C.S. Lewis has a famous quote…ok he has a ton of famous quotes but the one that gets the most attention in grief circles is, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” This really resonates with a lot of people, and it resonated with me in other grief experiences. There is deep truth to this. But after my husband died my grief didn’t feel like fear. It felt like anger. To be specific it felt like white-hot, boiling rage.
As an enneagram 8, anger is an emotion I know well and am pretty comfortable with. When hearing my story people will often ask, “how did you do it?” The simplest answer is, “I got mad.” Anger is an active emotion, anger propels you into action and that is what I needed. Sadness didn’t give me the energy to return to Comcast with a death certificate since apparently that’s required if you want to change the name on the account (even though the service, address, and payment are remaining exactly the same…). Anger let me accomplish the hundreds of little tasks that are required after your person dies. It was anger that dominated my first several therapy appointments. At our first session my therapist asked, “how are you” and I came back with, “I’m supposed to be at the end of the year teacher party right now but instead I’m here with you soo I’m not great.”
It was anger that let me feel just a little bit capable when the rest of my life had fallen apart. I imagine the persistent widow from Luke 18 had a similar sense of anger. I don’t think it was grief that brought her back to the judge day after day, though that certainly played a role. I think it was anger that propelled her back to the public square to seek the justice she deserved. This is the benefit of anger-it lets you get shit done. There’s a reason the sith want you to use your anger (yes, that is a Star Wars reference-thank you for noticing). Anger is powerful and when you act in anger you can be powerful too. When your world is shattered after loss it feels soo good to be powerful.
That’s the tricky part. Anger is a powerful tool but it is often misused and misdirected. That is why anger often appears like a tornado, destroying everything in it’s path and leaving ruins in it’s wake. I think most people think of anger as a negative emotion but I love my anger. In a recent sermon my pastor phrased it this way, “anger is like love’s alarm bell.” That is the kind of anger that resonates with me. The kind of anger that comes in response when something is truly wrong. It is the kind of anger that mobilizes people into action. It is the anger that helps people rebuild lives or challenge oppressive systems. It is that kind of anger that made Jesus flip tables (it should come as no surprise that that is one of my favorite passages). Anger is what lets people challenge unjust systems and lead protests that demand change. Anger is powerful.
In that same sermon my pastor offered a different analogy for anger. Instead of anger like a tornado, what if our anger was like a thunderstorm? Still intense but it leaves behind refreshed land and cooler weather instead of destruction. The thunderstorm brings about the needed change and leaves the world better. It is the kind of anger discussed in Soraya Chemaly’s book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. The back cover sums it up best. “Our anger is not only justified, it is also necessary. When approached with conscious intention, anger is a vital instrument, a radar for injustice and a catalyst for change.” So, with conscious intention, let’s get mad.
PS Quick programming note. Now that the school year is starting and I am expected to give effort to my actual job…rude…I will be posting every other week here on the blog. See ya in two weeks!
One thought on “Let’s Get Mad”
In my later career I worked with many PTSD veterans. Folks who indeed have anger processing issues. And this week has not been kind to those folks to say the least. I am one of them. One reality of intense experiences of shock, trauma, loss is that the said event(s) physically change the human brain. Our motor neurons and neural receptors where we store and process experiences physically reconfigure. In essence you have a different brain, and a different mind, post shock trauma loss than before.
The old pre-trauma, pre-event brain no longer exists. And you cannot go back to that brain and how you think, even if you wanted too. As a counselor many times folks with intense and ongoing grief, anger, stress, anxiety issues want me to “fix” their brains for them or how they think. I cannot, that brain they want to fix no longer exist. So my job is to get them to a place of peace and harmony with their “new” brain. And maybe work with different thought behavioral patterns. More adaptive, take their new brains out for a spin or two. And those people and experiences that were part of the old brain. They no longer exist as well. Or at least how we perceive them, or interpret them. Can they find a place in the new brain? That’s the challenge.
So for the survivors of intense experiences of shock trauma loss, grief, anger. How is that new brain working? As to the emotion we call “anger”. Cognitive theory says that anger is based in fear. Deal with the fear, deal with the anger. So that is the journey and path I have taken many combat vets and their new brains along. Anger of course can go sideways many times. And I think it gets us into some very dark corners where we tend to get stuck on many levels. As to the old and new brain stuff. Maybe there are things the old brain wishes to teach the new, or insights that could be helpful. And visa versa. Its only in the conversation one is willing to have with the old and new self’s, sort of speak. And in that space and conversation, we will find peace, a degree of healing, and maybe not so angry.