Although I can’t phrase it as precisely as she did, the psychologist Edith Packer described anger as an emotional state that results from the individual concluding, whether through sound logic or otherwise, that injustice is afoot.
Anger can make it difficult to think clearly and do the right thing, and yet often that’s when the stakes are highest and self-control is most essential.
Even so, anger can help motivate someone to keep going in the face of intense adversity. Anger can be used productively when it’s directed at overcoming obstacles within one’s own control.
Example 1: My mom has made some decisions that resulted in her having a very hard life. That has definitely sapped her resources (including money, energy and enthusiasm) for dealing with the problems and challenges of life. I know her well enough to observe when she’s headed into an emotionally downward spiral. Fortunately, I also know that before things get too glum, she gets angry, and decides that, dammit, she is going to do something to overcome the current challenge. She juts her jaw out, gets a fiery look in her eyes, and finds new energy, and she’s fine again until the next time she loses momentum.
Example 2: I briefly socialized with a brilliant and lovely lady who was a pretty dancer at a strip club. When I met her she seemed to really be struggling with the challenges of everyday life; odd things like her contact lenses scratching her eyes and her glasses being broken, and no money to fix either. Her car also had a failing head gasket. She’d spent her last few hundred dollars on a mechanic who had sort-of-fixed it but not well enough. Her car also had a broken window and broken ignition lock from a theft attempt. She explained that by saying that she lived in one of the worst parts of Reno. After she told me her address, I had to agree with her. In spite of all this, she was struggling bravely. For example, she’d gone to the junkyard and bought an inexpensive used replacement window and was planning to install it personally. Meanwhile, she’d made an interim hand-crafted plastic window. She showed it to me. It was very cleverly made. It could even roll up or down. I liked her spirit.
Just two years before I met her, she had been on top of the world. She had owned a three-story house on the golf course, been a highly respected paralegal, and the featured stripper and calendar cover girl at the premier club in Reno. Her two careers made her more money than she knew what to do with, so after buying herself some modest luxuries such as a new VW Jetta, she just put the extra money into her savings account. Brilliant, blonde, brave and gorgeous, she came as close to Supergirl as I anyone I’ve met. Weekends, she used to go water-skiing, and she enjoyed going to clubs. She had tried and been unimpressed by every drug available on the social scene. Things that got others seriously hooked didn’t even phase her. Then she tried meth, and the rest is history. Her life fell apart and it was near this low point that I met her, though she was already on her way to getting stronger.
I was fairly clueless about meth, never having done it and not knowing much about it except for propaganda ads from sources that had long since lost all credibility as far as I’m concerned. I asked a friend of mine, whose ex-wife used to be on meth, to tell me more. When he heard the reason for my request, he reacted as if I’d walked into his office with some sticks of dynamite strapped around my chest. He urged me to immediately break all contact with the girl, change my phone number and so on. He was adamant and gave me some alarming-sounding details though not enough to convince me to react quite that strongly.
After I’d left his office, I weighed what he’d said, and decided on a course of action. I do nowadays have no more contact with the lady, but it was a gentle drifting-away process during which she has convinced me that my friendship had made a vital difference in her life. And as far as I know she’s still off the stuff. The details of the story don’t really fit here; ask me more if you care.
Anyway, the key point is that I asked her how the heck she managed to overcome this seriously bad stuff from the clutches of which very, very few people ever escape? “I got angry,” she said. She explained that she had thought and thought about it, and had become furious at the self-inflicted injustice of how her great her life had been vs. what it had become. She was clear that she was the one who had chosen to ingest this substance but she managed to focus her resentment on this chemical for the effect it had had on her life. She detested this stuff with so fervent a hatred that she stayed off it.
As our paths in life slowly drifted apart over the months, she was, as far as I could tell, still on an upward path, still clean, now living in a decent place in a decent environment, with a reliable car that her new employer had helped her buy, and she was again working in a law office. Even though she was “only” a legal secretary, she had already helped her boss, a high-up lawyer, win one court case, by finding him, (on her own initiative) a pivotally case-winning passage in just the right law book.
And so in this case, her anger was useful.
Example 3: A t-girl friend of mine had wanted to come out to her family for a long time but it’d be most awkward given the specifics, and she always shied away from doing it. One day there was a general argument that resulted from a family meeting having degenerated very badly. My friend was so infuriated by the sheer injustice of how her family members were behaving. Although this particular injustice didn’t have anything to do with my friend being a t-girl, she was so angry during that meeting that she somehow found the courage to also say “since we’re all laying it out there, here’s one more news item: I’m a girl. Look,” and then she produced pictures of her looking openly female, and so gorgeous in her lovely make-up and corset that her mother started arguing with her as to no, that couldn’t possible be her, and my friend was ready for that argument too. Anger was useful to her, in that situation.
To quote a line from Terminator 2: “Anger is more useful than despair.”
I’m no counselor and I can’t say how psychologically healthy such anger is as long-range fuel to keep someone able to power through the adversities of life. My guess is … it’s probably far from ideal as a continuous stimulant. And taking out one’s anger on others changes the dynamic of the relationship forever, and no apology can undo that.
Caveats aside, anger can be useful. So the next time I lack the courage to go out and do something (which nowadays doesn’t happen often since I’ve become quite brave) I plan to dwell on the injustice of the situation, and if that inspires anger then I’ll be ready to channel it and use it.