The monkey could have been any age. I was five. I had a small box of raisins in my left hand, and, in my right, a handful of raisins, extended to the bars of his cage.
When the monkey grabbed the box, instead of those offered, we both started screaming in anger. Neither of us would let go of the box of raisins. They were mine, I yelled. My parents anxiously broke up the fight, but I have, forever since, angrily responded to injustice. “He had no right.” I’ve also learned to let go, or suffer.
A few years later, when I was president of my all-boy, high school, senior class, I learned an important lesson about anger from a friend who was sitting in the bleachers in front of me. I had announced a mandatory, after school assembly of my 200 classmates to teach them our competitive, school Field Day routine. When I saw that less than half the class was there, I started complaining angrily about how hard I had worked on a program to help seniors win the day. Terry calmly counseled in a low voice, “But, we’re here. Work with us.” Why take your anger out on people who have done nothing to deserve it? Focus on what you can do positively with others.
When the Miami television station flew me in to debate the head of Anita Bryant’s conversion program, I went to dinner with the allegedly former homosexual the night before. During our theological discussion, I learned that it upset him when he was challenged to be inclusive of women in his biblical references. The next day, knowing that my unfeigned “Mr. Rogers” demeanor might open hearts, I calmly stated my case on why homosexuality was part of God’s plan. John, Anita’s spokesperson, was asked to explain his theology. When he began with, “God made man,” I interjected, “and woman.” John lost his cool, his focus, and the Miami television audience. The lesson learned was that anger unnecessarily scares people. If you want to create bridges of understanding, don’t express yourself in an angry way. If you can get your opponent to say things angrily, the audience will find the individual unlikeable.
In my Irish Catholic childhood, my dear, saintly mother, insisted on “Peace at any price,” particularly at the dinner table, in the car on family vacations, and most certainly in public. When she got angry at one of us because of our misbehavior, she stepped back and called my father into the situation. When she got angry at my father, she either went to church to pray, or to the grocery store for a head of lettuce. We ate a lot of salad. The modeling I got there was to step back, and away, when you’re too angry to express yourself peacefully.
Recently on Facebook, I posted successive descriptions of my daily encounters with conservatives, the first with two, very young Mormon or Baptist missionaries who rang our gate bell to see if I believed in the Bible, and to read a passage to me.
The second was with two men the next day in the produce section of Publix, one wearing a red baseball cap that read “Trump and Jesus Forever.” The other, when asked whether he’d like his male family members to grow up and behave like Donald Trump, bragging about “grabbing pussy,” countered with the name, “”
The young missionaries were met with kindness, but a clear understanding that gay people, such as myself, didn’t feel welcome in conservative Christian churches, despite the basic two themes of the Bible, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “As you judge, so shall you be judged.” It was a very hot day, so I offered them bottled water, but they politely declined and disappointedly moved on.
I left alone the old man with the offensive baseball cap message. People like him are unable to hear why their behavior is inappropriate. But, the other man, who said he was raised by liberal parents, had gay family members and friends, and gave me his card because he wanted me to buy his newly-created dog food, later that day received from me an e-mail in which I explained why his counterpoint reference to Jussie Smollett was very offensive to me as a gay man, and would be, I suggested, to his gay family members and friends if they were aware of what he said. He replied with an apology, and an invitation to get together to talk.
“How do you deal with your anger?” a Facebook friend asked me after reading the posts.
I get angry, the intensity of which depends upon how tired, hungry, and feeling overwhelmed I am. I can get angry at the behaviors of my husband, the dog, family and friends, Academy Award voters and recipients, the UPS driver, the person ahead of me in line who looks for the exact change, TV commentators, radio talk show hosts, and myself for forgetting I had something in a pan, simmering, but now burning on the stove.
Ray and I apologize quickly if we unskillfully express our anger. I’m also quick to apologize to anyone I feel should have been spoken to more kindly. I’ve learned to breathe, to step back, and to try to understand the other person’s perspective.
Flashes of anger, particularly at minor injustices, are normal. Feeding anger with the reasons you have a right to be angry, does no one any good. Staying angry is, as is commonly said, like drinking poison hoping it kills the other person. Life is way too short and unpredictable to waste time with negative feels that have detrimental effects on your entire body, and that of others.
There are many times, especially at this moment in history, with our instant daily awareness of the cruelty taking place all around us, when not being angry would indicate a withered heart. An unending battle against the threatening behaviors of others, either toward ourselves or toward other marginalized people, animals, or nature, must be uppermost in our lives if we have any sense of decency. The trick is to fight like hell against the behavior of others, and not against their malfunctioning souls. It’s also to realize that anger is a useful weapon if handled with care. Nothing is achieved if we self-destruct in the name of love.
Anger must sometimes be released, like a box of raisins, in order to engage injustice another day. And, our anger must be controlled, sometimes by a trip to the grocery store for a head of lettuce, so that it doesn’t permanently wound ourselves or others.
Check out other stories by Brian McNaught