This blog post is included in:
No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler
December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I’ve been talking about what might be called public anger, political anger. But I went on thinking about the subject as a personal experience: Getting mad. Being angry. And I find the subject very troubling because, though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realise how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger.
I know that anger can’t be suppressed indefinitely without crippling or corroding the soul. But I don’t know how useful anger is in the long run. Is private anger to be encouraged?
Considered a virtue, given free expression at all times, as we wanted women’s anger against injustice to be, what would it do?
Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air. But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment. A brief, open expression of anger in the right moment, aimed at its true target, is effective — anger is a good weapon. But a weapon is appropriate to, justified only by, a situation of danger. Nothing justifies cowing the family every night with rage at the dinnertable, or using a tantrum to settle the argument about what TV channel to watch, or expressing frustration by tailgating and then passing on the right at 80 mph yelling FUCK YOU!
Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger. Then the threat passes or evaporates. Bu the weapon is still in our hand. And weapons are seductive, even addictive; they promise to give us strength, security, dominance. . . .
Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognised one: self-respect. When slighted or patronised, I flare up in fury and attack, right then right there. I have no guilt about that.
But then, so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding, the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight. And even if it was intended, so what?
As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, “I pity her poor taste.”
Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear.
Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognise it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely. If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself: so, what is it you’re afraid of? That gives me a place to look at my anger from. Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.
Jealousy sticks its nasty yellowgreen snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, or Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.
The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.
Anger’s connection with hatred is surely very complicated, and I don’t understand it at all, but again fear seems to be involved. If you aren’t afraid of someone or something threatening or unpleasant, you can as a rule despise it, igore it, or even forget it. If you fear it, you have to hate it. I guess hatred uses anger as fuel. I don’t know. I don’t really like going to this place.
What I am coming away from it with, though, seems to be a pervasive idea that anger is connected with fear.
My fears come down to fear of not being safe (as if anyone is ever safe) and of not being in control (as if I ever was in control). Does the fear of being unsafe and not in control express itself as anger, or does it use anger as a kind of denial of the fear?
One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger. Anger turned, perhaps, against the self, because fear — fear of being harmed, and fear of doing harm — prevents the anger from turning against the people or circumstances causing it.
If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.
So, how do you defuse the bomb, or when and how can you explode it safely, even usefully?
A psychologist once informed my mother that a child should not be punished in anger. To be useful, he said, punishment must be administered calmly, with a clear and rational explanation to the child of the cause of punishment. Never strike a child in anger, he said.
“It sounded so right,” my mother said to me. “But then I thought — was he telling me to hit a kid when I’m not angry?”
This was shortly after my daughter Caroline, a sweet-natured, affectionate two-year-old, came up to me while the family were sitting around on the terrace outside my parents’ house; she smiled up at me rather uncertainly and bit me hard on the leg.
My left arm swung out in full backhand and knocked her away like a fly. She was unhurt, but enormously surprised.
There were then, of course, many tears, many hugs, many consolations. There were no apologies on either side. I only got guilty about hitting her later. “That was terrible,” I said to my mother. “I didn’t think! I just whacked her!”
My mother then told me about what the psychologist had told her. And she said, “When your brother Clifton was two, he bit me. And he kept doing it. I didn’t know what to do, I thought I shouldn’t punish him. Finally I just blew up, I slapped him. He was so surprised, like Caroline. I don’t think he even cried. And he stopped biting.”
If there is a moral to this tale, I don’t know what it is.
I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.
Maybe the prolonged “festival of cruelty” going on in our literature and movies is an attempt to get rid of repressed anger by expressing it, acting it out symbolically. Kick everybody’s ass all the time! Torture the torturer! Describe every agony! Blow up everything over and over!
Does this orgy of simulated or “virtual” violence relieve anger, or increase the leaden inward load of fear and pain that causes it? For me, the latter; it makes me sick and scares me. Anger that targets everything and everybody indiscriminately is the futile, infantile, psychotic rage of the man with an automatic rifle shooting pre-schoolers. I can’t see it as a way of life, even pretended life.
You hear the anger in my tone? Anger indulged rouses anger.
Yet anger suppressed breeds anger.
What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?