About Anger part ii

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











Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischAbout Anger
Part ii: Private Anger
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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?


Part i



About Anger part ii — 25 Comments

  1. I take my cue from my horses. Someone kicks or bites? Pure white, whirling, teeth-tearing, hind-feet-slamming rage.

    Then it’s done. Deep breath. Whufflesnort. Back to finishing off the hay or contemplating the mysteries of the universe. They can simmer, these Space Aliens in horse suits (stallion has been on a monthlong campaign to get rid of Big Guy in the Corner, which will happen next weekend and by the gods of heaven above and hell below WHY ISN’T IT NOW?), but for the most part, once the point is made, they let it go.

    We do a lot of deep breathing and letting it go around here.

    • When it was 10, hiding in my school library to avoid being judged, i discovered Jed, and I fell madly in love with these books and your writing. There was a light bulb moment when magic is explained as illusion; conjured food won’t stave hunger. Now I’m almost 50 and have for the third time red the earthsea books with chid 2 I reinforced that it’s all managing and harnessing his anger to “serve creation and compassion”.
      I get irritated at the Harry Potter fuss and Ms Le Guin you deserved that level of praise. But it’s because you produce written art not screenplays. The complexity of you characters means their multi dimensions won’t squeeze into the 2 dimensional, 2.5 hour world of today.
      Stay just a bit angry please, you are directing it well into creation and your only curse to be living a long and I hope happy life as it’s a sad truth that most artists are never fully appreciated until after they die, the rest have a fleeting celebrity.

  2. 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.

    Thank you for the reminder to write what I write–not what anyone else writes.

  3. Wow. You never pick the easy topics, do you? Moral complexity is, by the way, why I like your writing MUCH better than Hemingway’s!

  4. Some of my best characters have come out of anger — out of taking a person I’m angry at and trying to imagine how such a person could view him/herself as the hero of their own story. What kind of thought process would the person have to possess to think that what they did was acceptable?

    Because of course, everybody is the hero of their own story. Have to admit though, some of those stories seem destined to be tragic.

  5. “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?”

    I think you touched on the answer with this statement: “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 is often the tool of destruction, but it is also just as often the tool of creation. So many lasting works of art are a result of their creators having harnessed anger to give expression to their ideas. But we’re so collectively focused on the narrative of fury-fed destruction that we tend not to see or trust an alternative.

  6. Yes, the ‘festival of cruelty’; I can barely watch new movies anymore, and if life expectancy keeps increasing, I may be alienated from cinematic culture for a long dang time.

    Oh well. Thankfully there’s still books.

  7. I was really interested to read this, thinking of the way you dealt with anger in The Dispossessed. On Anarres being angry with a person is dealt with personally and physically – as in when people come to protest Shevek’s leaving for Urras, and in his earlier life when a person named Shevet wishes to fight him because he is annoyed because of the similarity of their names. On Urras they have wars.
    Your writing has been an inspiration and a joy to me ever since I read The Wizard of Earthsea in 1971 in my first year at university. Whenever I am in need of strengthening inner peace and avoiding despair it is your books I turn to. Anger is often tricky for women when we have been brought up to deny it, learning from you I taught my daughters to hit the cushions when they feel angry, rather than to deny the emotion or turn it inward. Is this moral? or psychologically sound?

  8. “Anger suppressed breeds anger.”

    Thinking it over, I think this is a half-truth; anger is like fire, not water. It has to have fuel and it has to be kindled. Like fire, anger can be starved of fuel, or fed. It’s not something like water that is just there, that once produced has to be released.

    So I think one has to develop habits of anger management. There are situations where it is totally appropriate to be angry, and it’s valuable to know them and be prepared to act on one’s anger. Conversely, one can come to know situations when anger is likely not justified and to starve it.

    If anyone is in any situation that constantly kindles anger I hope they ask themselves: are they really in a dangerous situation? Or are they simply cranky, or, worse, have an unjustified sense of entitlement and acting unreasonably?

