In recent years, I have gained a lot of control over my temper. I tend to have big outbursts only a handful of isolated times a year and most of them are not about anything more consequential than infuriating customer service from the cable company which leads me to displace all my pent up frustration at the world.
I have a fair amount of heated philosophical disputes and occasionally, if we really are digging into something contentiously, I can get fairly worked up. But I don’t typically become mean or uncivil or unpleasant. I can get loud and I can get visibly intense, sometimes even agitated, but the times where I blow up are relatively rare. Nonetheless they happen.
Usually, even when angry enough to shout, I don’t cross the line into verbal viciousness, but rather do a fairly good job of remaining respectful in my word choices if not my volume or aggressive intensity. But a handful of times when I have felt personally wounded and abused enough, I have harnessed my considerable rhetorical and creative powers for personally malicious and cruel purposes.
I usually apologize for getting so out of hand. Most of my blow ups I remember with great wincing. A few feel right overall, though I would rather in every case that I had been more restrained.
But there were two blow ups during graduate school, one in the fall of 2001 and the other in the spring of 2004 that I realized were out of the ordinary. They touched a live wire of anger that I had not known was in me. Though they occurred in debates over ideas related to philosophy and religion, I was not just getting overwhelmed by my emotions in the normal heat of passionate, principled argument. What I was feeling was the most indignant rage, the kind of response to personal insult that for bloodier people in bloodier times and places means a murderous, life threatening duel is the only way things can be settled.
And this was an anger that, unusually, I was distinctly proud of. In fact that’s because it was my senses of pride and dignity themselves that motivated it. I wasn’t just overreacting to disagreement over a philosophical, political, or ethical point that I could ultimately detach myself from. To be sure, there are a lot of philosophical, political, or ethical truths worth getting passionate about and emotionally investing oneself in. But I was still typically embarrassed afterwards on those rare occasions that I wasn’t just angry but was reduced to a frothing rage. And it was clearly immature and counter-productive to scream and slam doors in response to the run-of-the-mill well-intended personal criticism or relationship conflict with a romantic partner or a family member. There was never a sense of pride after those meltdowns, even when I felt especially righteous and vindicated about my position.
But after these two indignant blow ups there was a sense of pride that I had made clear that I refused to be disrespected in the ways that provoked my reactions. It was almost as though I was assuring myself that I would be reliable to protect myself against such a violation. I began to make it a practice to warn others that I had a button no one could push without a volatile, hostile, foaming reaction from me. While I actually did technically regret having lost my temper so wildly in both cases, I sort of relished the sense of power I had had in self-assertion. I liked the feeling of knowing that on this point, on this one point alone, I entitled myself to not hear out the other side, to not subject myself to others’ prying, sneering, flippant, ignorant, hypocritical suspicions and judgments. I did not have to justify myself to anyone. This was my point of certainty. This was my point of pride. This was a matter of the core of my personal integrity and dignity–or, my expression of my right to an unquestionable integrity and dignity.
Now I have come to think it was a mistake to take quite as much relish as I did in warning others about just how much I would blow up if they dared pushed me on this one point. I was in a certain way indulgent of the memories of losing my cool. I think I was right to feel a liberating self-satisfaction that I had drawn such an important line on those occasions. But I have come to think it would corrode my character and be a sign of weakness if I could never be strong enough to defend my personal dignity without resorting to malice, or if I were to take some perverse delight in indulging in thoughts about just how cruel I am capable of being with a self-righteously clean conscience, as long as I am technically in the moral right.
If that were the case, I think I would be trapped in what I want to call The Abuser’s Dialectic. When you are subject to some form of abuse and are disempowered by that abuse, you risk coming psychologically to understand power as being that form of abuse. Think of the kid who is beaten by his parents who then takes to beating up other kids. It seems reasonable to assume that he is feeling like the way to attain the power that the beatings take from him is to become a bully himself.
Rather than learning to assert himself in ways that respect others and cultivate healthy mutual admiration and collaboration, he takes self-assertion to simply be brutally dominating and demoralizing others, physically and emotionally. Rather than coming to affirm himself positively and become independent of his abuser’s opinions and maltreatment, he displaces his rage at feeling powerless onto others, he spoils for fights in which he can vent the rage meant for his abuser, and he repeats his abusers’ ugly pattern of behavior in his own life, thereby letting his abuser live on through him, consume him, and determine his own character.
None of that is healthy. And it’s not healthy either if the sexually abused become sexual abusers, the emotionally abused become emotionally abusive, the socially abused become socially abusive, etc.
