I once took a course in college called Anger. Because I went to Brown University – which has a reputation for being a bit groovier than the rest of the Ivies – it’s easy to mock a course called “Anger.” As one of my fellow Brunonians once quipped – “What did you do in that class? Hold hands, sing Kumbaya and pass around a ‘talking stick‘? ”
Sort of. There was a final project where you were encouraged to develop your own personal reflection on anger. One person did an indigenous dance. Someone else sang a song. I read aloud from a short story I’d written about discovering that my college boyfriend was cheating on me.
But most of the course was about reading. Each week, the professor would focus on one text – the Old Testament, Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The students would write a one-page paper on the text and discuss it. The punch line of the course – but one you only came to once you’d digested all of these treatises – was that anger, in the end, was really about sadness. When we feel angry about something, it’s because we are actually hurt by someone or something. And anger is the emotion we often use to express that sadness.
That insight rung true to me then and it rings true to me now. I’ve been really angry lately. In one instance, it’s with a relative of mine who has proved to be a real disappointment. She’s done some horrible things, including to me and other members of my family, and some of those things are not fixable. In another case, I’m angry with a friend who didn’t show up for me when I asked him.
But when I sat down and thought – and, more importantly, wrote about these experiences in my journal – I realized that I wasn’t really angry with either of these people.
I was sad. I was sad because in both instances, the people in question revealed a side of themselves that I either hadn’t seen before or didn’t want to see. And in revealing these less appealing sides of themselves, I experienced a sense of loss. Loss for the person I thought they were – or perhaps more truthfully – loss of the person I wanted them to be.
Letting go of anything that matters to you is profoundly sad. It could be selling your childhood home or being laid off from the company you love or breaking up with your therapist. And, let’s face it: feeling angry is a heckuva lot more comfortable for most of us than feeling sad.
But one of the realizations I’ve come to as I age is that I’m actually better off confronting sadness than avoiding it. So in embracing my own anger of late, I have tried to observe that feeling, peel it back and allow myself to feel the enormous grief of accepting what is, what is not, and what cannot be.
I won’t lie to you: it ain’t fun. But it does feel more honest.