    In our society, I would say that most women are angry at sexism for excellent reasons and are discouraged from expressing their anger. Conversely, men are encouraged to express anger—any anger—at the drop of a hat, despite enormous privilege. This is the reverse of what is sensible and just. The whole idea that “anger must be expressed,” I think, is more of a problem than not. There are many instances where we are better served by suppressing their anger until the feeling passes. And perhaps if we did this, we would have more energy to be angry or happy or passionate or whatever when it really was needed.

    • Your last paragraph, about our society and how men and women are taught to treat their anger differently is right on. And I believe it’s all because we are unable to put ourselves in the opposite sex’s shoes and experience what the others experience.

      That’s why it was so brilliant for Ursula to write her short story, “Coming of age in Karhide” so long ago. In that society, sexual violence (and roots of many anger issues) is impossible.

  9. I think there is a useful link between public or political anger and private, individual anger; they are both signs that change is needed. When I am angry, I am likely to take drastic actions to confront the cause of my anger and to try to change the situation. If I am mindful and can step back for an instant, I remind myself that I was angry because something needs to change and I’ll try to find a rational, calm way to make that change. In many cases the angry, irrational me can be the foe of the calm, rational me. Although there really is no multiple personality involved I can look at it like there is; an angry flare up is a warning from mad me to calm me saying, “Take care of this, or I’ll be back.” Perhaps we can look at the anger of feminism, or the anger in Ferguson the same way.

  10. Thank you for another thought provoking blog post. I have been thinking about the nature of anger myself a lot lately, having grown up in a classical family pattern where the right to express anger rested firmly with my dad. Mom was never angry, just disappointed.

    A few years ago I went to a lecture about anger by the Danish psychologist Freddy Meyer. He spoke against the right to wield anger in public in, and it transformed my way of thinking about anger. His claim is very consistent with your weapon analogy: He proposes that anger, even (partly) surpressed latent anger can be wielded as a weapon to obtain personal dominance within a group of people, and that people doing this have a very detrimental effect on everyone in their immediate surroundings. He calls this effect “surstråling” in Danish, translating directly to something like “anger-radiation”, and compared the effect to that of second hand smoke: Through an action that is outside your immediate control, proximity to latent anger will drain you of energy and creativity and induce stress symptoms. I recognised a bit of my childhood in that: Knowing that the latent anger was there, and fearing to provoke it.

    I love my father, and he never hit us, even once. But I don’t think he ever questioned his right to be angry. He even saw it as a parenting tool, and even with his grand children the old patterns sometimes return.

    At the summer house this year, my two year old wanted to take a vase with flowers from the table. I stopped her, but a moment later when I was unattentive, she made another go for it. My dad grabbed her arm, put his face very close to hers, and said in that suppressed-male-agression voice that stirred too many memories: “Don’t do that again, because then granddad will be very angry!”

    I was a bit shocked at how it affected me. It actually felt sort of as if he had brandished a weapon (not a dangerous one, right? Not a gun, but a stick maybe? A fist?) Anyway, I took her outside and said “It isn’t because granddad gets angry that you can’t have the vase. You can’t have the vase because it breaks, and the water spills, and it isn’t for playing”.

    I like your analogy. I oppose the right to carry weapons in public, and in general that would include anger. There are definitely circumstances where using it is effective and justified, but as with any weapon, using anger introduces a lot of moral complexity that must be dealt with consciously and thoroughly.

  11. Just one more comment: I am a biologist, and when confronted with human behaviour, I always intuitively turn to our evolutionary history. It doesn’t help with the moral issues of course, but I still find it useful to see where the behaviour comes from, when you need to decide how to deal with it.

    In these terms of course anger IS a weapon, literally. So, when confronted with a threat, animals have two basic response patterns: Flee or fight. The emotion fear is an evolved response to the danger, which makes us better at the “flee” option, and the emotion anger is necessary to fuel the “fight” option. Seen in this context it becomes rather obvious that anger is indispensable if you need to stand up for your right in response to an immediate threat.

    But fighting behaviour is not exclusively a threat response. We have a potential to act as aggressors as well as defenders, and aggressive behaviour makes use of the same basic emotion, anger. This has clearly been a useful adaptation when it enabled acquisition of resources for an individual or its group. Just like our ancestors learned to pick up sticks and stones for these types of behaviour, they learned to wield anger to elicit fighting behaviour (and anger was of course wielded a whole lot earlier than the sticks and stones).

