September 10, 2018
In our work, Kellen and I think and talk a lot about anger. In working with people, I try to invite their anger out into the open where, I firmly believe, it can do so much less damage than when it is stored inside. For my work and for my health, I try to express my own anger whenever I feel it. Sometimes, I can say, “I feel angry about this,” or, “I have been noticing some rage flaring up, and I think it’s about this interaction with my former boss that I never addressed.”
Sometimes, though, it isn’t so reasonable sounding. Sometimes I slam cabinet doors so hard I’m embarrassed the neighbors will judge me. Sometimes I scream until my throat hurts. Sometimes I whip a hand towel against a door jamb or the couch so violently that Steve the cat avoids me for hours. It doesn’t make me feel good to act this way: I am afraid of judgment, I am embarrassed at my rage, I feel ashamed that I can’t calmly and rationally say, “I am angry.”
This embarrassment and shame is precisely why it’s so important for me to keep practicing: in coaxing folks to reveal and examine and express their anger, I need to be clear on how painful, intense, and maybe even frightening expressions of anger can be.
Today, I am reminded of the very real consequences that sometimes follow expressions of anger, especially for rage that is deemed “irrational” or “unjustified” by authorities. That is, especially for rage coming out of a body of color or a feminine body. Serena Williams, in her blackness and her femininity, has again been penalized–had her integrity verbally and publicly insulted, docked a point, docked a GAME, and issued a fine–for expressing her anger. For a comprehensive and enlightening explanation of what exactly happened at Saturday’s US Open Final, I recommend Rebecca Traister’s excellent piece, “Serena Williams and the Game that Can’t be Won (Yet).”
The climax, to me, of the story of Serena’s mistreatment by Carlos Ramos is her view of the long game. At her press conference, Serena said, “I…feel like the fact that I have to go through this is…an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves…they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.” I am moved and inspired by, as Traister calls it, Serena’s cleaning up the mess: further evidence of the double standards through and around which she has lived her life and busted ass in her career. Rightly and righteously, she reminds us of the institutional context of her abuse. The umpire’s actions weren’t just about a power-hungry prick and a superstar athlete. His actions were about systems that prioritize the comfort and the authority of rules and rulemakers rather than seeking to evolve to incorporate true power and integrity. James Baldwin says, “What societies really, ideally want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” Thus we read headlines about the Grand Slam debacle that accuse Serena with words like meltdown and ruin and, so telling, ashamed. It feels safer for some to place blame on Serena as an (irrational, hysterical) individual rather than acknowledging the role of systems–of patriarchy and white supremacy, specifically–in Saturday’s events.
Serena’s expression of anger is a lesson to us all. Not only is it physically healthier to release our anger and to seek to transform it, but it is ethically healthy, too. Pema Chodron, in her essay “Practicing Peace,” explains Buddhist tenets for peaceful action. In particular, she cautions against retaliation and urges patience in the face of conflict. She explicitly leaves space for facing conflict rather than turning from it. She says, “The choice [of peace] doesn’t preclude resolving conflicts where parties have been in the wrong. If someone breaks a contract with you, for example, that all have entered into consciously and in good faith, I’m not saying you wouldn’t address that breach. Leaving it unaddressed would not be soothing the waters.”
A first step in gaining the skill to speak truth to power, to using anger as a tool to call out injustice and to demand decency and integrity, is to own our anger. Before we can do that, we must get to know it and get comfortable expressing it.
This week, take note of when you feel angry. Sometimes it will take time to find it; often our anger is covered up by other emotions. Try keeping track of when you feel it, what preceded the feeling, and what you do with it. Try sleuthing around, too, to find out what you don’t do with your anger. (Do you blow up behind the wheel of the car at strangers who never use turn signals, yet consistently hold your tongue at work though people talk down to you or don’t pull their weight?) If you could explain one (or more!) of the things that made you angry, what would you say? Maybe even write it out, just for yourself.
Advanced practice: find a private space and do some screaming or some hand towel whacking. (Pro tip: screaming along to music in the shower can sound a lot like singing.) Note how you feel immediately afterwards. Then, set a timer, and find out how you feel thirty minutes afterwards.