Anger is a tremendous gift. It’s a sign, a signal, an omen that something is amiss in one’s world. When one is skilled in listening to its voice (instead of being swept away into ill considered action by its push) it can show you exactly where and how boundaries are being crossed and dignity violated. Anger is power. It is that well spring of force that allows men and women and sometimes even children to hold the line against opposition. It is what has the potential to overcome ennui, overcome fear and motivate one to push for necessary change. The medicine of anger has the power to change the world.
That’s one of the things that I learned from Sekhmet so long ago: Anger is natural and useful. The caveat of course is that one must choose wisely how one expresses that anger, finding useful and effective conduits rather than just yielding to blind destruction. It is possible to feel a thing and not act on it. It is possible to be ragingly
angry –justifiably so--and carefully calculate the best course of action, subsuming one’s anger to a long term goal, using it as an energy source, as fuel rather than allowing it free and unfettered reign (as satisfying as that might personally be at times). Anger is what happens when a person says ‘no more.’ The medicine of anger is what is present when someone looks at their world, sees the imbalance, the disease, the horror and starts a revolution to change it. Anger keeps resistance alive.
It’s also something with which our contemporary world is terribly uncomfortable. I blame this on the influence of Protestant Christianity – not the fire and brimstone Pentecostal type, but the white, uptight, middle class, don’t make waves type. That’s the dominant flavor of Christianity in the US and boy does it show. (1) The dominant cultural value system is one of white, middle class Protestantism and that’s not a cultural construct comfortable with difficult, messy, or unpleasant emotions. Don’t be angry. Don’t make a scene. Don’t talk back. Don’t allow yourself to feel fully any emotion, let alone anger, that might move you to question the status quo. Don’t ever consider that you might have not only the right (and perhaps obligation) but the ability to rise up and change that status quo. Don’t question the pabulum you’ve been told. Go to church on Sunday – but don’t be too religious, we don’t want any messy mysticism now. Be safe. Be placid. Avoid extremes; and live a life that isbarely worth living. There are our cultural messages: emotional mediocrity in a
Why? I can posit a couple of reasons. If we ever realized what monotheism took from us and how far we have fallen as human beings in its grasp, if we ever realized the depth of the horrors some of our ancestors perpetrated on others, if we ever realized how truly damaged our world was and what it was doing to us and our children—truly saw, all at once, the depth of the filter---I think our collective rage would burn down the world. In fact, I think part of the stick-up-the-ass restraint of
white Protestantism is a collective cultural guilt. After all, if we pretend everything is the way it should be long enough, we’ll actually believe it. Right? Um..not so much. The cultural suppression of our anger, I believe, is a tool of the filter. It’s also made us numb and dumb to those times when we should rise up in protest. Instead of stepping back and listening for truth, we dismiss anger, rationalize it away, or condemn the person expressing it. We rarely look to see if there’s truth behind that expression.
I am going to tell you a story. It actually happened this morning (11/9/12) on the commuter train I take from Grand Central to my school. It was a little after 8am and I was sleepy, grumpy, and dozing. The train stopped at Harlem/125th St and stayed there, doors open for a long time. I knew something had to be up because that just doesn’t happen. Sure enough, the conductor had called the police to remove two students from the train. He claimed they were rude to him and making a disturbance. They were in the same car as I and I hadn’t heard any disturbance. At first, I was really annoyed. This was going to make me late. I had to teach a class this morning and I hate being late. I like to get in early and do prep work. Then I started listening to what was being said.
The two girls were really upset. They weren’t just angry, they were upset. Apparently, one of the girls had her legs on the seat (not her feet, her legs, with her feet hanging off the edge---something I’ve done on this train—which is never very full--, with this conductor many times without incident). The conductor had come by and shoved her legs off and said something rude. These girls protested. Now they weren’t eloquent. They were very rough and raw—street---in their delivery. Once he tried to force them off the train, they got very loud. No one was listening to them; no one was even considering that they might have a legitimate grievance. You know what? I’ve been on that train for a year now. It has the same conductor almost every day. That conductor is an ass. He’s very curt, very rude, and very disrespectful especially to women of color. The pieces didn’t really come into place for me until today. These girls had three strikes against them in this exchange: they were teen agers (maybe 16), they were women, and they were women of color. We discount the voice of anger…especially if it’s young, especially if it’s female, especially if it’s
a minority. We discount the voice of anger when we don’t want to hear its message. I started listening a bit more closely to the argument.