    So, how can we use the biological perspective on anger? Not for any moral conclusions by itself, obviously, but perhaps to see why suppressed anger, which fails to address its cause, has the same potential to induce stress symptoms as does suppressed fear: Our modern environment is a very complicated setting compared to the one our ancestors were adapted to, and we need to recognise our basic emotional responses for what they are and modify them with conscious behaviour in order to channel our anger into something constructive and morally defensible.

    • Anger, from an evolutionary standpoint, also facilitates the taking of life – an act which is anathema to the primal struggle of living creatures to preserve life, but one that is necessary for the survival of carnivorous animals.

      Useful and essential in small doses, but, as with many things, humans seem to have developed this instinct far beyond current necessity. We possess the technological tools to enable our survival without resorting to excessive carnage, but we haven’t found a way to reign in our now near-compulsive murderous tendencies.

      We’re in the adolescent phase of our evolutionary process.

      • I like the idea that we’re in the adolescent phase of evolution. I usually say the human race isn’t civilized yet, which holds out the hope we can become that way.

        One of the many positive things I have learned from studying Aikido is how to respond to anger and violence without adding in more anger and violence. There is a lot to learn about living in peace from studying the way of warriorship — and I don’t mean the so-called “peace” that comes when everyone is armed to the nines.

  12. Another good discussion, thank you. Many times when I get angry, I try to manage it by determining what I may have done or misunderstood to make me feel that way. Being an optimist (though becoming more skeptical with age), I’d like to see the best in things, so a person’s attitude make a difference there as well. I’d like to think that “transending” one’s anger is a good approach to anger management, but it doesn’t do away with the emotion. Then, the habit of holding back (such as counting to 10) can give you a better perspective as to whether you should flee or fight.

  13. re anger:
    I tend to suppress anger. Every few years I explode I explode – just verbally, but very explosively. Everyone is embarrassed, and I am definitely in the wrong.
    I once found myself directing a play – with amateurs. At one point an actor went seriously out of line – and I mean seriously. I thought: – I feel angry; I have a right to be angry; expressing anger is the constructive thing to do in this situation. I told the actor what she needed to be told – with feeling. It was the right thing to do. I did what was needed and stopped.
    A few years later I participated in a ‘story into drama’ workshop – working with the Russian Baba Yaga story. I took the part of the burning skull – which lights Vassilisa’s way through the forest and destroys the wicked stepmother. It is a living being, a very schematic being – a spirit of righteous anger, who is capable of nothing else. It grins and dances and destroys evil.
    And I thought of the goddess Kali – brought into existence to destroy demons. She’s very good at this, but tends to go out of control, doesn’t know when to stop. The village goddess of many Indian villages is identifies with Kali. If you are a poor Indian villager you can do with a fierce and powerful mother on your side. But one story I know has her as something more like a tantrum prone elder sister, who needs to be told STOP very loudly!

  14. Thank you for this vulnerable and complicated post. I’ve heard it said a number of times that anger is a sign that something needs to change. That feels true to my own anger, and to my sense that emotions have an ecology and anger is one, only one, of its inhabitants.
    I’m angry about Ferguson MO and it feels right to be– something needs to change. But what happens when anger has given you the signal to change and you cannot or will not? I’m angry about Ferguson– and what if nothing changes? It feels like the anger is the most dominant and powerful inhabitant of our ecology. How do ecologies repair themselves and find balance? The animals I’ve know express anger but they don’t harbor it. People hold it and feed it. We plot futures with it in mind, never letting it turn to mulch and become another thing…

  15. “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?”

    As you noted in Part i, regarding political anger, personal anger too is most useful in bringing our attention to problem areas and motivating us to do something about them.

    Sometimes (naughty child) a swift physical response to a physical incursion is what works best as a solution. With non-immediate, non-physical threats from adults I find it better to regard my anger as information, a barometer of my situation. I appreciate the information, but remind myself that the best tools for dealing with personal, social situations are sociable ones.

