In my various pilgrimages, I’ve traveled through deserts where the temperature was 114° and snowshoed through forests at -10°. I’ve walked slippery rocks in a driving rain and picked up cactus stickers that took months to work themselves out of my skin. I’ve sprained ankles and wrists, brought home dysentery and COVID. But, as I’ve often written in these blogs, a pilgrimage is internal as well as external, and some of the most difficult landscapes I’ve traveled are the landscapes of anger.
There’s more than one. Sometimes, anger can resemble burning terrain caused by the forest fires I used to fight when I was twenty: not only hot, but smokey, so that I can’t see where I’m going.
Most forest fires run along, or even under the ground, or to be more precise, under the “duff”— organic debris on top of mineral soil—of the forest floor, until, given the right conditions, a tree or trees will “candle,” suddenly bursting into flame.
That was my childhood. My parents, both of whom grew up in angry, even violent, environments—my mother once told me she was in her 30s before she learned people could drink and not yell at each other—usually kept their anger hidden under a duff of sarcasm. But when their anger did candle out, it frightened me, so that I spent much of my time trying to make sure they never got angry at me, which has led to a life of people-pleasing and other codependent behaviors.
Meanwhile, my own anger scared me even more than my family’s. Most of time, I could use sarcasm to mask my anger, but sometimes it would explode, often on the basketball court. (I may still hold the record for most fouls committed in the shortest period of time—four fouls in 18 seconds of game time.) And yet in other games, I was passive, easily intimidated by an aggressive opponent, because of my inability to control how I’d react.
A forest fire can smolder in the duff for years before bursting into flame. A year or so ago, I found myself engulfed in a blind rage of unfocused anger, which, I came to realize, was based on the same confusion, angst, and helplessness I often felt at sixteen.
Other times, I’ve crossed other landscapes. For almost exactly three years after my daughter died, my anger was a wasteland of burning rocks and rattlesnakes and prickly-pear cactus. I raged at the pastor of my church, my family, my teaching colleagues, my students, motorists on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalks. Evenings I would shut myself in my den, drink scotch, and write angry letters to the editor of the local newspaper (which, thank God, I never sent) about how my community, the country, and the world were falling apart.
Then, there’s the landscape of shame, often defined as anger turned inward. For me, shame is like walking through mud in a raging thunderstorm, hunched over, cold, frightened, head down, not looking anyone in the eye because I’m sure I’m being laughed at.
And it’s all my fault. So the angrier I get, the worse I feel. I’ve trudged this landscape as a child, convinced I was fat and ugly, as a college student often sleeping twelve hours a day, embarrassed by my lack of shoulders, buck teeth, and poor grades, as a young adult who used a bad back to get out of Viet Nam, as a grieving parent, sure I had somehow caused my daughter’s death, or as a vapid thinker, failed writer, and lousy parent and grandparent.
Still another landscape is the angry ocean of change. I feel as if I’m adrift in a rowboat amid mountainous waves, clinging to a tiny life preserver of nostalgia, which as someone once wrote is a form of anger, or at least resentment.
I long for a time I’ve lost. When life was simpler, the music better, the men stronger, the women better looking, and the food healthier.
Before I go any further, let me say what you may be thinking: anger is natural, and anger can be effective. Charles Duhigg, in a recent Atlantic article on anger, writes that anger can convey more information more quickly than any other emotion. Expressing anger in an argument can make people more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks. We’re often more creative when we’re angry.
The problem, Duhigg and others note, is that to be effective, anger needs to be focused. That’s certainly been my experience. On the rare occasions on the basketball court when I could focus my anger, I had great games. (I think there might have been two or three.) Focusing my anger after Laurie died on God instead of other people led me to meditation practices and ultimately to sorrow instead of anger. Using anger as part of my physical therapy has helped me recovery from three major surgeries.
But. I find that most of the time I can’t focus because I can’t separate justified from unjustified anger. So, I’ve come to feel that just as there are people who can drink responsibly but I can’t, there are people who can channel anger in a way I’ll never be able to.
Which is why I try to replace anger with other reactions whenever and as soon as I can.
One other reaction is acceptance. Given my alcoholic upbringing, anger is always going be smoldering in my emotional duff. I need to accept that those fires were set generations before me. Which leads me to the importance of cultivating compassion, both for the angry 16-year-old and the raging geriatric of a year or so ago.
Still another response is surrender. Yes, anger at God helped me deal with my daughter’s death, but it wasn’t until I surrendered to God of my not Understanding that my tears of hot anger were replaced (and I can tell you exactly when this happened: three years almost to the day of Laurie’s death when I watched a high school Christmas concert) by soothing tears of sorrow.
I accept that anger is often going to be my first reaction to change, whether it’s grief over a major loss or simply the daily diminishments of being 80. But it doesn’t have to be my final response. Responses such as acceptance, compassion, surrender, curiosity, and patience are not going to change the landscapes of my anger, but they can water the deserts, dry up the mud holes, blow away the thunderstorms, and smooth the angry waves of change.
6 thoughts on “Traveling the Landscapes of Anger”
Powerful words of healing and overcoming, my friend. Words that can help others overcome as well.
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Thnx, Mitch. Much appreciated.
Your words hit home. Sadly, much of what you said about your childhood remind me of mine except I was put into an orphanage a couple times while the adults sorted out how to use me (as a babysitter for more kids to come. At 19 I walked out because I was no longer a ward of the state.) Yes, I haven’t been able to successfully process all the childhood crap and it interfered (often) with my enjoyment of life. Then my husband died and it all came crashing back to me in my grief. Thank you for your story –I’m a reader, so am really looking to reading your book.
P.S. I never told anybody about my horrible life. I started telling a few people after my husband died, with mixed reactions (mostly mine). Still struggling.
Thank you for your kind words. I spent a lot of time keeping my feelings to myself. Didn’t work. I needed to find someone—spiritual director, 12-step sponsor, an audience to write for— with whom to share my story. And the wonderfully ironic part of doing so was that the more deeply I delved into my story, the more universal my story became, i.e. the more people said, as you have, “Your words hit home.” All best on your journey.
Thank you for posting this. Good word.