Anger: So What?

Of course emotions are more like cognitive judgments than irrational impulses. So-called “women’s intuition” is much more like the rapid-fire intake of information, analysis, and decision-making described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers than a touchy-feely guess. More importantly, emotions say something about the experience of being in the world, and some are inherently ethical in nature. When I am angry, I am saying that something ought not to have happened, an injustice has occurred, and I am also demanding action, either action that disallows a repeat of said wrong action or I expect justice, the righting of the wrong. Then I will no longer be angry. Being angry is not a weakness. In proper measure, it is ethical to be angry. Emotion is reaching out into the world, an action of sorts.

This is how I have come to see emotion–although there are many theories of emotion out there–after a semester of teaching about them. They are not simply physiological, not irrational, not undesirable. The kinds of emotions we feel, those we cultivate, and those we wrestle to curb, say everything about who we are as persons. Emotions may be difficult to define and pin down, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of academic study. Like so many areas of research before them, they still seem proper to the domain of philosophy (and psychology and neuroscience) until we know enough to deem them their own discipline, like physics, mathematics, and so many areas before, which once all belonged to philosophy.

I still believe, like I did before teaching the class, that negative emotions– while they have their place and probably shouldn’t even be denoted “negative” in that they are informing us about something critical in our environment (perhaps something crucial to survival)–can gnaw at you and do great harm. I just read again how long-term negative emotions can fundamentally affect the acidity of the body, making conditions favorable for the growth of diseases like cancer. It is so important, then, to understand emotions, accept them, learn from them, but also keep them in their right place. I have tried, like the Buddhists, to separate hatred of a person from hatred of a person’s acts. Hatred is a strong word. I honestly can say I don’t hate anybody. I forgive fairly readily. I don’t live well with discord at all. I’ve passed this down to my daughter. We want to be liked in the sense of at least taken neutrally. Who doesn’t?

Well, there are people who don’t. There are people who insist on being admired, not just accepted, people who are sure that they are victims, always the victims, if they are not shown devotion just because they exist. This can’t be helped. It’s most difficult when they are not only stupid but mean. My parents didn’t teach me there are mean and stupid people in the world. My adult life taught me this. But you can move on from the actions of mean and stupid people if they are held accountable by you or others. If they are not and you are like me, you will be left in the limbo of knowing this is out of your control but not being able to accept that fact.

Most recently, the woman who deems herself my nemesis returned, to my surprise, to her old story that I wronged her by dating her ex-husband of many years based on some sense of ownership she still maintains about him because she gestated two babies, who happen to be, while teenagers, good little people in the making. I don’t have the energy to return to the imagined origin of the hurt, when it has been explained to her again and again that having her feelings hurt and being wronged are two different things. I can and have apologized for the hurt feelings. Since I didn’t wrong her, I can’t apologize for the latter.

At the same time, she will never be held accountable for libeling and slandering me. I know this but haven’t accepted it. I can step back from her at some moments and see a soul a bit like Golem’s, greed truly being the downfall she shares with him. Her soul seems like it might be curled up and charcoal-colored. It’s sad really, and this image takes the edge off my anger until she insults me anew or gets treated like a rational, ethical actor.

At the end of the day, it apparently doesn’t matter, certainly not in some general sense of cosmic justice, the idea that wrongs get righted. The law will not right the wrong. I guess I have to leave it to her and to her soul. I can only look after mine. How do I teach my daughter not to agonize so much when others don’t like you based on their false perception of you or your actions? I move on quickly once the wrong has been addressed, but if it isn’t, I don’t know how to move on. I’m not even sure you should, but I’m sure the pain experienced in the interim isn’t healthy. After a semester of teaching about emotions, I have a better idea of what I think they are, how they function, that anger can be a good thing, that not all anger is justified, that anger can be toxic. I am sure my anger is an ethical plea, but if it goes unanswered, then what? So what?

There might only be tonglen and love and creation. Justice might have to be left to comic books and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.



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  1. philospycho says:

    If language does create our world (reality), then doesn’t marriage and boyfriend/girlfriend status firmly plant in our minds the notion that we own someone? Maybe it’s only *really* problematic with young people, say, dating teens who need to learn how to navigate relationships instead of putting all their eggs in one basket. “Til death do we part” and all that nonsense that only proves true about 40% of the time. Perhaps the ownership mindset doesn’t happen to everyone. But it seems to, especially to those who can’t let go, for whatever reason- love, money, fear of losing a child’s love to the new spouse, etc. I have experienced the stalking, the anger and revenge. I attribute it to sense of ownership and entitlement, to resentment of the other spouse’s happiness, and often, to fear.

    • Wanda says:

      In this case, I think the sense of ownership really comes from a particular form of partriarchal economy, i.e., having been raised to believe that as a woman, your job is to snag a man with whom you produce children, and then the man owes you a debt that can never be paid, regardless of how you treat him. This debt extends far beyond the financial even after divorce, the idea being that the man owes you homage as mother of his children (which is above and beyond the care and love the father owes the children). Very strange and very antiquated. Start with some kind of cult of the mother and throw in a pinch of attachment disorder.

  2. philopsycho says:

    I think you are right. The term “benevolent sexism” also comes to mind. Many states are not so generous with long term alimony, but here there is almost a public… or perhaps institutional… consensus that women *can’t* (or shouldn’t) be expected to make it on our own. I just find it too coincidental that in many cases alimony does not end until the woman remarries, though I’m willing to consider that in the very distant past such measures might have been necessary.
    I ride the fence on “taking back words.” But, perhaps my issue with marriage is that it’s yet another term that feminists need to take back, even if it’s a slow, painful (financial) process. It’s difficult to shake the historical implications of words like “marriage”

    • Wanda says:

      I’d like to know how other states handle alimony in 2013. Certainly a decade should be enough for a man or woman to earn enough to take care of themselves, at least enough to reduce alimony. I agree with you that the end of alimony coinciding most often only with remarriage says it all–now there’s another man to provide for you. We aren’t talking about child support here, of course, just alimony.

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