwagons and I can’t effing stand it” some dusty long-forgotten neuron tucked away in a disused corner of my brain fired all of its guns at once and, rather than exploding into space, shot me the unadulterated message:
Which … honestly?
It took me by surprise, and made me uncomfortable.
But then another part of my brain, the one that’s usually a smart-aleck about any kind of fear, was basically like, “No, that actually makes sense. Like, the way people drive is dangerous and beyond our control.”
Regarding which: wow. Apparently even my inner stupid jackwagon can learn.
A bit of fear about the way people is a good thing. At least, it is if you use it right: if you say, “Hi, Fear! Thanks for looking out for me! Let’s practice some mindful defensive driving so we can stay fairly far from other drivers as much as possible and be prepared just in case they do anything dumb.”
I took the highway home.
People still disregarded the laws of physics, but I expected that and knew I couldn’t change it. Somehow, that made a world of difference. I didn’t have to unconsciously transmute my nervous system’s life-sustaining concern over the dangers implicit in lots of common driving habits into anger in order to feel less vulnerable, or whatever my misguided unconscious habits are trying to do. I just had to drive my own car as responsibly as possible.
It didn’t mean that there wasn’t some stress involved, just that the stress was much easier to cope with without white-hot anger getting in the way.
Okay, But … So … Now What?
When I got home, it somehow occurred to me that maybe it’s time to start examining some of my other anger.
Like, I feel like most of the time I’m just one spark away from a conflagration.
Add to this the neurologically-mediated autistic meltdowns that happen much less often but do, in fact, still happen these days, and I sound like a walking disaster. I’m kind of surprised I’m not worse off than I am.
If I lived in a different set of circumstances and had a different set of experiences, I suspect the outcome of that reality could easily be rather more unpleasant. If I hadn’t had a big sister to kick my butt and teach me that blowing up at people tends to result in getting one’s ass handed to one, as it were, they could be a lot more unpleasant.
But even as it stands, I walk around in a high-arousal state a lot, and I feel angry a lot, and I can be short-tempered in ways that almost always seem justified in the moment because my brain is great at deciding that it has good reason to be angry about … whatever. Right now, I’m really glad I was explicitly taught to assume all service-industry workers are doing their best under immensely trying circumstances (which is generally true) and that the customer is NOT always right, or I would almost certainly be such a huge ass all the time
But, um. anyway. It occurred to me that maybe it’s possible to work on this after all. That maybe I’ll be able to work on mitigating some of the damage left by serious traumas and by, well, life. Maybe I’ll always be a bit more keyed-up and hypervigilant than I might’ve been if some really bad things hadn’t happened to me, but I can cope with that.
The past several years have, for me, been immensely healing. I’ve learned to trust in ways I never imagined; I’ve begun to re-examine the fabric of memory (endless thanks to Pilobolus SI, which really kickstarted that process); I’ve found, in the rubble of a life firebombed by circumstance, the tender shoot of a forgotten love that has become a passion, a career, and a home.
Still, I never imagined I would someday entertain the thought that I might also, just maybe, find a way to ratchet down the generalized wariness that leads, too often, to feeling like I’m living a kind of embattled life.
I don’t expect any of this to come quickly. Hell, I don’t expect it to come at all. If all that ever comes out of this moment of clarity is, well, this moment, that’s still an immeasurable good.
But I think if I can do this once, I can probably do it more than once.
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