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What to Do with Angry People (Like Me)

This post is about what we might try doing with, and for, angry people. We are surrounded by angry people in America today. Angry people at rallies. Angry people on the internet. Angry people pulling down statues. Angry people arming themselves against people pulling down statures. And what I want to suggest is that we try to figure out a posture in which we can listen to angry people. I was in a self-defense class at a women’s retreat a few weeks ago (socially distanced of course) and the teacher started by reminding us what is says in Proverbs: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The Proverbs are principles, not promises. Gentleness is not always met with standing down; but it’s a good thing to try first. From this place, I write these ideas about my own experiences with anger. I have struggled with my temper since I was a child. In my childhood home, I kicked a hole in my bedroom door, hit younger my brother (kind of a lot), and put my heel through the tile wall of the shower. (It had rot behind it, or I would have broken my foot. My parents did not count it as a blessing that I discovered the rotted-out wall.) I have entries in my diary from elementary school asking me to help me stop being mad at my dad. As an adult, I’ve yelled at my husband, and yelled at my kids. I’ve thrown things (always soft things, because I have some self control). I’ve gotten into conflicts with strangers, which my husband always worried would get me into trouble. One time it did. I yelled at a man who let his dog chase my toddlers into my house (twice) and on the second occasion, when I confronted him, he grabbed my arm and had so hard that he left bruises for days. He didn’t let go until my daughter – who was watching – called 911. He was an angry person too. (He pled guilty to misdemeanor assault eventually.)

When I started Twelve Step recovery for Co-dependency five years ago, in my Step Four, moral inventory, I had to write down my “findings” after going through a 40-page booklet called “The Blueprint for Progress.” What I found still surprised me. I wrote down, “I am angry.”

Psychologists tell us that anger is always a secondary emotion. Underneath anger is an emotion that is too scary to face, one that makes us softer and more vulnerable. Anger shows up to give us power, to press the other emotion down. It feels better in the moment to be angry. It seems to protect us more, motivate us more, than it does to feel sad, afraid, over-looked, misunderstood, powerless, lonely, frustrated, depressed, confused, or full of shame.

