The Wisdom of Anger


*Warning this paper contains racial slurs and language that may be offensive

Anger can become aggression, or it can be nurtured into healthy acts of assertiveness. If people wouldn’t have become outraged during the civil rights era, would change have occurred? How do we learn to foster our anger in a manner that helps us to grow instead of becoming violent and resentful? Living the life of a middle class United States citizen there are expectations around how to express yourself, arranged into neat boxes. It is appropriate to cry solemnly at funerals, kiss in public at your wedding, and yell on the top of your lungs at an opposing sports team.  When we need to provide self-care for ourselves we are expected to comply with different social norms: get a massage, do yoga, or go shopping and spend money you don’t have on a random overprices personal item. I believe from my life experiences that these limitations on how we express ourselves and how we care for ourselves should be only dictated by our own individual circumstances and ideals.

Angry Youth

I was fifteen when I went to my first punk show. It was 1989 and my parents had no idea that I was there. The venue was shabby, even dangerous by some standards, and most likely it wasn’t somewhere most would expect to find a 15 year old girl. The music was deafening and the energy could be described as nothing less than huge. You could almost smell the juxtaposition of ego and insecurity clashing in the air. Teenage uncertainty had found the perfect outlet: loud angry music accompanied by dancing that consisted of jumping on the stage and slamming bodies together. The adrenaline rush combined with the atmosphere can’t be adequately conveyed in words, and describable only as intentional sensory overload that often made one nearly impervious to pain. It was within this particular music scene that I got introduced to politics and began harnessing my anger into something constructive.

There is a subgenre within punk music that is sometimes called political punk. It’s been around for decades and it isn’t only about chaotic anarchy. Political punk consists of lyrics that encourages the listener to question the way in which they live: from criticizing capitalism:

So much money where does it all come from?
We’re paying for democracy never mind the bomb
So much money what does it do?
It puts them in power where they shit on you”
–“So Much Money” by Subhumans

to questioning the ethics of eating meat:

“There’s a war in the day no peace at night “There’s blood on the hands of man yet we       don’t sympathize” The meat eater kills the cows they just depersonalize to justify “Their own lust as the helpless die “And it’s ironic how we cry for world peace.” –“Civilized Man” by Shelter

This music provided me with an education independent from what I learned in school and at home and served as the first outlet for the frustrations that came with being raised in a conservative era and community. The exposure to this music and social scene paved the road for me to explore how the expression of my emotions and perspectives didn’t need to look like the one of the person next to me.

Practicing Resisting Violence

I was 15 the first time I was harassed by neo-Nazi skinheads. Word had gotten around that I was organizing to get them banned from certain punk venues and bringing awareness to the neo-Nazi agenda of hate. I was living in the suburbs of Houston, Texas at a time when racial diversity was increasing, fueling the xenophobic fire of the right-wing conservatives of all ages.

One evening I was at the mall, the 1980’s teenage hang out of choice, when two teenage boys with shaved heads began to follow me and my friend. I knew that they were neo-Nazi skinheads and I kept walking and talking to my friend, ignoring them. They must have been frustrated at not getting a reaction out of me, so they began to call me names. “Hey there nigger-lover”, “Race-trading bitch”. I continued to walk and ignore them. We continued to walk and more of the neo-Nazi skinheads came up, one of them came up and coughed up mucus and spat on me. I continued to ignore them and slowly walked to a more populated area hoping that they would choose to dissipate.  Their behaviors did slow down, but still continued for more than an hour. I was covered in other people’s spit and mucus by the end of the night but managed to never speak a word against these people. I didn’t share this experience to my parents but instead went home took a shower and washed my clothes.

My anger drove me to be more involved by reaching out to other anti-racist groups in different cities and researching non-violent resistance. I started a chapter of a national organization called, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in Houston to gain support for the cause. I held a benefit concert to gain funds to help bring awareness to the violence perpetrated by individuals and groups with a neo-Nazi agenda.

Anger Becomes Aggression

The harassment continued and escalated into violence. I was physically assaulted on my 16th birthday at a show by neo-Nazi skinheads, and a few months later my family’s house was vandalized with a swastika and the words, “Nigger-lovin’ white slag”. They threatened to harm my family and we had to move my little brother’s bed away from his window just in case they did a drive-by shooting. In August of 1990 Hung Truong, a 15-year-old Vietnamese boy who lived about 15 miles from me, was stomped to death by two neo-Nazi skinheads that had been involved in harassing me and my family. This homicide shocked us and filled us with fear. My parents became more strict and protective. I remained involved in the movement but scaled back to let the dust settle. Like most teenagers I allowed other, safer, distractions to pull me away from being as previously involved in a topic that was so dangerous.