I think a healthy and flourishing sense of power and pleasure comes from creativity, autonomy, personal independence, love, and the ability to empower others through what one does. This is because we are most powerful when we make others powerful. In these cases, their power is to that extent owed to our influence and is therefore a multiplication of our own power and an extension of it–in all of which we can justifiably take pride. By contrast, when we damage, distort, or outright destroy others’ abilities to function powerfully, this is, in most cases, only our ability to decrease the powerful, constructive, healthy functioning in the world, and that is to our ultimate discredit, on the ledger of power itself, and so it is our own ultimate loss.
Healthy power is creative, not reactive. True social and emotional power is in the ability to redeem the potential for growth within as many others as possible, including even your erring enemies so much as that is possible. It is not solely to mitigate the damage they do by whatever means necessary. Damage to others’ powerful functioning has to be prevented wherever possible. To the extent that doing this means embracing a degree of conflict in struggles for control against those who use their control to harm others, then powerfully empowering people need to be willing to get involved in such fights. But even as we fight hard for vital principles and ideals and for the empowerment of all, and in particular for the especially disempowered, we must be careful that we avoid as much as possible the urge to destroy our enemies rather than redeem them, insofar as this is ever our choice.
In all things we should have our enemies’ good in mind as much as possible, lest we become them, and thereby fall into the dialectic of abuse, according to which we confuse power itself to be the ability to hurt others in perversely satisfying ways that express displaced, sublimated, uncontrolled rages given to us by our abusers.
We are of course right to feel satisfaction and self-assurance in our willingness to uncompromisingly affirm our personal dignity and our personal pride against the most fundamentally unfair assaults on them. In more vulnerable and more emotionally immature days, if my only psychologically realistic choice was between lashing out to defend myself or feeling disempowered, then it is for the better that I went through this “lion” stage, this liberatingly defiant “no-saying” stage of personal development. If I really needed this to be the rebellious, self-discovery stage that I missed as an overly obedient adolescent and to extricate myself from a deceitful and manipulative religious institution, then sobeit. And, I get it when others, in the process of liberating themselves from their own demons, go through this dark stage of lashing out. I don’t begrudge them this, even as I encourage them, like I encourage myself, to extricate themselves as much as possible from the abusers’ dialectic as they can and never turn their abusiveness itself into a point of pride or principle or identity or indifference. It’s for many an unfortunately unavoidable dialectical stage of growth, but one to overcome and outgrow.
Ultimately, healthy growth requires getting beyond the emotional influence of abusers and not living in perpetual reactivity, in thrall to them, determined by them to pass on their emotional, physical, or social violence to others. It means thinking creatively and constructively. When one is in the “No-saying” stage, one winds up often unable to affirm numerous things except as also simultaneously gestures of denials of one’s abusers. And out of a counter-corrective response, one gets tempted to jettison as irredeemable every good thing that the abuser contorted. When the internalized abuser in one’s own mind, the side of oneself that torments you and others on the abuser’s behalf, can finally be exorcised, you can affirm again freely, without associating everything with the connotations the abuser gave to it. Nietzsche uses the image of the child to represent this stage of growth into independence and liberated, constructive creativity.
This past week I made the mistake of letting an old Christian classmate push my furious outrage button when I only should have allowed myself to express my proper feelings of indignation in a way that kept me above reproach. That means that deep inside, I have never fully put to rest the ability of the Christian Church to access me emotionally in manipulatively personal ways that make me purely reactive and lose control of myself. For the past decade, I have neglected even to try to stop Christians from having the ability to press these buttons. Rather than facing that problem I had just assured myself that I had permissions and justifications to simply bite their heads off whenever they should try it.But I realize after this week that it is time to give myself permission to not let their false and foolish opinions dictate that I lose my composure like that. It is time to give myself permission to be above their emotional reach. It is time to assert enough control over myself that I refuse not only to let them criticize me unjustly, but also to let them manipulate me into becoming a foaming monster. They don’t deserve that control over my emotions. They don’t deserve the control over my mind to spur me to unhealthy cruelty, venting, and displacement. I do owe my dignity a bit of indignation on its behalf. It is important I still feel and express some anger at injustice. But I can and should keep enough compsoure that I can express my just indignation with scathingly precise and unimpeachably ethical and civil clarity and concision. That’s far better than giving them the satisfaction of making me erupt and express my worst and weakest and most petulant side rather than my most genuinely powerful one.
Let me try it in my next post. I’ll show you how it works.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: