Fear of My Fury: When a Humanist Needs to Be Angry

Fear of My Fury: When a Humanist Needs to Be Angry November 22, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. Yesterday I wrote about the national strike in Colombia, which turned out to be a splendidly peaceful protest in Medellín and only volatile in Bogotá and Cali (although even now, students in Bogotá are cleaning up the damage done by protestors yesterday). In all these cities and more, though, the night ended with something unexpected: a spontaneous cacerolazo, which is a form of protest I had never encountered before.

All over the country, as protestors returned to their homes around 9, they took out pots and pans and began beating them loudly–and their railings, and any other noise-makers they had around the house. Whole neighbourhoods reverberated all across the country, a resounding protest not directed at specific institutions but rather, fixated on the fact of their unified outrage. In my neighbourhood, cacerolazo lasted for an hour and a half, with intermittent protest slogans against right-wing politics, and the occasional firework.

The message was triumphant. The message was enthusiastic. The message was, protestors are not random radicals on the streets; they’re people, with homes and families they care deeply about. The message was, our outrage exists here, too.

And it would have been the healthiest form of anger I’d witnessed in a long while… if not for a recent, private triumph against anger in my life, too.

So today, as a follow-up to yesterday’s political post, I want to talk about personal anger. What we do with it. How we express it. And what its humanistic endgame can be at the very best of times.

Fear of my Fury

People who come from angry households usually have problems with anger. I certainly do, and it makes it difficult for me to differentiate between “healthy” and “unhealthy” anger. For instance, I recently tried watching the TV series His Dark Materials (a fantastic adaption of the books), but the depiction of child manipulation and abuse was so effective that I found myself seething over the real-world equivalents on which it’s based. I had to stop watching because I was becoming preoccupied by my fury about ongoing child abuse in the Catholic church.

Is that useful anger? Constructive? Hard to say. Generally, I find news cycles offer an easy path to “righteous” anger–but with the ease of that sort of anger comes the danger of knee-jerk response: an addictive high that makes it easy to fall for fake or misleading provocations.

In my personal life, too, anger plays a complicated role. I am an angry person–but almost entirely at myself. If someone else has done something that upsets me, I almost invariably find ways to blame myself for being stupid enough to let it upset me, or stupid enough to put myself in a situation where I could be hurt by [X] in the first place. I let that anger eat me up inside, or I vent aloud my frustration with myself, because the alternative feels like giving up control.

After all, if I’m angry with someone else, if I’m blustering at them for something they did, what good would that possibly do?

If they only change their behaviour because I’m angry with them, my reasoning goes, then that would be a forced change: something done under duress, probably to terminate the confrontation as quickly as possible, and not out of a genuine place of self-reflection and desire to grow. Would I really feel good about someone else changing their behaviour just to keep me from getting mad?

(Also would the behaviour really change, or would the other party just learn to avoid confrontation better?)

I recently discussed how terrible a motivator shame can be. In that essay, I explored how, even if shame is effective at, say, changing people’s cosmologies, its use is also heinously anti-humanist in the long run.

But even as I wrote that essay, I didn’t know what to make of anger, and how anger might be a healthy part of our humanist practice. I had a recent breakthrough, though, when I reached the “anger” portion of a minor journey through grief.

Going “Cold Turkey” on People

One of the most difficult addictions to break is our addiction to other people. If we’re very fortunate (and I am) we will of course have friendships, partnerships, and familial relations wherein we share more or less equally in each others’ lives and struggles. But much more frequently, we’ll also have a slew of interaction sets in which we are far more unevenly yoked.

And, well, I’ve been unevenly yoked to someone who needed my help for a long, long while–but now doesn’t. Which is fine, on a cerebral level (I knew this going in, and it didn’t change my desire to help); but on an emotional level, arriving at the end of this help meant confronting the fact that our friendship was formed primarily around their needs, not my own. And this has required me to do the most difficult thing for someone addicted to helping: I’ve had to go cold turkey on this person. I told them upfront, positively and not as punishment, that I needed space for a while, and I began creating distance to try to break an unhealthy pattern of behaviour.

And that has sucked–because of course a part of me was hoping they would put up resistance. That after all this time helping them, they’d be more proactive and naturally fall into a more reciprocal interaction set.

The really heartbreaking part for me, though, is that I have people in my life who unwittingly tried to reassure me by promising me that I’d find new people to help. That “there are so many other people who could use a Maggie in their life.”

Oof. Just, no.

And I have to say: it’s a difficult gig, being a fairly intelligent and highly emotional person, because this combination means that you know when your behaviour is unhealthy, but knowledge alone is insufficient to break the habit. Only time and distance and conscious reframing can help you do that.

(So, good gravy, the end result of my cold turkey experience had better not be readiness to fall into this one-sided role again!)

The Five Stages (Supposedly) of Grief

Of course, we all know the generic emotional template for recovering from a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These aren’t written in stone; they’re just useful terms that help some people construct a story for their pain.

My own story, with that same vocabulary, would look a little like the long stream of buttons you pressed as cheat-codes in videogames of yore. Something like:

denial – bargaining – denial – bargaining – depression – anger – depression – anger – false acceptance – depression – bargaining – denial – bargaining – depression

(…and then Blood Code kicks into effect?)

