An Ode to Angry
A couple of weeks ago, I had noted in my blog that I was struggling with a certain, shall we say, unpleasant situation. Within a few days, I received an anonymous Dammit Doll in the mail. If you are not familiar, as I wasn’t, the Dammit Doll (looking vaguely voodoo-ish), bears this little poem: Whenever things don’t go so well, and you want to hit the wall and yell, here’s a little Dammit Doll, that you can’t do without. Just grasp it firmly by the legs and find a place to slam it. And as you whack the stuffing out, yell “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” Yes, I laughed, I so need this. But who sent it?
The return address was amazon.com, and initially I didn’t find even a packing slip. Here are my top five guesses as to which of my girlfriends was most likely to have sent me the Dammit Doll:
- The minister.
- The atheist.
- The seminary student.
- The PTA president.
- The preacher’s wife.
It tickles me that my most spiritually attuned friends are also the most likely to appreciate my need to slam the stuffing out of an unsuspecting doll. And yes, I include the atheist in the spiritual category, because she is one whose heart has been so wounded by life that she finds it impossible to believe in a loving and all-powerful One. And the PTA president, because she is engaged with both teenagers and administrators, and if that combination doesn’t bring you to your knees in prayer, I don’t know what will.
One of my best friends used to struggle with anger, the kind that wells up and wrenches the insides, fueled by powerlessness in the face of heartbreak and unfairness, threatening to spill out in ugly and hurtful ways. He had learned, over the years, that a “mad stick” proved an enormously helpful conduit to funnel the angry out. Picture a walking stick found along the side of a hiking path – that’s the ideal branch for use as a mad stick. He would whack the mad stick against a tree or fence or cement wall that could withstand the force of his outrage. He had found a relatively safe way to let the mad go. The stick itself did not usually survive the experience intact, but my friend did.
My emotional equivalent of the mad stick is pounding the pavement. I return from a mad run physically exhausted, both fueled by anger and wrought out by the emotion. It’s a cathartic experience.
Frankly, I don’t understand people who don’t have anger issues. If you are engaged with life, if you have friends and family and dogs you love, if you think the world could be improved in both small and significant ways, then you also know that life is desperately unfair. That people disappoint (even the ones you call “dad” or “baby”). That there is evil in the world and in boardrooms and locker rooms and sacred spaces. And if you are connected with life at any level and participate with both your heart and mind, then unfairness, evil, and poverty are sufficient to make you angry enough to beat the stuffing out of a dozen Dammit Dolls. And that’s before a single interaction with the DMV.
In the Jewish tradition, mourners will often place a stone on the gravesite as a sign of respect. The rock itself represents enduring love. The boys would sometimes write notes or draw pictures on their rocks before going to their father’s gravesite. Sometimes these were love notes; other times they were more like hate mail. One day, one of my sons had carefully chosen rocks to bring with him, including one that was broken in half. He chose it specifically because it looked like a broken heart. On the center broken part, he had written “I love you.” He placed his broken-heart rock gently on his father’s tablet. And then he carefully searched for more rocks. After he had collected a few, he paused, took a step back… and, winding up like a pitcher, hurled them at the tablet. The stones crashed and collided with the grave marker. He stomped and he cried.
As painful as it was for me to see my little boy in so much agony, I stayed with him, allowing him to experience the intensity of his young wrath. I was not afraid that his launching of those rocks would somehow nullify the affection he had for his father. It was the perfect expression of little boy grief – “I love you. I miss you. I don’t understand why you would rather die than go to my soccer game.” Eventually, worn out by his emotion, he ran out of rocks. Finally, he knelt close to the marker, touched his father’s name gently with his hand, placed a kiss on the tablet, and whispered, “I miss you, Daddy. I really miss you.”
Even now, when we drive by the cemetery, sometimes the boys are silent, sometimes they say “Hi Dad,” sometimes they wave or blow a kiss, and sometimes they give Dad the one-finger salute. Depends on the day and the kid.
I honor my sons’ needs to stomp their feet and throw rocks. I had done the same myself the first time I visited the gravesite after Sam’s suicide. It’s not a bad place to start the mourning process. The important lesson is to start. Healing can happen from that first movement forward, even if that step is to stomp on the gravesite of the man you love most in the world.
I have learned to honor my own mad. Maybe the mad is enough to get me off the sofa. Or into therapy. Or to speak to a group of social workers about what it’s like to parent children in the throes of grief. Mad does its best work when I know its place. My mad is generally more productive on a long run, or on a written page, where the aggravated steam rises and ultimately dissipates, yielding to softer language, gentler steps, before meeting other eyes or ears. Angry does not make quality decisions, but it can spark an initiative for change. Indignation can provide a boost in momentum to get through difficult, unfair, challenging spaces. Angry does not stand by idly – or worse, silently – while injustice or cruelty wield their terrible blows.
Yes, mad most definitely has a place, but mad does not get the last word. When angry gets stuck it settles into bitterness or resentment and loses its purpose. But when angry has an outlet, that space surrenders to a different emotion and renewed power. That open place invigorates and builds. It strengthens resolve. It emboldens change. It inspires hope. It transforms.
Mad, at its finest, can be an invitation toward growth. Which is exactly what the preacher’s wife was counting on when she sent me the Dammit Doll.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just enough anger to propel you toward hope.