By CL Bledsoe
When I was growing up, it seemed like all of the adults I knew were angry all the time. They would rant about things they considered to be unfair with such malice, it silenced me. Even as a child, I could see that many of these things were exaggerated, at best, or that the adults were being hypocritical. Someone who worked for money under the table (because he was on disability and wasn’t supposed to be working) might complain about seeing someone on welfare buy steak, for example. Churchgoers would judge those around them vehemently, referencing a Bible they either hadn’t read or didn’t remember very well.
I couldn’t understand it. They all seemed so unhappy. I was unhappy, but a lot of that was because I didn’t have choices. I was stuck in my situation. I had to go to school. I didn’t have money. They had freedom. They had money. They had jobs (though I didn’t yet understand how that wasn’t freedom.) It seemed like they could do whatever they wanted. But they didn’t. They preferred to complain. What I didn’t understand at the time was that their anger was an addiction.
It’s hard not to think of this anger as temper tantrums. It’s a luxury, after all, to be able to get angry without consequence, to think that anyone would care about your anger. No one ever seemed to care about mine, other than to treat it as an inconvenience. Partly, I think, these folks were angry because they had this idea of how the world was supposed to be, that there were certain rules the world was supposed to follow — rules that would put them at the top, coincidentally — and the world wasn’t following those rules.
The sad truth these people refused to realize is that they were simply gullible. Someone had sold them a perspective, and it was deeply flawed. They were told that if they worked hard, they’d get ahead, that life would treat them in a way they considered fair, that simply being was enough. They looked around and saw they weren’t getting as far ahead as they’d like, so they turned to those they were ahead of and tried to widen that gap however they could.
Maybe recognizing their own privilege and culpability was too difficult; how could they subvert this system, after all?
When I was younger, I was much more frustrated and much angrier than I am now, partly because I lacked agency. But I was taught to be angry, whether consciously or not. I was raised primarily around a bunch of ex-military men, many of them war veterans, many of them alcoholic and miserable. Most of the women I knew were bitter and angry about being stuck in their lives (often with these men). These men’s reactions to most things involved some level of anger. They would punch walls or shoot things when they were upset. The women mostly complained. If I asked a question, I was snapped at, insulted, mocked. Anger was how they interacted with the world.
There were probably others who dealt with things more thoughtfully, but they were shouted down by the most vocal.
Anger is a tricky thing. It’s deceptively appealing. Anger cuts through the white noise of distractions and obstacles so a person can get something difficult done — much like how alcohol dampens inhibitions. But anger can also become a habit and be used all the time. These folks I knew were angry all the time. It wasn’t just their perceived unfair treatment by the world setting them off, it was every little thing. They were stuck in a world they didn’t like — a world that was supposed to be better. Everything told them it would be better. TV, movies, church, government, every source of information said life was supposed to be a certain way, and if anyone said differently, they were ignored. But life wasn’t what they’d expected. It was hard and boring and didn’t seem to recognize how special they thought they were.
Even though I didn’t agree with the moral posturing some of them used, I adopted the tone. I used anger to get myself past certain difficulties in my life. It seemed like a good thing. It was a survival technique which worked in those situations, but in the long term was ultimately damaging.
When my first poetry collection came out, I flew to Boston to give a reading. The person who introduced me to the audience talked about how angry my poems were. It surprised me. Of course, they were angry, but they were also funny (I hoped) and all sorts of other things. It threw off my whole reading to have my poems reduced to “angry.” In fact, anger was something I had addressed. The final poem in the book — the title poem, “Anthem” — says, about anger, that it “…can motivate/but it burns out like a bad lightbulb…until you learn…to make something/from yourself like light.” It was born of my struggle to get past this toxic thinking.
Writing is ultimately how I dealt with this anger. Or, more specifically, editing is. I would write something born of righteous indignation and then, later, try to turn it into something worthwhile, which usually meant editing out the anger. That anger, on the page, so often translated to a kind of sullenness. It was embarrassing to read. Similarly, as I put more thought and time into examining my own motivations and reactions, I edited those, as well.
I hadn’t thought about anger for a long time until my daughter saw me get frustrated at a video game we were playing. I snapped at something in the game, and a few days later, I heard her snap at something that was frustrating her. We talked about it. We worked on some strategies to deal with frustration. It’s a start, but I so wish I’d rooted it out of myself earlier.
The thing is, it’s okay to be angry, but letting that fester does no one any good. I think the biggest difference for me, now, is that whenever I do get angry, I feel embarrassed by it, as opposed to considering it righteous indignation. It means that I’m lashing out instead of listening or thinking. This is more about the expression of that anger — what I do with it — than feeling it, to begin with. The world is a profoundly frustrating place in innumerable ways. We all know this. We’re all dealing with it together.