I’ve been feeling angry recently. Really angry.
Last week’s political happenings had me brimming with righteous feminist indignation, and I’ve decided that I’m totally ok with that. I’ve decided that we’ve reached a point where we can no longer afford to ignore or sugar coat rape culture because it makes people feel uncomfortable. I’ve decided that there are people who will still avoid talking about it – either by ignoring the conversation completely or deflecting the conversation to something else – but that I can’t, in good conscience, stay quiet about it when I see it.
After the release of the infamous Trump video, many women felt the same way. Suddenly the internet was overrun with stories of sexual assault and abuse against women, all trying to show that instances of being “grabbed by the pussy” are far too real for too many women, and a far cry from innocent banter.
I’m lucky. My personal experience with sexual assault is limited to a handful of ass-grabbing episodes in bars, which were irritating but not emotionally damaging. But even without a personal history of violence, there is a hidden threat there all the time for women. It’s the constant awareness, from the time you’re a teenager (or younger, for many women) that you have to be careful – constantly – to minimize your chances of being hurt. You think about it when you park your car. You think about it when you decide if you can handle one more drink out at the bar. You think about it when you get dressed – is your outfit going to attract unwanted attention? It is an unrelenting calculation that you never get a break from. (I highly recommend reading The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About from The Huffington Post.)
So when Trump’s video surfaced, along with his dismissal of his comments as “locker room talk,” I felt angry. I felt angry about what feels like the herculean – but also sacred – task of raising boys to be respectful of women in a world where they will be bombarded by media messages that objectify females over and over and over again. I felt angry about the times I allowed my voice to be silenced or subdued with the ever present threat of being labeled a “bitch” or “uncool” if I was honest with an unpopular opinion I hold. (No, I don’t like strip clubs. I’m not comfortable with businesses that sell the right to objectify women as their main commodity. Sorry, not sorry.) I felt angry for the younger tween version of myself who carried my friends’ confidences of abuse and assault, which felt normal at the time but now seem like such an adult load for young girls to bear.
And it felt good to be angry about these things. It felt honest and raw and exactly what the situation called for.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with anger. In some ways it came very naturally to me. (I’m an Aries.) But like most women, I gradually learned to suppress it. Well, some days better than others. But by the time I was 17, I would drive around in my parents’ car with Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill blaring at full volume. I’d listen to Alanis (I’m on a first-name basis with her in my head) rage about her heartbreak in “You Oughta Know” and marvel at her unparalleled ability to own her anger. She wasn’t embarrassed about it. She didn’t try to hide it. She reveled in it. And if it made you uncomfortable, then that was your own damn problem. It was fascinating.
However, as fascinating as I found Alanis and her unabashed emotional fireworks, I went on a personal quest through college and my early twenties to overcome what remained of my own temper. I didn’t like how uncontrolled it felt. I didn’t like the residual shame about the unkind things I’d say when I was angry. My temper was an adversary to be conquered.
And by the time I reached my mid-twenties, I pretty much had. I felt a smug sense of satisfaction that I’d beaten my temper into submission. I secretly thought of myself as some kind of zen princess, letting the anger of some legitimately rough years roll off my shoulders with nary a raised voice or a slammed door. When I felt the familiar heat of temper rush to my face, I’d take some deep breaths and reply calmly to whatever trigger had set me off. I had won.
Except the emotions didn’t go away. I stayed calm externally, but all of that negative emotion didn’t naturally dissipate to some magical land inhabited by unicorns and watered with the tears of virgins. As a result, I kept up my cool mask during the day but spent months crying myself to sleep every night.
I finally went to talk to the pastor at my sister’s church. I was student teaching at the time – read: working for free with no health benefits while paying graduate school tuition – so I couldn’t afford a therapist, and I’d met Pastor Diane a few times and really liked her. When I called and asked if we could talk, she generously offered to meet with me.
I showed up and poured my heart out. With a smile on my face, of course. In the past year and a half I’d 1.) started graduate school while working full-time, 2.) gotten a divorce from my high school sweetheart, 3.) had my car stolen and stripped, 4.) moved away from my group of friends to return home, and 5.) become embroiled in a major family conflict at a time when my family felt like the only stable thing I had left. I was also facing the prospect of unemployment as soon as my student teaching ended in the middle of the school year.