These experiences made me understand that if I allowed my anger over this situation to escalate, the repercussions could harm me or my family and a permanent or catastrophic scale. It allowed me to recognize on my own terms that there is a time to step back, grieve and reassess. I began to reflect more on the fact that I couldn’t bear both the emotional weight of the violence and the difficult task of influencing others to change, especially at a young age with limited tools.

Anger Behind Bars

Anger is a complex emotion that is often attached to other emotions such as fear, insecurity, grief, shame, or ignorance. I have learned that if we explore the reasons we get angry, we can usually ensure that our anger can be used to guide us in expressing ourselves more completely. Today I am 41, and I teach anger management to individuals that are experiencing incarceration. I have been working in the social-service sector for 15 years, I believe that my lived experience as an activist in my earlier years provided me the insight to be a committed practitioner in this field as well as an active participant in my community.

Working as a case manager and teaching anger management gives me the platform to show others that anger is just one of many emotions, and that anger can be positive if it allows an outlet for expression. Although I can’t always teach anger management in a manner that I would if my clients weren’t incarcerated, I do what I can to create a safe place for them to process all of their emotions. I build rapport slowly, using humor as well as open honesty about the realities of their predicaments. Early on in our groups we discuss the unjust system they are tangled up in, and the impact that historic racism and poverty in our community further complicates their existence.

Understanding anger as a potentially productive emotion rather than one to be softened and repackaged involves understanding an atypical concept of self-care.  Denying the legitimate roots of anger, or promoting an unrealistically optimistic outlook on these roots, is a manifestation of a power imbalance dynamic.  Anger often comes from injustice or inequality, and denying these sources helps foster unhealthy expressions of anger.  If I went into teach at the jails and told my clients they just need to take some deep breaths, keep an anger journal and move on past their anger it would come across as condescending and it would be unethical as a service provider ostensibly working towards healthy anger. What if I allowed them to create a space where sometimes self-care and learning to regulate emotions is about being angry and saying so?  I encourage participants in my classes to consider whether the most important self-care concept is that which focuses not on the individual but on their place in the community. I have learned from my early life experiences that being involved in the community around you actually improves your personal well-being. Noticing those around you and recognizing that everyone is struggling creates an empathic bridge which can harness healthy aspects of anger to create movement in a sometimes seemly stagnant system.

Remaining Angry

Compared to my youth, the older I get the deeper connected I become to my array of emotions, and anger sometimes takes a relatively less important place. Despite this, when I am able to pause and step outside of my personal bubble and stretch my brain to see the world through a less filtered lens, my anger still inspires me to create change or vent in a non-traditional way. Sometimes I jump into the pool and scream on the top of my lungs, or I cry so loud when I’m alone in the house that the cats actually get up and move off the bed. Sometimes I shake with a silent rage and other times I freeze, because I know that if I express anger at that moment in time I risk it leading to aggression.

One example of this happened recently when my children and I went to an outdoor art exhibit at our local museum. Our art museum shares its property with the Sons of the Confederacy Veterans Chapel. This chapel used to fly a confederate flag but the museum removed it several years ago, prompting protests by both individuals and groups. These neo-confederate groups were at this outdoor art exhibit protesting about “their flag, and their heritage” being removed. I hadn’t seen this amount of racist gathered in one place since I had protested a Ku Klux Klan rally many years ago. There was even a new generation of neo-Nazi skinheads standing in solidarity with them. Two of my children are bi-racial so this just added to my displeasure of the circumstance. I got tunnel vision and almost threw-up. Lucky some local anti-racist activists (who were half my age) were also there. They had printed signs reading: “Not My Flag”.  I handed signs to each of my children and took a deep breath. My stomach quit turning and before I knew it several people came up and started thanking us for standing against the flag. My heart swelled and I recognized that once again my anger created something positive not just for me but also for others in my community, including future generations.

How can anger help us to improve ourselves and our environment? If we all extended ourselves a little to care for others, those of us in most need of a break would receive one. If everyone expressed a little more anger, perhaps society would engage a little more often in productive conversations that could promote growth and positive change. In our communities, behind bars or free, we cannot continue to use our anger to subjugate others while maintaining our integrity and espousing self-care.  Recognizing anger as a potentially healthy emotion we can lift others up as we go and provide a space for self-care and expression that may change the way in which we live and communities we inhabit. The idea of the individual floating adrift on a sea of repressed emotions, uninformed by history, culture and social systems, has led us astray from healthy emotional existence and away from participating in desperately-needed collective action against the sources of anger.

© 2015 Emily Westerholm