Last week, we were all invited into a particularly nasty father-daughter dispute, via Facebook and various social media. As many of you know by now, a fifteen year-old, North Carolina girl posted a rebellious rant on Facebook, essentially a public tantrum, lamenting the way she feels she is mistreated by her parents. She thought her parents were blocked from her Facebook page. She was wrong. Her father, Tommy Jordan, discovered the post, and retaliated with one of his own, a video in which he recites her post, and then shoots nine “exploding hollow point” rounds into her computer.
Within a week, the YouTube video had been viewed over twenty-four million times and debates ensued about Facebook, wayward children, and the best ways to parent in the age of social media. But I think most of the debate missed the mark. This episode was not ultimately about unruly kids and parenting decisions. No, it was entirely about anger: the deep, rebellious anger of a kid who doesn’t want to be a kid anymore and who wants to be heard, and the cold-subtle rage of a parent who will go to great lengths to be in control and to feel respected.
I’m pretty convinced of something, and watching this father and daughter publicly rage at each other confirmed it. I think we’re all pretty messed up about our anger. I think we carry around a ton of it, and I don’t think we have any idea what to do with it.
For some of us, anger has been the language of our lives; the people who were in charge had no other tongue, and we never learned any other way to speak. And so, you have spent much of your life squarely in the middle of your anger, nurturing it and wielding it in an effort to dominate and control others. There is often a white-hot word burning in the middle of your brain—respect. It’s what your authority figures demanded of you. You were like a fuel pump, dispensing respect in a drive-by fashion, feeling used and mostly forgotten, and now it is your turn to get filled up. So, when a person cuts you off in traffic, or that kid of yours knocks you off your pedestal, the anger isn’t just red, it’s white—blinding white. And you will be reclaiming that respect you are owed in any fashion necessary.
Or perhaps you lived your life underneath the thumb of anger, and you developed a deep, smoldering sense of injustice. You were like a sponge, soaking up the anger of everyone around you, and there was no way you deserved to be saturated in that way. But now, you see the injustice everywhere. You rage when the kids mistreat you with their noise, you are convinced your wife is trying to bankrupt you with the most recent purchase, everyone else’s promotion is a crime against you, the kids’ constant demands for more, and more, and more, feel like a verdict you don’t deserve. So, your life becomes a courtroom, where you are the furious judge handing down verdicts, naming everyone else the bad guy and nursing a sense that the unfairness of it all will never get corrected.
For others of us, anger was treated like a four-letter word. You were taught that feeling and expressing anger is bad, evil, or worse. You learned that the people you were most angry at, your parents and authority figures, couldn’t handle your anger, whether they demonstrated this by trying to immediately fix it and make it go away, or by burying a clip full of bullets in your laptop. And when we have to deny our anger by burying it inside, it can wreak a quiet kind of havoc. We may become like two people, outwardly placid, composed, even unflappable, while inwardly we eye the broiling cauldron of emotion that is always lapping at the edges. We become anxious about our anger, afraid it will boil over, convinced that when it does there is no healthy way to feel or express any of it. Or, not having any place that we can safely express the hurt and the anger, we may direct it at the only safe target—ourselves. We demean ourselves, and we become ashamed of the people we have convinced ourselves that we are, and we become depressed, and no anti-depressant ever seems to completely free us from it. Or, we discover that we alternate between strenuous, draining efforts to suppress the anger, and moments of rage that surprise us and everyone around us, because anger is a part of the human experience and it cannot be denied forever.
I’m also convinced that anger gets a bad rap. I think we all need to feel our anger a lot more, but in ways that are healthy for us and for the people we love. I think there are plenty of times when we need to actually act from our anger, as well. You see, anger is the perfectly valid response when a line has been crossed and a wrong has been committed. When our fears paralyze us, leaving us exposed, anger protects us from predators. Anger gives us the energy to set boundaries when nothing else can. When we have things we lose and we need to grieve them, anger will be a part of the process, a healthy part, and there is no way to get through the grief without passing through the anger. Put simply, if you are human, there are several guarantees: you will be born, you will die, and in between you will breathe and you will feel anger. What do we do with that?
Well, we begin by understanding that our experience of anger is usually messed up because it originated within a relationship in which there were only two available roles: the role of a kid who either quietly submits or angrily rebels, and the role of an authority figure whose anger is used for domination and control. Our vision of anger is born blurry, and we need corrective lenses. Because the anger we learned early was broken anger. And anger doesn’t have to be broken. It can be healthy. Feeling it in a safe place and in an honest way can feel like being unshackled from chains you didn’t even know you were dragging (I thought I was crazy for feeling it). Feeling it in this way, you discover that the rage has barnacles, things that have grown attached to it, like sadness, loneliness, and fear (I thought I was the only one who felt this). Feeling it is like opening the shades and letting light into a dark space where the monsters sleep underneath the bed: it had such power while the darkness ruled, but the morning light brings a sense of relief and freedom (I don’t have to feel this anymore).
Not many of us have a place where we are given the permission to experience anger. And, really, we need permission. We need someone who can handle it, and even invites it. Sometimes, the therapeutic space is the only place in the world that will allow it, that can handle it, especially when the anger has been festering for years and, at first, it’s going to be white-hot and broiling and have all sorts of other thoughts and feelings attached to it. We may even feel and act like children at first, but that’s okay, because we are feeling it and acting it with a person who has a vision for the adult that we can become.
And what will our anger look like when we have matured into it, when we no longer suppress it and we no longer use it like a weapon? Last week, a wise man reminded me that, when that happens, the anger comes, but it comes slowly, and it wants to listen before responding, and it asks of itself how much of this is justified and how much do I need to take responsibility for myself? It doesn’t act like a judge or a conqueror, and it doesn’t hide away like a victim or a slave. It invites. It invites honesty, relationship, connection with the people we love, and the invitation is a welcome one. It’s an awesome thing to sit in a room with a parent and a teen, to watch the parent say, “Wow, you’re really angry, and I’m angry, too. I want to hear more about why you’re angry.” If I was a gambling man, I’d bet every time that the kid’s eyes don’t stay dry for long. That the frustration and sadness wells up into relief and that the tears are like a wave washing away the anger. Kids who have that experience aren’t likely to post their angry rants on Facebook, because they already have a place where their feelings are getting a “thumbs up,” and they’re getting meaningful “comments” from the people who matter most.
And when anger happens like that, you might even save yourself a few bullets.