Three things have helped me with my own anger. 1. Grieving. I had a lot of sadness, confusion, fear, and shame left over from childhood. Some of it over “typical” kinds of struggles; like the fact of being the only girl and first born in my family, and feeling utterly abandoned by my younger brother (just one year younger than me) when our baby brother (seven years younger than me) was born. I became the odd woman out, which made me lonely and sad, which made me angry, which made me more left out – into my 20s! In therapy, recovery, and prayer, as an adult, I was made secure enough to feel those feelings so I didn’t keep having to power up and control them. I’ve written about this before, but many times throughout this journey, I pictured Jesus sitting next to me saying, “I know. I know.” 2. Boundaries that I set. I was often angry because I said yes to things I really didn’t want to do, and then felt incredibly resentful as I did them. I learned to have a voice, to understand my own limits, to be okay with not wanting to do things that other people loved that I didn’t, and to not meet people’s wants that were put to me as though they were needs. That last distinction was a BIG one for me, and extremely helpful dealing with both adults and my children. 😊 3. Boundaries that were set “against” me. My husband decided when I started yelling, he was done talking to me. He told me this one day while I was yelling. And then once I’d calmed down, he told me again. Because I don’t want to be an angry person, and I don’t want to hurt my family, I agreed that if I lost my temper, his job was to walk out of the room or out of the house. He’s learned not to tell me I’m overreacting or to “calm down” which does NOT work. (It didn’t work when my father said it and it didn’t work when my brothers said it either.) My husband has also learned, because he’s a man of compassion, that underneath my anger is someone who is probably really sad and overwhelmed. When I stopped being verbally violent, he listened to me. In the age of Covid, when my husband and I are having to be more for each other than ever, these principles have been really necessary in our house. It is helping us settle down and heal from the daily micro and macro traumas of living in 2020. In 2019, I read Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation. I can’t quote her directly, because I loaned it to my friend Josie. (Hi Josie.) But in the opening chapters, Morrison talks about being part of a mainly white church community working with youth, and when she would first get to know families, they would ask her certain pointed questions to see where she stood on race. She felt they were trying to figure out what “kind” of black woman she was. Was she an “angry black woman” or a friendly (some word like that) black woman. The implication was, if she was one of those angry black women, they were not going to be psyched about her leading their kids; one woman even burst out of nowhere at a baseball game, “you know, a lot of people loved their slaves.” Ugh. I hate that for her. Because I know that as an angry daughter, an angry sister, and an angry woman in other contexts, I am less valued than if I were a docile, sweet woman. And – I’m sorry, my Christian brothers – but less valued than if I were an angry man. Now. Imagine that the things I was angry about were not just personal things done to me as a individual, but things done to a bunch of people with me, like me, all around me. Imagine that I felt undervalued and underrepresented and misunderstood as a race, as a people, as a culture. And if I start speaking up about it, but I’m too angry when I do it, people will stop listening to me. Morrison taught me another term: Tone policing. I’ve experienced for myself. I’ve done it. I’ve said it. It’s when people say, “You know, I’d listen to you if would say it a different way. If you would clean up your language first. If you would protest at a different time because it’s not appropriate at a ball game/the Grammy’s/the Oscars/the Olympics/at a church/during a national holiday.” It can become an convenient excuse not to listen when we really just don’t like what someone is saying. My friends, I really don’t like angry people. I don’t like being around them. I don’t like how loud and messy and violent they are. I want to be like a preschool teacher sometimes and say, “use your words!” But that doesn’t work on preschoolers, and it doesn’t work on angry people. Because angry people underneath are desperate, sad, hopeless, frustrated, and grieving. And sometimes they don’t HAVE the words. Or they don’t believe the words will work. Angry people are Blacks who feel our country still doesn’t understand the depth of pain they’ve experienced through systematic racism and micro-agressions. Angry people are women in churches where they didn’t feel they had a voice or a calling equal to their husbands, where they were treated like God created them as man’s personal assistant rather than his Warrior/Helper. Angry people are white men who are afraid that sharing the table means there won’t be enough left for them or their families. Angry people are white women who are afraid their sons will bear the burden for slavery, which they had no part in instituting. Angry people are protestors who are pulling down statues, and counter-protestors who show up with guns. Angry people are abused women who have to get mad to get out. Angry people are teenagers whose parents aren’t paying attention. Angry people are husbands who have been betrayed and wives who’ve been ignored. Angry people are people in pain. And some of the examples above I am tempted to judge as being more justified than others. But the solution for all of them is the same. 1. Grieve. As a culture, grieve for how many of our people feel disenfranchised. Grieve division. Grieve loss of our idealized selves. Grieve our prejudices and mis-perceptions. Grieve our scarcity mindset. Griever our tendency to judge. Grieve our unwillingness to listen. 2. Listen. Listen for the secondary emotion. Listen for the pain. We don’t have to tolerate looting, rioting, violence by protestors, or violence by police. We don't have to tolerate personal violence -- I chose to press charges against the man who assaulted me in my front yard. Tolerating angry violence is as dangerous and toxic to our culture as it is to my family if my husband stood in our kitchen, letting me yell and throwing bags of tortilla chips. But try to listen even when their anger is out of control, when some of the words seem too strong, when they protest at the wrong place and at the wrong time – because sometimes that’s the only way to get our attention. (And maybe believe them when they say they can be angry at one authority – like injustice in the police force -- and not be dishonoring and demanding the tear down of all authorities – like the military. 3. Help set better boundaries that protect those who are struggling to protect themselves. Imagine the times when you have felt powerless and forgotten. You’re a human being, so I know you have. And channel that remembrance into empathy. 4. Notice what’s below your own anger. Fear? Scarcity? Shame? Grief? Confusion? The good news of the God I believe in is that he loves all people, and his well is so deep that he can give grace and comfort to those who have small griefs and large – never asking those with less pain to do without comfort because someone else’s pain is bigger. But he has a special heart for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the brokenhearted. He turns his face to the poor, without turning his back on the rich. He makes it safe for us to feel what’s under our anger, so that in our anger we “do not sin.” He calls us to a life so interconnected with others that we rejoice and suffer like we are one body. May we be willing to play our part.

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