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Being angry, and what to do with that anger

A conversation I often have with my kids—especially the eleven-year-old—is that it is okay to get angry about things, but the important thing is what you do with that anger.

“Does yelling usually make a situation better or worse?” I ask him.

“Usually worse,” he says.

It is a conversation I imagine I will be having with him quite a few more times. It has also become a conversation that I have with myself.

I have been thinking quite a bit lately about unproductive anger. I am angry at all the people who refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks and refuse to maintain any kind of social distancing discipline; the pandemic was always going to be bad, but it didn’t have to be this bad. I am angry at our governor and our state education department, who insisted that all kids go back to in-person learning this fall, but then didn’t manage to get pooled-testing up and running for most schools until over a month into the school year; now we’ve got COVID spreading quietly through the unvaccinated elementary student population, and we have no idea how bad it is. I am angry at congressional Republicans about lots of things.

The question I find myself asking more often these days is what good this anger does. The answer—which tends to come a few minutes or hours too late—is “Practically none at all.”

We hear a lot about that venting our anger is good for us. Let it out, we’re told, as though the only other option is to roll it up into a ball and bury it. I am not even sure that venting my anger even makes me feel better—it mostly just seems to make me feel even more angry, and worse still, feel good about being angry—but even it if does make me feel better, it makes everyone around me feel worse.

It is worth noting here that as a white guy, I have the privilege of generally feeling safe to express my anger. If I were a woman, I’d be getting bombarded with rape threats and violence. It I were a person of color, I would risk getting arrested or shot.

I will also note that there are plenty of folks who have a lot more valid reasons to be angry than I do. I am not judging any of those folks here, or trying to lecture them about how getting mad doesn’t help anything. If the American political, economic, and cultural systems had had their collective boot on my back for the last 400 years, I’d be pretty goddamned angry. What is continually amazing is how much better people with real stuff like that to be angry about are at harnessing that energy and putting it to use than privileged white dudes like me tend to be.

As for my own anger, it is nearly always unproductive.

I think I am at least getting better at recognizing this fact, and maybe at catching myself in it. “I could get mad about this stupid thing, or I could set it aside and move on”—that’s what I try to remind myself, although I am not always successful. Sometime it feels good to be angry, and I am coming to think that is a problem, both at a personal and a societal level.

Maybe the difference is anger that is performative versus anger that is transformative. The white-guy-venting kind of anger tends to be mostly about “LOOK AT ME AND HOW ANGRY I AM!” If you don’t enjoy the cultural status that allows you to do that safely, then perhaps you have to figure out where that anger is coming from, and how to channel it into changing the situation.

Again, I don’t want to get into judging other people’s reactions to the world around them. Their experiences have been different than mine, and I don’t feel like I should really be speaking for anyone other than myself. That said, I keep coming back to the question “What good does this do?” So I’m angry, and maybe I feel (rightly or wrongly) like I have a right to be angry. But is being angry actually doing anything to fix the thing I’m angry about, or is it making it worse?

As the eleven year-old notes, it nearly always makes the situation worse.

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