Thursday, 19 March 2009


I was involved in a bit of an exchange a while back with someone who seems to me to have problems with her anger. In the course of a long "rant" against people she identified (wrongly, as it happens) as being of the far left she spoke of being "driven to considerable rage" about a certain issue. One of her principal accusations was that "far lefties" were angry people and used this in order to dismiss them as unworthy of consideration. She also said that for those who agree with her there was such a thing as "legitimate and natural outrage". She, on the other hand, was a "spiritual" person and was therefore able to sermonise about how destructive anger is.

I pointed out to her that her choice of words indicated that she was angry herself. This she denied emphatically, eventually saying that when she wrote "I am driven to considerable rage" she really meant to say something along the lines of "were I the sort of person who gave way to anger my moral disapproval of this person's actions could cause me to do so excessively".

OK. Perhaps I am being pedantic but I do not see how the words she wrote could mean anything other than an admission that she felt angry. With which I would have absolutely no problem. People are entitled to be angry - it is often the most appropriate response to what happens. But no. Because of some bullshit notion of spirituality she could not accept that anger played any significant part in her life.

OK. It is her blog and she is entitled to say whatever she feels on it. I suppose I may be being unfair to her so I have linked above in order that others may see the post for themselves. There is a lot more about it which worries me - such as the contempt she expresses for others, but I will leave that aside.

What really got me thinking and has prompted this post was the phrase "I am driven to considerable anger". The passive voice. It implies helplessness and lack of agency. A passenger in a car, unable to reach the steering wheel or brake, or an animal being driven to market. She is not alone in this use - it is common and I know that I have used and will use in the future, similar constructions. Because, sometimes, it seems my emotions overwhelm me and impel me towards some behaviour that is outside my control. This is scary and, in an attempt to cope with them, I invoke an outside agency. "I was moved to tears by the plight of the orphan", I might say when, in fact, what happened was that I saw the orphan's plight and my response to that was an emotion that produced tears. It was my emotion and they were my tears - they did not come from outside but from within. They were mine. But their apparent power can be terrifying.

I do not think I am nit-picking here. I feel that this is important. If the emotion is mine, then I have choice. I have agency. I can choose whether or not to feel it - or, more exactly, having felt it I can choose how to act on that emotion. If am angry at someone, whatever they have done, my anger belongs to me and I can choose what to do with it. Anger then becomes a creative energy. If, however, I perceive anger as something that is caused by the actions of others then I lose agency and the consequent ability to use the anger creatively.

I remember when I was a child and my mother smacked me, she sometimes said, "now look what you made me do". I think I have used similar phrases - for which, at this late date, I can only apologise. The thing is, I did not force her to smack me - that impulse came from within her. Whatever I had done - and, in fact, I cannot remember any of those childhood misdemeanors - she, ultimately had a choice in how she reacted. The effect, however, was twofold. I bore the pain of the smack and also the blame for causing the loss of my mother's self-control. I am, I must add, in no way talking child abuse here, just normal 1950s childrearing. Whatever childhood traumas have affected me, and they are certainly not relevant here, my mother's disciplinary methods are way down the list.

But the belief in lack of agency that my mother expressed can have effects in all areas of life. I can say that I am turned on, or another similar phrase, by somebody I desire. A seemingly innocuous expression. And it normally is. But, however, if I turn the metaphor into a simile, it becomes clear that I am saying that she has activated me like an electrical appliance. There is, therefore, an assumption within this that my desire is her responsibility not mine. Her experience, her perceptions and desires are irrelevant to this, for she is the active agent - she turned me on. I am the machine that has been activated -I do not think I need to elaborate on the potential consequences of such thinking. If, however, I accept that it is my desire then it becomes my responsibility. It may be reciprocated or it may not. Either way, my desire is mine - not hers.

Just as my anger, my sorrow, my joy and every other part of my being is mine. They are all my responsibility. I must choose what to do with them. When I learn this trick, and that often seems a long way off, then I can become fully myself. For the path that I am on, which I identify with Inanna, is not the path of trying to suppress or transcend the emotions of my humanity but is the path of acceptance of them in their totality and thereby finding my true being and agency. Perfection is not something that lies ahead and can only be reached after a long path of discipline and denial. It is here and it is now - all I need to do is to reach for it. And why I haven't done that is a whole other story...

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