I’ll never forget what Pastor Diane said to me. She sat back and said, “You just told me about some really, really stressful things that have gone wrong in your life. And you smiled the entire time you told me. Do you know that you’re allowed to feel angry about it?”
Well knock me over with a feather – I kid you not it never occurred to me that I was allowed to feel angry about any of it. My main goal with processing all of it had been to keep a smile on my face and not cry until I got home at night so that I didn’t make anyone uncomfortable with how absolutely pathetic the last year of my life had been. I was allowed to feel angry? And suddenly, those hours of listening raptly to Alanis made sense. My simultaneous curiosity and fear about the raw emotion she shared so generously with the world clicked into place.
My relationship with anger has become a lot more complicated since my meeting with Pastor Diane over seven years ago. On the one hand, I tried to make space for those moments when anger felt like a legitimate response to the situation I was in, but on the other hand, I also became more connected to a lifestyle that often seeks equanimity as an emotional default. You know, the yoga-loving, zen-studying sect of modern hippie. (You can recognize us by our energy efficient cars and lotus-themed tattoos or wall art.)
I suspect that – like most things – a healthy relationship with anger requires a delicate balance. On the one hand, you never (or at least very rarely) want to react to situations with violence. With the exception of self-defense, I don’t believe it solves anything and often exacerbates conflicts. Neither do you want to hurt the people around you with harsh and angry words that you’ll later regret.
But aren’t there times when anger is a healthy and legitimate response? Aren’t there times when smiling serenely and sending loving energy to the people around you is insufficient?
I think so.
Last week I was listening to an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio with Lyn Mikel Brown, author of Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists. She was speaking to the common tendency in media to portray teenaged female activists as smiley and approachable, when the truth is that they often feel some real, legitimate anger about the situations they are working to change. And Brown said something I found really profound. She said, “Anger is the emotion of politics.”
There is nothing wrong with working to feel love and compassion for those who make us angry. I spent my hour of silence at worship this past week trying to feel gratitude for Donald Trump and how he’s been revealing the hard work we still need to do as a nation. But we also need to work to create change, and sometimes anger – not violence, but honest, authentic anger – can be the fuel we need to commit to the hard work of addressing the many injustices that plague us.
If you go to the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website, you find a statistic:
Every 109 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison.
Is that worth being angry about?
Hell yes, it is. And I think that women are finally at a point where we’re saying Enough. This statistic isn’t ok. Having to hold our car keys a certain way so we can use them as a weapon if we get attacked isn’t ok. Having to evaluate our outfits to figure out if we look like we’re “asking for it” isn’t ok. And trying to silence us by writing us off as whiny feminists isn’t ok.
As angry as I feel right now, I also feel hope that we’re finally in a position to openly address these issues that have for too long been hiding in the shadows of America. However, based on the conversations I saw online and on social media, I think that the election will have to be over before we can start having more productive conversations about this. The intensity of this election has made it next to impossible to have conversations about rape culture because everything immediately turns into a Trump vs. Bill Clinton race to the bottom. We need to hold onto this sense of activism and maintain it until we can join forces as fellow human beings who have had enough, regardless of whether you identify as a Republican or Democrat. Rape culture is not a political issue – it’s a human issue.
Anger should never be a final destination; it’s just one stop on a beautiful and complex journey of human emotions. And it’s normal and healthy for it to make an appearance in all aspects of our lives, not just instances of social injustice. If it makes you feel any better, even the Dalai Lama feels angry sometimes. In fact, he thinks there must be “something wrong” with a person who never shows anger!
And anger serves another purpose as well. Being able to own and process our anger – whether it’s a broken heart, the loss of a loved one, or a mean boss – allows us to move on to other emotions.
As an example, I’ll leave you with a more current break-up song from Alanis. The song “Torch” was from her CD Flavors of Entanglement, which magically came out the summer after my divorce. In contrast to the blazing anger of “You Oughta Know,” she openly admits all of the things she misses about her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. She’s soft, honest, and vulnerable in a way that always feels extremely humbling to witness. And personally, I think that she never could have gotten here without first opening herself up to the anger that made her famous with Jagged Little Pill.
Much love to you, sisters, and to all of the complex, perfectly legitimate emotions you feel, from your most gentle, nurturing love to your hottest and most righteous anger.
P.S. If you tweet, I highly recommend following Alanis Morissette at @alanis