I sensed the tension rising.
Words between us were becoming crisp. Sharp tones began to undercut the replies, and body language was shifting to defensive.
Neither of us wanted this conversation, but my wife and I knew it was inevitable. Sitting in bed before breakfast, with the kids on our laps, it was possibly the worst timing for a discussion like this. But the charges had been thrown, and we were now committed to seeing it through.
As quiet conversation, then sharp discussion, then abrasive argument persisted, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling. In the midst of the rising voices, something didn’t sit right. I had the distinct sensation that I been wronged.
Exposure to Blunt Instruments
My historical reaction to this feeling had always been to ignore it and let myself be bludgeoned, taking one for the team, so to speak. As everyone in a relationship knows, sometimes you just gotta hang up the gloves and let the other person have the last word.
But for me this habitual reaction was more than just compromising for our relationship’s sake. I was actually unable to stand up for myself.
This reaction to argument came from my sordid childhood history of being wronged. I suffered at the hands of authoritarian parents, teachers and bullies. They would ignore my supposedly childish reasons and reasonableness, refuse to empathise, shut down any right of reply, and belittle and threaten me afterwards when I was upset. Emotional reactivity was seen as a threat, a threat no one was prepared to approach compassionately.
Authentic emotional response became scary, because of the threatening reactions of those closest to me. Emotion always led to hurt. Even the joyful exuberance of a child was controlled and shamed because it was too loud or enthusiastic.
In response I had become a shadow of a person, restricting myself, holding my body tight and tense, keeping the emotions locked down. I had no vocabulary for feeling, and my daily adult experience was grey and cold, a life lived in monochrome.
After this childhood of emotional shutdown, my automatic response to anger, sadness and rage in argument was to cut emotions off before they started. I started to use extreme rationality to wage siege warfare on my opponents defences, battering them down with cold logic. I copied the tactics of my earlier bullies, taunting adversaries for their over-emotiveness.
This time was different.
The Cultural Context of Anger
I had for years involved myself in self work, unlocking the vaults of my emotions. Many of the people I talked to and the books I’d read talked about the subversion of anger and rage to something positive. The men’s groups I’d attended discussed these emotions as things to be watched as they came up. The advocated overlord-style control lest they spill beyond the floodgates and cause permanent damage to one’s relationships.
The common sentiment seemed to be one of lip service, that anger “was positive”, rage was not, and while it was important to feel the feelings, it was equally important to do so “in a safe place” so as not to hurt anyone. In other words, people talked about the positivity of angry emotion, but when it came to the experience of truly feeling it there was precious little information about it. If one did experience it, it was best to find a small soundproof room and scream into a soft cushion (buy my Angry Unicorn Scream Pillow NOW on Amazon).
Anger is the modern cultural emotional taboo. To show anger is to supposedly expose oneself as feeling too much, to be out of control, to actually care about something beyond what is culturally appropriate.
Think about the last time you saw a public expression of anger. Perhaps it was a couple you know at a dinner party. A mid-manager in the office. A drunk on the street. What is your reaction?
We turn our heads. We walk away. We feel embarrassed.
Why are we embarrassed?
Is it the intensity of feeling that is hard to bear? Seeing strong emotion publicly is difficult for modern western people. Even witnessing pure joy, love or affection can be uncomfortable for many. We seem to like our emotional responses trimmed to a comfortable height. We want our sunflower fields short enough to see over.
Is it the razor sharpness of attitude, the thrusting, cutting, slicing nature of the angry sword that upsets us so? We feel aghast at the blatancy of attack, the one-sidedness of the initial flurry. We see the unprepared opponent exposed to injury, neck bared, chest open and armourless.
Do we feel vulnerable in ourselves when we witness anger, like an unprotected village seeing Mongols ride the adjoining plains? We empathise with the plight of the victim.
Or is it disdain and contempt mixed with pity, that a person cannot keep their emotions imprisoned like we can, locked in the basement until the floodwaters come…?
As I looked within and assessed the growing argument, the feeling of being wronged grew. I felt increasingly uncomfortable with my silence on the subject. But without my conscious knowledge, decades of self work had left a jail cell unlocked.
One of the inmates opened its door.
I felt a flame spurt to life within me.
This is not a metaphor. I mean, I was not literally on fire. But what I felt was something catch into flame with a suddenness that momentarily confused me. My belly roared to life with a power and energy I had not felt before, least not as an adult. There was an sudden inferno within me, yet to my surprise this energy contained by my body was under my complete control.
The vibration of an power so pure as to leave me no doubt of its name rose along the centre of my body. I was sitting on the bed and I felt my belly and my chest grow red, and then white hot. Pure rage swelled my blood vessels and pulsed smoothly and forcefully through my veins. I regarded these powerful impulses as though detached from my body, admiring their power, marvelling at a feeling I did not know I had the power to experience.
I felt like a furnace, a blacksmith’s forge, hot as a sun, but contained. I was charged with a nuclear reaction that served to strengthen not only the resolve to right my wrong, but also the walls of my bodily container. I sensed that the ability to hold this fire within me would build my ability to hold yet more heat and power, as if the furnace was melting down the slag and impurities to build the internal walls thicker and more impregnable.
I watched this feeling as I listened to the last of my wife’s words.
I fixed her with my burning eyes. I calmly spoke to her, the heat of fire creeping ever so slightly into my voice. Incredible rage cauterised every insufficient and redundant word out of me. What was left was a communication of such pure and white-hot efficiency that it could not be argued. The level of self-control I felt was unending, like a thousand year old stone fortress hulked upon an age-old hill, absorbing the elements and standing strong. Nothing could break my will both to serenity and to observing the rage within it, like a hurricane behind a wall of glass.
Her eyes blinked with acknowledgement as I ended my piece.
My body raging with heat, trembling with power and incredible energy, I stood and walked calmly out of the room. Once out, I leaned on the wall, exhilarated, surprised and astonished at the power I was feeling. I was not adrenalised in the least. Instead, I was calm, but radiating an intensity I had never experienced.
It was rage. I knew it beyond any doubt, but what surprised me was my level of control. The emotion was mine to hold and direct, like a million-candlepower spotlight in my hands. I hadn’t burnt my wife, nor scared, humiliated or intimidated her. Instead I had stood my ground and spoken from a place of such emotional authenticity that it was beyond refutation.
I did not feel victorious. I was not gloating over a won argument. Instead I smiled to myself at the beautiful feeling of feeling. Something very important had just occurred, a huge step of growth, a levelling-up, a peak experience.
I felt stripped clean, as if every last dead branch and rotting leaf had been consumed by a raging bushfire.
And left behind was a landscape; pure, bright and seeded for growth.