Finessing Anger

By Bill Clarke My most cherished memory of my father is in this picture: we are sitting on the green lawn in the sunshine in front of our military housing. Between us is a fawn-colored rabbit. My father is handsome, but it is his demeanor that is most striking. His whole face is a gentle smile. His body leans forward in affection and caring for me and the rabbit. It was 1946, and World War II must have seemed far behind him. I was three years old.

The rest of my memories of my father are quite different. When I was five, I filled his bourbon and Coke with pepper to try to convince him to stop drinking. He routinely stood me at attention so I could meekly and mutely receive the instructions and corrections he hammered at me like a drill sergeant. Insubordination was the unpardonable sin. My rewards came from being very good and acting as nice and grown-up as my father wanted me to. So I got good grades, shined his shoes and his brass, made up his uniforms every night, said "Yes, Sir," and "No, Sir." As a result, we got along. He could be charming while sober, but his sober moments came less and less frequently. When drinking, his rage at the world, two wars, and his depressed wife came boiling forth. Then, I was mercilessly criticized and belittled.

The night after Dad returned from the Korean War, I heard my mother screaming, "Help me! Help me!" I ran to their bedroom and threw open the door. My father was on top of my mother, holding her hands over her head. She yelled to me, "Help me!" and Dad raised his head, snarling, "Yeah, son, what are you gonna do about it?" When I was 14, my favorite aunt asked me, "Doesn't it bother you when your father yells at you like that?" The question was electrifying inside—You mean this stuff can bother me?! But mere knowledge didn't help me feel what I never had been allowed to, and I was too well trained to act differently. Even as an adult, my anger, while valued, has had a constricted feeling to it.

During a mindfulness retreat in Montana last spring, Therese Fitzgerald shared an experience about being attacked while riding her bike to work. Within a few blocks, she noticed two men walking on the bicycle path in front of her. They separated, forcing her to ride right between them. One of the men was carrying a long, wooden stake, the kind used to support saplings, that he swung violently at her. With horror and time only to grab hard to the handlebars, she was struck as she rode through them. The stake broke on her upper arm! Because of her determination, she wasn't knocked off the bike and escaped anything worse. She was glad she hadn't seen the man's face and wouldn't have to remember his look of violence. At the time of the retreat, Therese was still unable to use her left arm fully. What startled me most was that she said she had never been angry at the man, either at the moment of the attack or at any time since.

That night, after hearing Therese's account of the attack, my dreams were intense. In the last one I remember, I was in a riot. Everyone and everything were cruelly impinging on me, demanding and irritating. At one point, I had to traverse a narrow area between two boulders. It was going to be hard to get through it at all—it was going to take all my effort—and there was a person behind me pushing, shoving, and yelling at me!

I felt something rise in me that I had never felt before, like boiling water surging out of a seething interior. I was filled with hot energy and determination. I turned to my left, swinging my right fist for his face with all my might and I smashed my fist into my bedside light and stereo system, sending them crashing to the floor and waking me with a start. My right hand hurt.

I found my flashlight and looked at the mess on the floor. My hand was bleeding, and slowly I comprehended what had just happened. For the first time in my life I had been able to feel my anger fully and strike back! It even produced a physical release in the midst of a dream! I was glad that I had the days of the coming retreat to meditate on what had happened.

At the retreat, I recalled a time when I'd been run off the road in my car. The woman with me jumped out of the car and screamed at the two men in the other car, but I just sat there, immobilized. Most of my life I have hated myself for being a "chicken" in such moments—especially coming from a military family where cowardice is the worst dishonor. I realized from the dream that I wasn't a chicken. Not having the ability to express anger was what my father trained me to do. I had to "forget" such feelings to survive. I was just glad I came into my anger in a dream, so no one really got hit.

In addition to repressing anger and expressing anger, there is the Buddhist approach of transforming it. We can meditate on our experience to find what is needed to transform it. At the retreat one woman felt that we were not hearing enough from Therese and expressed this in an accusatory note that was read to all. Because of the anger it "threw" at us, I got angry as well. I wrestled with my anger, knowing I didn't necessarily want to respond from anger, but—coming from my past—I didn't want to discount it either. Finally, I was able to speak in the group about the event with as much Right Speech—true and helpful, in the spirit of the Dharma (loving and understanding}—as I could muster. It was very satisfying that during this retreat period, I had accomplished a complete cycle with anger from full expression to full transformation!

Bill Clarke is a writer in Missoula, Montana.

PDF of this article