On anger, righteous and personal

Sometime I will write about righteousness more broadly, how deeply suspicious I am of righteousness after growing up in conservative Christianity, how troubled I am when I see its toxic aspects reflected in people I tend to agree with today. But it’s a big topic that I don’t feel ready to tackle today, so I want to look instead at the narrower subject of righteous anger.

Anger in general comes from a violation, a boundary crossing. It is a strike force against someone who did something they had no right to do. It is the body’s way of fiercely affirming that our boundaries must be guarded, that we deserve to receive good and not harm from people who come near us.

Some of us have been taught all our lives to suppress anger. We are taught to let our boundaries be invaded, to cede territory rather than make the invader unhappy or uncomfortable. We are taught to “forgive” before we’ve ever really claimed our hurt — in other words, we are taught that our hurts don’t matter and our boundaries don’t deserve defending. Learning to value and protect ourselves and learning how to be angry go hand in hand.

In my experience, anger is a two-pronged spear. One prong is “I have been hurt,” and the other is “a wrong has been done.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anger that doesn’t contain at least a little of both of these, although the balance may swing hard in one direction or another. Even when the wrong is done to a stranger far distant — say, a family seeking asylum that’s been torn apart by a white supremacist government — I feel some direct, personal pain, because I am an empathetic person and because families matter to me. And even when the wrong done is very personal and probably entirely defensible — say, an ex taking a new partner to our favorite restaurant — there is a little piece of me that feels like, “that shouldn’t have happened, it’s not right.”

Righteous anger is the prong that says “a wrong has been done here.” For those of us who are taught that anger on our own behalf is not allowed, righteous anger is a more permissible alternative. You can’t defend your own boundaries or claim your own hurt, but you are allowed to be angry if an objective wrong has been done. You have to make sure you focus on the objective wrong, though, not on the hurt. Your hurts still don’t matter.

Righteous anger is vital and necessary. I don’t think social change could happen without it.  But I have also learned to be deeply suspicious of it, in myself and in other people, and the more close and personal a situation is, the more suspicious I am. Too often, righteous anger is a way to avoid tending to our personal hurts, or to maintain a sense of control over a narrative, or to distance ourselves from the possibility that we also have done wrong.

I’ll talk about the last two things later, since they’re both part of the way righteous anger — and righteousness in general — can be a power move. I want to spend more time now on the way that overdwelling on the “righteous” part of anger gets in the way of caring for our own hurts.

I already said that learning how to value and protect ourselves and learning to be angry go hand in hand. Specifically, learning to be angry on our own behalf is a part of the process. I can rage and rage that a wrong has been done, but until I voice to myself, “I have been hurt, and I am not okay with that,” I’m not going a step further toward valuing and protecting myself.

Invoking grand principles feels so much safer than suggesting that my own feelings and pain matter. If I say, “This thing was wrong!” they’re not going to respond with “Why should I care?” — and if they do, they’re clearly the asshole. If, on the other hand, I say “This thing hurt me!” then the possibility of “Why should I care?” becomes terrifyingly vivid. I’ve had plenty of people in my life hurt me and not care, so it’s not irrational of me to imagine that voicing my hurt will lead to nothing but dismissal, or worse.

Whether they care isn’t actually the point, though. It matters, and it especially matters if I’m deciding whether to let someone be close to me, but it isn’t the point. The point is that I care. It matters to me that I was hurt. That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I need my anger — to really feel that it matters. I can’t do that by offloading my hurt onto an abstract notion of justice. I have to keep it right there in my chest, so that my anger is doing what it’s meant to do — defending me.