    I remind myself that I may be misinterpreting a situation, or that there’d be no problem if I dealt better with my insecurities or took a broader perspective on issues that might be colored too strongly by my ego. Doing this makes it easier for me to confront issues in a calm, open-minded manner.

  16. I have a huge anger bomb deep inside of me. I do my best not to indulge in it, nor repress it anymore. So far, the only safe way I have found to let it go is slowly, in brief installments, like venting gas from a shaken two liter of soda. Untwist the cap until the foam rises, twist it back tight and fast. Repeat until the bubbles refuse to overflow. I have found the directness of words can easily fuel the anger, so I tend to express it physically in exercise or visually in painting. Words are good in hindsight, or in rage so complete that they cut through in sharp clarity. But then, I don’t speak the words. The words speak me.

    Awareness, itself seems to help relieve the tension. Presence allows me to sit with the anger and not be propelled by it – to act not react. And yes, like you, I feel the tie between my anger and fear. Most fear is useless, though some is helpful. (Is that car really not going to stop? Run! Could those teeth draw blood? Smack them away.)

    And the deep huge ball of anger that was turned inward into depression… That was justified too, by the injustices I faced, my inability to cope with those injustices, my desire not to repeat the pattern, and my drive to not take it out on others. Yet hurting myself is not a good option either – and depression is hurting myself. So, what to do? Untwist the cap, let some escape, tighten the cap fast… The only way I know how to do that is to forgive myself. I forgive myself by being grateful that I was protecting myself the way I best new how to at the time. Now it is time to let those old fears go, as I see beyond them now, and see they no longer serve me. The danger is gone, and so holding on to the anger is the new danger that must be let go of, so that bomb doesn’t explode. I am grateful for the new me that can see this, and that helps me with my patience, as there is a lot of twisting and untwisting I need to do in order to settle again.

  17. Anger is temporary insanity. No sanity remains when someone is truly mad. It’s a physical response to threat. The other emotions, the slow simmering fury, are something else… probably more akin to a murderer’s calculation. That’s how I see it.

    When I was a teenager I loved Hemingway’s short stories; everything seemed so clear and in sharp relief of black and white in starkly contrasty brightness. Nick and his fishing, Anderson and the two men waiting to kill him. I enjoyed reading the stories because I didn’t know much about the world, and Hemingway showed me a way to look at this world that was very unusual.
    The older I get, the less I liked Hemingway. The world is not so black and white; and fishing or fighting or waiting to die is usually not the way to solve things.
    Unfortunately people who will resort to killing children with semiautomatic weapons still see the world as black and white.

  18. Anger can be a useful tool, when it has a deserving target. To be angry at the cruelty and stupidity of the present US culture and politics is useful, if it rouses you to action. Choose who and what to be angry at carefully, use your anger well and let it go when it’s done its job.

    Don’t let yourself get caught in your own anger.

  19. As it happens I read an NYT article on Marilynne Robinson this week, and she was quoted as saying: ““I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear. …Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

    It was that comment about the respectability of fear that caught my attention. If a state of fear becomes culturally normalized, it presumably reinforces the cultural normalization of anger.

  20. I am full of appreciation for your sharing Ursula. Writing/story telling to me is the most potent art as it creates intimate thoughtful connection and we are sorely in need of that. Your words are always nourishment. Thank you.
    …We are never a finished product are we. If we lived to be 1000 we would still be immersed in mystery. The human condition is a mystery. How can we not be angry? We want the world to be other than it is and are deeply sensitive to misaligned resonance. Anger can be the mask of this distress.
    When my top occasionally blows, sparks flying, I know at that moment that I have lost control of myself, but I am in integrity and the recipient can go jump in the lake. (As a 5 foot middle aged female I am no physical threat.) I value honesty in people and I value it in myself. I only get to that point when all other avenues of fruitful expression have been exhausted.
    Anger can be creative and necessary. My husband lost himself when he developed seizures in middle age. People would have been appalled if they heard me rant and rail at him in his vulnerability but it was the consistent penetrating power of my anger that eventually cracked the carapace of his absent forgetfulness. Sympathy or acceptance would have been chisels made of butter.
    I am weary of anger. I accept it’s presence because it tells me I still have the where-with-all to care but I have a great appetite for Peace.