Apparently, the girls were on the train with a small group of students and their teacher. The police insisted the girls get off the train, and the teacher tried (as best she could) to calm them down so that they could speak in a manner the officer would hear. They got off the train, and I was still mulling all of this over, when I heard the cop say to the girls ‘don’t talk back.’ His tone was sneering, condescending and implied “to your betters.”It took me a moment to process that. I heard those words with utter disbelief and all the pieces fell into place. All of a sudden I thought about other exchanges I’d witnessed with this conductor, that I’d just chalked up to his rudeness.Then I was out of my seat. The doors closed just as I reached them and to my dismay I wasn’t able to go have words with the cop. “Don’t talk back.” To their credit, one of the girls responded “F—k you, you don’t even know what happened.”That was the last I heard (and I will, after writing this, be writing to the MTA).
“You don’t even know what happened.” Yet those girls had been telling us, clear as day. They were treated in a way that damaged their dignity as human beings. They had hands put on them. They had done nothing wrong and they were assaulted. No one would listen because the anger was clearly expressed. We as a culture would be so much stronger, so much richer, and we would have so much more integrity if we listened to the anger of those we most do not want to hear, those our culture allows us to get away with marginalizing. The anger—justified I now believe—was expressed clear as day. That was enough to render their argument invalid. I suspect, that even had they presented their case in posh, measured British public school tones, all things considered they’d still have been condemned. It’s a fucked up world we live in. This might seem insignificant---things like this happen every day---but that’s just the point: they happen every day and no one looks twice.
“Don’t talk back.” Talk back. I believe in discipline, duty, hierarchy, and respect. But those things are mutually beneficial relationships. In any hierarchical relationship there is mutual value. When you are in a situation where someone is doing something wrong to another human being, where the status quo is harming someone’s soul, where you see injustice being done: talk back. Talk back with all the force and skill you can muster. Talk back and keep talking. There is a saying: speak truth to power. In all ways, large and small, speak truth to power. Talk back until you make yourself heard, because there are those of us who are listening. Question the status quo and if you find, as I believe you will, that it is built on degradation, disease, oppression, racism, misogyny, and cultural genocide: the fruits of conquest:
tear it down piece by bloody piece. Talk back.
I decided to write this column because of the comments that I received here: http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/desecration-of-a-pagan-shrine.html. I was actually rather glad that such an argument broke out: it really highlighted a measure of our cultural blindness, a blindness that the new age
movement has done nothing to correct. Too many people view anger as unilaterally‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’ They don’t know how to use it. Perhaps this is because it often twins with warrior medicine and we don’t know how to respect that either. Pop psychological, the New Age movement, and a thousand other expressions of the same construct all tell us from a very early age that anger is something to be suppressed. We should be angry. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.
We should be holding onto our anger, letting it fuel our vigilance, letting it fuel our awareness because when shit like this isn't happening in your own backyard, it's very easy to grow placid. It's very easy to excuse things like this (or the destruction of a temple as I discuss in the link above) as a one-off. It's very easy not to care. At what point would you start to care? At what point should you get angry? There are responsibilities and duties greater than individual comfort, and greater even than a love of "peace.' Peace is not worth it if the price is closing our eyes to the desecration of our ancestral ways, or the desecration of human beings. Sometimes anger is an obligation too.
Anger is the medicine that tells you that while you may not see victory, you will die
having given those who come after you a better chance. You will have gained ground from which they can further take up the fight. I’m going to end this post with one of my favorite quotes, from a man i admire greatly, a man who knew how to channel his anger into necessary action:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
1. See “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen.
2. The new age movement only contributed to this. It was spiritual fast food designed for the comfort of that WASP demographic. Illusion over substance.