on anger, compassion, and self- care (for A.H., with thanks)

A friend wrote me a few days ago, asking about anger. It’s funny— I’d never imagined that I’d be someone that might give out advice on that subject, but she’d asked in a very serious way, so I gave it some thought, and in giving it even a little time I realized that no, hey, I really did have a lot to say. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my anger- my rage, really- and while it’s paid off, it’s been a process, too.

Everybody’s got something to be angry about at some point in their life. I’m not talking about traffic or parking tickets or noisy neighbors or lousy internet service; I’m talking about real rage, the sort of thing that can eat you up inside. It’s poison, that stuff— no good for the bearer, and no good for recipients, either. It’s a flag, too; a warning sign that something is off- kilter and needs your attention, now now now now now, damnit. I think that far too often we either cram it into some dark corner of ourselves (which means it then spills out in inappropriate ways later on), or try to “vent” it (which frequently just perpetuates the rage cycle: anger feeds on itself). It’s a trap, and it sucks.

I spent years being just plain pissed off half of my day, carrying this low- level, simmering level of ire under my daily face. You wouldn’t see it, most days, but it was there, waiting for something, anything to go wrong, so that it could manifest. I’ve never made any bones about coming from a messed- up family, and as I grew older I began to really understand exactly how messed- up it really was, and as that understanding grew, so did my anger about it. I got out of my family, got out into the world and made friends with good people, amazing beautiful people with amazing beautiful families. That was a really good thing for me— I needed to know that was a real thing that really happened in the real world, not just in books and on sitcoms. It was also a really painful, rage- inducing thing, because it showed me everything I had not only missed, but would never have. (Those families, of course, aren’t perfect— because no family is ever perfect— but they came really close, and I’ve used them as models to build and run my own family today. I’m deeply grateful to them for the examples they set.)

Dealing with all of that was tough. I tried sweating it out at the gym, drinking it away at the bar, crafting it away with ALL off the hobbies, working it off at multiple jobs, forgetting it altogether with about a thousand moves. Nothing really changed, though. I mean, I got to be a somewhat decent runner for a little bit there, learned that I loved whiskey and couldn’t stand tequila, I’ll be useful as hell if civilization comes to a screeching halt, and wow, I’ve got one hell of a diverse resume, but other than that? Still pissed.

I met a lot of other irate people along the way, though. That helped. The service is full of people who are looking to get as far away from the folks who did them wrong as possible, and eventually a good amount of us share our stories, in part or in full. I did a lot of listening. Like, a lot of listening. People tell me their stories, I don’t know what that’s about, I have one of those faces, but it’s an honor to listen. The details are always different and we all take it in different ways, but it’s all the same, too: we came from places with holes in them, places that have something missing, whether it was compassion or money or people or affection or sanity or safety or yeah, all of the above.

I’d been meditating for years and years when I started putting that together— that all of our hurts are both somewhat individual and also not all that unique, which I found oddly comforting. (When “my family sucks” is a secret, these sorts of things can seem like a revelation.) I’d had a counselor in middle school who taught me very basic mindfulness meditation techniques, breath awareness, that sort of thing, and while I’d been expanding on that I hadn’t strayed too far. It wasn’t until I started doing metta work that I started making any progress on my problems with anger, though. Metta helped a lot, because it walks around a version of forgiveness that I find acceptable, and it exercises compassion, which, when you’re that angry, you really need. In metta, you start off meditating on the idea of sending compassion to yourself: “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be well,” then work through someone you love, then someone you don’t really know… and then someone who challenges you. You finish by taking it out to the world at large.

Ahhh, but that “someone who challenges you” part. That’s the athletic bit.

Look, for beginners I sometimes skip that piece, because most students aren’t ready for it yet. I’ve had students burst into tears doing this practice in full; when I first started teaching, I didn’t know any better and would do it all and would have at least one student weeping, nearly every class, no exaggeration. It’s just too much to sit with for some folks, and having done it on the regular for years now, I get that so hard. Sitting brings up some serious stuff, stuff you have to deal with both while you’re sitting and afterward. That stuff can be revelatory, game- changing. That doesn’t mean it’s always fun.

You get good at compassion, though, and you get good at letting go. You get good at wishing people well and letting them loose in the world again, and that’s important, because a big part of rage is holding on. And you get good at extending kindness to yourself, too, and given how brutal anger is— how it can tear at a body— trust me, you need that.

It hasn’t just been metta that’s helped. That’d be too easy, right? It’s amazing stuff, and it’s one- half of the equation for me, but that didn’t do it alone. It’s also been about surrender.

It seems obvious, but most of us miss this in the rush of emotion: people are going to be themselves, and that really is their prerogative. (Who else immediately began to hear Bobby Brown?) I needed to surrender to the idea that people are going to do what they are going to do, that they are going to hurt me, anger me, that they have hurt me, that those injuries cannot be fixed, and that in the end, nothing can be done for or with it. Surrender is both a liberating and horrifying concept: we people hate the idea of not being able to control everything, but giving up the idea of trying to run the show is a damned good thing.

I am 100% responsible for my own words and actions and so is everyone around me. I can’t–– and shouldn’t try to— control the people around me, even when they are behaving poorly, hurting me, or working against their best interests, and part of that fight is frequently about control. See my side. Fix this. Make it right. Apologize. Stop being an ass. I can advise, I can disengage, I can call bullshit when I see it, but other than that, I find it’s best to regard other people almost the same way as I see forces of nature. I’m not responsible for them or their behavior. Other people will do whatever they’re going to do; they will follow their core natures (just as I will follow mine) and if that’s not working out for you, for whatever reason, it’s important to see that, acknowledge it, and make a plan. This isn’t a judgment on you or them: it’s merely seeing the world as it actually is rather than the way you wished it would be.

Easier said than done, I know. I’m not doing to lie or sugarcoat it: this process is difficult and it hurts. It’s also worth it. Look, I’m talking about a 20- year process on my end, although really, most of this work has been in the last 10, and the biggest push has been in the last 6. I know some of what I’m writing about here sounds like woo- woo mumbo- jumbo to some folks, but it does work, and while a great deal of it is based in traditional Buddhism, when I ran the bulk of this post by Sam, he cheerily summed it up by telling me that Taylor Swift said all of my surrender paragraph much more snappily in Shake It Off. I could have shaken him at the time, but I’m working on that, don’tcha know.

Okay— there it is, my wordglut on anger. Have your own advice? I’m sure my friend would love to hear it— leave something in the comments! I’m off to work on patterns and think about something other than being angry for a while.

  One thought on “on anger, compassion, and self- care (for A.H., with thanks)

  1. March 7, 2015 at 2:17 am

    I used to think that I didn’t really have an anger problem, but sometimes, some people just. Ugh. And I can’t keep my mouth shut and I can’t let things go. And few people get second chances in my world. But I’m trying.

    In other news, you continue to amaze me and I hope someday to be one hundredth as wise as you.

  2. March 7, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I want to be like you when I grow up. ❤

  3. March 10, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Its always interesting to see how others view emotions

  4. mjsross
    April 7, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Thanks for this. Just the right thing at just the right moment. Thanks to Google algorithmically geared serendipity!

  5. May 7, 2015 at 4:52 am

    Sometimes “goozfraba” just doensn’t help!…

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