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.

Strong heart

Grief keeps coming for me this year. Over and over I’ve been hit with loss: different kinds, different reasons, all painful.

Also this year, I realized that I needed to learn to be fully present with my feelings or die. So when grief hits me, instead of evading it or crushing it down, I have been trying hard to sit with it, to let it move through me at its own pace. This takes discipline. I have a dozen strategies for diverting grief or stopping its flow, and it’s hard not to activate them when my heart feels like it’s being gripped in a vise and I can only breathe in little gasps that feel like stabs.

One thing I am learning is that my heart is strong. While I sit there gasping, thinking “I am actually not sure I can bear this,” my heart is steadily bearing it. It holds the pain and it endures. As I sit here now, on a peaceful day, that same center of feeling in my chest is at rest, undamaged. It holds pain like a sponge holds water, wringing out sobs and tears when it gets too full, and then absorbing more until there’s no more to soak up. And then it quietly returns to its original state.

I always think that I need to protect my body, to avoid pain. I think that pain is the same thing as damage, and try to shield my body even from feeling emotional pain. But this summer I have begun asking my body what she needs from me, and when I have asked in the grips of grief, the answer is never, “Save me from this.” It is, “Be with me through this.” Don’t run away. Don’t suppress.

When I push the grief away, I just move it to somewhere else in my body, a place that isn’t meant to absorb and release it.

And because there’s no way to evade a valid pain without lying, when I push the grief away I spin lies. I lie about what I really want, or about what the future will hold, or about the reality of the past. It becomes harder and harder to know and feel my actual needs and realities, and harder to connect to other people. Every attempt at closeness, every decision I make for my life, has to navigate around the brittle structure of illusions and evasions I’ve built to protect myself from pain.

I’m realizing slowly that none of this is necessary. I am very new to this, and I don’t know if there are limits or actual breaking conditions, but for now I am trying to trust that my heart is strong. It knows how to do this work of holding pain. Instead of tying myself in knots to protect it, I can sit and feel it, and thank it for its work.

Fifteen Favorite Feelings

A while ago, Hank Green of Vlogbrothers (a youtube channel he runs with his somewhat more famous brother, author John Green) did a video on his fifteen favorite feelings. He did it because in part because videos like “fifteen things that annoy you” were commonly requested, and despite their popularity, they always left him feeling bad. He wanted to do a listy video that was positive. It actually was a very popular post as well, and since then some other people have borrowed the idea, like Malinda Kathleen Reese of the Google Translate Sings videos. (She runs song lyrics through Google Translate until they screw up, and then sings them dramatically. It’s wonderful.)

I’ve liked all these videos, so I decided to steal the concept for my blog. I’m doing two versions; one here that for general good feelings, and one over on my writing blog for good feelings associated with the writing process.

  1. Seeing somebody’s reaction when you’ve just given them the perfect gift.
    I remember the first time I got this feeling. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was old enough to pick out presents for people on my own, but not old enough that I’d been doing that for very long. My Mom had said something about wanting a new watch, and I found one that I thought looked great, and it was just $20 (I was a frugal little kid, so I could afford that). Up until that moment my favorite thing about Christmas was the cool stuff I would get, but this year the number one thing I was thinking about was whether or not she would like it. The rush I got from the look on her face was incredible. She still wears the watch to this day.
  2. Going to a live performance with a friend.  There really is a special energy to live entertainment. The ephemeral joy of it really needs to be shared with someone, so years later you can go “that concert though,” and they can go “yeah man…” and you both know.
  3. Watching animals do nearly anything. What is it about animals that makes everything they do this peculiarly delightful thing to behold? It spurs some mixture of paternal tenderness and naturalist’s awe. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me.
  4. The excited fear that precedes the first drop of a roller coaster. I am, paradoxically, both an anxious person and a junkie for scary-type entertainment.
  5. Cuddling my boyfriend. I am a serious cuddleholic. I think I like snuggling even better than sex (I can reveal that to who knows how many strangers on the internet, right? Yeah, people do that these days).
  6. When a friend introduces me to some book or show that becomes an instant new obsession. Fandom is fun to share. When somebody introduces me to something, I have a built-in person to run to every time something squee or rant or flail inducing happens.
  7. Meeting somebody who is genuinely eager to hear about something I’m passionate about. I always have that problem of wanting to talk about stuff I like, for basically forever. While I’ve learned to hold off pretty well, it’s nice to let that side of me loose sometimes.
  8. Teasing with somebody when there is mutual liking and respect. Obviously teasing when there isn’t that camaraderie is awful, but I’ve always been a huge fan of friendly banter.
  9. Hearing something nice said about me, without any prompts. Sometimes you just need a boost. It’s great to get some reassurance that you’re a basically decent person and somebody likes you. Hearing somebody say it when you’ve dropped a bunch of hints that you need a pick me up is okay, but it’s never as good as when somebody says something nice just out of the blue.
  10. Going to a movie or museum on my own. In contrast to the second item on the list, I know this one is more particular to me. Sometimes when I’m with other people, even close friends, wondering about their reactions and keeping track of them can be exhausting. It’s nice to just quietly process things on my own terms, especially when I’m around other people who I can enjoy stuff with, but not actually interact with at all.
  11. Watching somebody else be happy. Have you ever stopped at a stoplight, and next to you somebody has the music on and is singing along and doing a little dance in their seat? Isn’t that just the funniest and most delightful thing? I don’t even care if it’s music I like or not. I just like seeing other people have a good time.
  12. Playing with kids. They’re just so fun. I love having the excuse to be silly and imaginative without caring what people think. They aren’t everybody’s favorite thing, and that’s okay, but I really like kids.
  13. Seeing somebody’s life improved in some way by something I’ve said. Look, I’m an INFJ. Sometimes nicknamed the Counselor. We are always trying to say something helpful. Sometimes we aren’t as helpful as we want to be. But when we are, it’s awesome.
  14. Reading. Turning words into a world in my head, and then just hanging out in that world for a bit. Reading. Yeah.
  15. Quietly noticing something beautiful. My Mom always loved to point out pretty sunsets and trees, and I’m glad she did. It really taught me to appreciate the world around me. Still, her style of appreciation was always so boisterous, and I often felt daunted by the desire to match her level of enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s just the difference between our personalities, and perhaps it’s partly my sense that no words I say can be equal to the experience of whatever it is. In any case, I really love just wandering on my own, noticing something lovely and taking a moment to observe it, and do nothing else.

Hope you enjoyed this list. Please feel free to copy the idea, or post a comment with some of your own favorite feelings. Thanks for reading!