In a recent post Xochitl Alvizo cited Beverly Harrison’s much-loved essay “Anger as a Work of Love.” Harrison captured feelings that were in the air at the time of its writing several decades ago. Women were laying claim to the right to be angry at the silencing of our voices, the double standard, the media portrayal of women, income inequality, lack of access to good jobs, failure to prosecute rape and domestic violence, and a host of other injustices.
Most of all we were protesting the cultural stereotype that the “good woman” (understood to be white, Christian, and married or hoping to be) would not protest loudly or at all, would turn the other cheek, and would think about others rather than herself. (Jewish women and black women had to strive doubly hard to “live up” to this standard, as it was assumed that Jewish women were “overly assertive” and that black women were “too strong” and often “angry.”)
In this context Harrison’s essay and Mary Daly’s epithet “rage is not a stage” gave women—especially white women–permission to get in touch with our feelings of anger and to express them. We understood that “good women” had been hiding and repressing their feelings for centuries if not millennia with the result that the structures of injustice remained intact.
Taking a cue from humanistic psychologies, we theorized that the repression of feelings harms the self—leading to depression, alcoholism, addiction, and suicide. Women—repressed white women especially– decided to express our anger and if necessary to let “all hell break loose.” I was among them.
I am writing this “next stage” reflection on anger from a specific context and situation. I grew up in a lower middle class white family in which anger was rarely expressed. I cannot remember hearing my parents fight (though I may have repressed memories of it). My father responded to questioning of his authority with “the silent treatment” rather than with yelling or blows.
My parents considered the open expression of anger to be “low class.” My mother and her mother would have also considered it to be “unchristian.” My brother responded by acting out the anger that was repressed in the family. Until I graduated from college, I was the “good girl” who tried not to rock the family boat.
For girls like me– I suspect Harrison and Daly were “good girls” too—the discovery of the liberating power of anger was a healing balm. With feminist permission and through the help of gestalt-bioenergetic therapy, I learned to “get in touch with” my feelings and express them.
Anger was not the only feeling I had repressed. I had also repressed hurt and vulnerability and need, as well as love. Getting in touch with my feelings was a good thing. I would encourage anyone who is struggling with repressed feelings to get in touch with them. But, I would add, this should never be the end of the story.
While I was still in the process of getting in touch with repressed feelings, I moved to Greece. One of the things that attracted me to Greece was the fact that Greek culture is “expressive.” Greeks scream and shout at the drop of hat, and they also cry and express grief easily. In this environment, I learned to scream and shout. This seemed to be good for me at the time.
Now that I have lived in an expressive culture for several decades (and in many ways become Greek), I can see its negative side. Stereotypes say that Greeks are “hot-headed” and “don’t think things through,” and this is also true. There is a great deal of family violence in Greece; the ability to express anger has not abated it, and in many cases exacerbates it. When things began to get difficult in my house remodel, the site manager and I would often scream at each other for hours on end. When one of my friends witnessed me unleash my anger at a shopkeeper, she told me that I was out of control and that she “didn’t recognize me” when I was angry.
This suggests to me that anger is not a panacea and that it is not always “a work of love.”
Where does this leave us? I would suggest that Daly’s epithet that “rage is not a stage” needs to be rethought. One meaning of “rage is not a stage” is that we should resist those who tell us that we should “get over” our anger and move on: as long as injustice exists, we are “right” to get angry about it. This is good counsel.
On the other hand if “rage is not a stage” means that we should “stay put” in the stage of expressing anger, then I would say that it is a false counsel. Anger is a trigger telling us that something “feels wrong.” We need to bring this trigger to awareness. We may need to cry out in order to do so. Rituals, liturgies, and therapy can provide safe spaces for this process.
The next stage is to “transform” anger. Anger is hot like molten lava, and it is frightening and dangerous. We do need to exercise control over our feelings so that they do not harm ourselves and others.
This does not mean we must repress our anger. When we transform anger we remain conscious of it and direct our deep feelings of hurt and outrage into actions that can end injustice. This requires “skillful means.” It is not easy to figure out how to transform anger into a work of love. Recognizing and expressing anger is a first step. It should not be the last.
Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–$150 discount for the next two women to sign up for the fall 2014 tour–www.goddessariadne.org. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.