When I was a kid my brothers and I lived in constant fear of our father’s rages. Something like a little spilled ketchup on the counter would set him off and he’d yell at one of us or all of us for an hour or more. No exaggeration: we would time his rants and kept records. He didn’t spank us that often but we would go off on ceaseless torrents of verbal abuse.
Even though I suffered through approximately one of these rages a week for my entire childhood, I can remember almost nothing of what he actually said. That we were careless? Probably. That we were useless and ingrateful? Possibly. All you really can hear when someone is yelling is: ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY
Forget to walk the dog? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY
Bad grade at school? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY
Do nothing at all? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY
That was all a long time ago, but I deal with it daily. Parenting, holding down two or three jobs at a time, and the other challenges of adulthood are picnics compared to managing the recurring sadness, anxiety, and (yes) anger over being treated so shabbily as a child. I have forgiven my father, but that doesn’t make it any easier to function as an adult and especially as a father.
The toughest challenge has been, ironically or inevitably, wrestling with my own rage. I know my brothers have the same struggles. It’s like we grew up on the outskirts of a frequently-erupting volcano, and now all tend to our own respective pools of bubbling magma. We rarely get together because it’s too volatile.
I am thus compelled to see anger as a singularly destructive force that ruined my childhood and must be watched vigilantly lest it destroy my adult life, so it goes that I’m wary of a recent trend to romanticize anger.
Donald Trump says people are angry; Bernie Sanders says people are angry, and where they agree is that the anger itself is a force that must be reckoned with. It’s not questioned that angry people have a right to be angry, or even why they are angry. We’re supposed to ask what the rest of us can all do to make them feel better. That’s how anger works. It is selfish and manipulative. As a child I cried and promised to try harder and be better; it was years before I realized my dad’s anger was unreasonable.
I don’t think people decide to get angry, as a strategy, but it certainly serves their own ends to be so. Angry customers get special treatment. If you tell a friend you’re angry, their immediate reaction will be to apologize and try to make it up to you. Get angry as an electorate, and politicians rally around you, you get stories written about you and your rage and what the country can do to make it better.
Anger is also stupefying. It heightens your own feelings and makes you less considerate of the feelings of others. Anger literally gives you tunnel vision: your field of vision narrows as you get angry, sharpening and highlighting the focus of your rage while blinding you to objects on the periphery. Evolutionarily this was a survival strategy; now it allows the angry to see perceived injustice with special clarity while blurring background noise like: the thoughts, feelings, and basic humanity of those people who have allegedly wronged them.
When I think on how my father, who is a good man, could have treated three children so terribly for so long, I can only think: the anger made him do it. His rants shaped a narrative of unruly, ungrateful kids, and his anger kept his brain focused on the points that proved it and blind to other evidence or concerns.
I don’t think anger serves functional political dialogue any more than it serves functional family life. It encourages us-and-them, black-and-white, style thinking. Of course certain politicians reap the benefits: the kind that want people to be angry, and stay angry, because they are easier to manipulate.
Obviously (I hope) the alternative to anger is not acquiescence; it is calm and decisive action. There are healthy, constructive ways to be dissatisfied, to air a grievance, to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. In my experience anger doesn’t lend itself to solutions; it creates problems and is a problem. In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s the biggest problem facing us…
Nah, that’s still (by far) global warming. But if I think too much about that I’ll get angry