Anger's Sacred Place

Holy Anger, part 3

It was hard for me to learn that anger can be expressed without being indulged, and that it can be an important, healthy thing. Hard as it was for me, how much harder must it have been for Yency – the Honduran young man that LoraKim and I adopted 14 years ago when he was 17. Yency grew up with an abusive father. All he ever saw of anger was his father’s rage in which people were going to get hit – often his mom, often him, as when he would step in to protect his mom.

In 2011, Yency, then age 24, was sworn in as US citizen. I was at the ceremony. I was so proud. The next day I drove him down to the voter registrar. This was Florida, so they hide it. But after some searching, we found the address tucked down a recess between buildings.

A couple weeks later, a letter arrived for Yency. He shared it with me. It was a letter from the voter registrar saying his registration hadn’t gone through, and would he provide further documentation. I know that every time you impose one extra step in the process, then a certain percentage of people won’t do that step. Imposing additional steps and requirements and inconveniences on target populations succeeds in reducing the voting representation of those populations. Anger started leaning on my doorbell. "Come on in, Anger," I said to my inner anger. (My Inner Anger is -- as probably many people's is -- voiced by Lewis Black, who was the voice of the Anger character in Pixar's "Inside Out.")

To Yency, I said, “Oh, I’m having some anger about this.” I guess I’d never said that in his hearing before. He stared at me and looked a little scared. He’d only had experience with one form of adult male anger, and it wasn’t pleasant.

But as I went on to express to him, in measured tones, what it was about this that made me angry, and the steps we could take, I could see him being to relax.

Finally, he said, “I’ve never seen that” – meaning, essentially, that he’d never seen anger that was neither repressed nor indulged.

Hard as it was for me to learn to have anger without either indulging or repressing it, how much harder must it be for Yency.

Yency was already 17 when he came to us, so I wonder sometimes whether we did much for him beyond the material help of room and board, and some caring encouragement. But I’ll always remember that moment as among the most hopeful. By some grace, a better way of relating to anger showed itself in me that day. And by some grace, he saw it. To imagine that somehow through me another human being kinda, partly saw a way to relate to anger as part of a full human life, that anger doesn’t have to be wrong and repressed and exiled, that there is a way for anger to take its sacred place in the fullness of our humanity – well, it almost makes me feel my work on this planet is complete. Almost.

Fourth, remember: understanding is a good thing. One very typical thing for the voice of anger to say is, “I just don’t understand how . . .” And that’s a clue that we, in fact, don’t understand – and a reminder to see if we can understand. Anger, for all the gift that it is, makes understanding harder.

Anger distorts our view of other people. That fight-or-flight response gears up our body, and in the process it shuts down the cognitive processes of empathy. This makes sense. When a snarling wolf pack had one of our ancestors surrounded, that wasn't the time to try to see things from the wolves' point of view. The only chance for escaping that mess was to shut down empathy and fight for one's life.

But in human relations, when the threat isn’t direct and immediate, it’s helpful to try to understand the other side, to see things from their point of view. Anger makes that harder.

Moreover, if understanding does manage to break through, then it's hard to maintain the anger. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into you, you might get a flash of anger, and spin around, as any New Yorker would, and angrily exclaim, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here.” Suppose you then see the white cane in the hand of the person who bumped into you. Understanding floods in, and the anger washes out.

So that next day, Yency and I were back down at the voter registrar. The man there was very nice. We found out what had happened. Yency's full name is "Yencis Elijardi Canaca Contreras." He got the "Canaca" from one parent and the "Contreras" from the other. Back in Honduras, his surname is regarded as "Canaca Contreras." He's been dropping the "Canaca" ever since he got to the US. Still, the "Canaca" was on his driver's license, and he didn't write it on the voter registration form he filled out. So they just needed to confirm and clarify. In less than five minutes, a voter registration card was printed out for him on the spot. I understood, and my anger cleared up.

Anger is a gift. Watch out for indulging it. Watch out for repressing it. And remember: understanding, when it's possible, is often preferable.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Part 2: Anger is a Gift
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission

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