But like I said, my anger is almost always pointed inward. My anger is almost always a form of control, not release. So even while trying to handle my grief over the end of a one-sided scenario, I kept turning that anger inward.

Going cold turkey, however, finally allowed me to access a different target for my anger. Not the other person to their face, and not myself for letting this whole situation upset me.

Just… the facts of my disappointment unto themselves. I said aloud that I was angry that this person couldn’t be emotionally available or present the way I always tried to be myself. I said, too, how frustrated I was that they couldn’t see how much it would mean to me if they could just show a little reciprocal support. And I let myself hear–again, out loud–how upset I was that after all this time and energy poured into their needs, I would now have to do the hard work of starting over with new people who might better be able to reciprocate support and presence when life got tough.

I had been so afraid that I’d just get further mired in anger if I let it take up space.

Instead, though, the moment I uttered all three, I remembered why these disappointing facts existed. I remembered that the person I had to cut out for my own health and well-being is, in fact, a person, too, and their limitations have coherent histories that they simply have to work out on their own, when they’re ready, if they’re ever ready to do that most difficult inner labour. The vast nebulous expanse of anger that seemed a beast unto itself was only… sadness, really. Sadness that there is no magical restitution for everything in life. Sadness that not all problems have answers, and not every situation is one in which my helping nature can do a damned bit of good.

And what a surprise it was, to find a better calm at the end of it all.

Angry People or Angry Moments

We atheists are used to being called angry people. There are especially those who really don’t get the concept of atheism, and think we’re just angry at beings we don’t believe exist.

(To be fair, though, I also often have a seriously tough time believing that most of my religious friends actually believe in a god. I’m fully aware of my incredulity here, though, and try my best to put myself in other people’s shoes to more fully understand.)

But the funny thing is, those theists who think we’re just angry aren’t entirely wrong–because we do have anger about the state of things. And that anger is directed at something larger than ourselves: at the systems we inhabit, the social contracts we were born into, and other thoroughly immense abstracts in our lives.

Likewise, people often aren’t so much angry at specific people as at what those specific people have done, or the nebulous range of relationships and experiences they’ve damaged. The sheer waste of ever so much time and energy and love.

In this way, then, humanists across the board sometimes get caught up in something similar to “anger at a god”: we’re getting angry with existence. We’re getting angry with what life is turning out to be.

And I know, for myself, that in the past the idea of articulating that anger has always felt like it would be matching the source of that anger–in scope, and in destructiveness. If I named that anger, if I articulated it, wouldn’t I be playing into just as much awfulness as the cause for the anger itself?

The Take-Away

Now, maybe this is just me.

Maybe this is part of my trauma response–because people who have lived around angry people often learn to fear making others angry, and sometimes learn to dread doing the same to others that was done to them. We can’t bear to think of using anger to try to effect change in our relationships, and we’re furious with ourselves when we slip up and do so anyway.

But if you’re a humanist who resonates with any of this struggle with anger–with finding healthy forms, with articulating it at all–I just want to offer this slender hope from recent experiences, both widely political and deeply personal:

If you articulate your anger outside an attempt to shame a specific person to their face, you break that nasty feedback loop, and do something extraordinary to the anger itself:

You shrink it. You shrink the focus of your fury to what it truly is–disappointment, and sadness, that the universe is what it is; that people are who they are; that your life has been what it is; and that there is no guarantee of a resolution in this lifetime to heal all the losses come before.

When the figurative dust settles, then, you might finally realize that your disappointment isn’t over anything so nebulous or mysterious after all. It’s over concrete and actionable items: Your interpersonal relationships. The state of your life. Your nation’s politics. The nature of your cultural discourse. And, of course, the extent of your personal agency within them all.

And this is precisely as it should be, because humanism requires that we allow our problems to be quantifiable: facts of the natural world, not at all larger than life itself.

Let’s not let the idea of anger trick us into acting otherwise.

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  • Chuck Johnson

    “Is that useful anger? Constructive?”

    It is useful and constructive to the degree that it motivates rational thought and action.
    It is useless and destructive to the degree that it confuses, obsesses and sickens, or causes violence and destruction.
    The amount of anger present has a lot to do with the results.

  • Positivist

    …humanists across the board sometimes get caught up in something similar to “anger at a god”: we’re getting angry with existence. We’re getting angry with what life is turning out to be.

    …that anger is directed at something larger than ourselves: at the systems we inhabit, the social contracts we were born into, and other thoroughly immense abstracts in our lives.

    This!!! Soooo many times, even as a Christian, I was accused of being “angry at god”. Then as an atheist, I continued to be accused of being “angry at god”. This gaslighting really sent me for a loop. Thank you for articulating a new framework by which to understand my anger.

    Along the same lines, someone I loved recently ripped me off in a HUGE way from which I might never recover. This person did that because he is conniving and self-serving whereas I am trusting and always thinking of others. Anyway, a colleague said to me, “Well, life isn’t fair, you know.” I retorted, “No. Life and the universe are indifferent; people are not fair.” I hate it when people give bad people a free pass under “life is not fair”. People need to be held accountable. Yup still angry. Still in therapy. LOL