I am an angry person.
It's true. Some folks are really surprised by this, because I smile a lot, because I try to seek consensus and generosity. But if you get to know me at all, you can see it. I don't mind saying I'm angry. I don't even mind identifying as an Angry Black Woman (though I do mind being treated like a stereotype, and not like a dynamic, thoughtful, engaged human who has good reason to feel angry). I agree with clickbait I see that asserts that anger is dangerous and compassion is more productive for all of us; I appreciate the inspirational posters of beaches with script that asserts that anger at someone else is like drinking poison and wanting "the other person" to get sick. I think anger can be quite damaging. And yet, I repeat. I'm angry, and unapologetic.
I think I was 24 when I learned I am angry. You are only just beginning to learn who you are at this point. I'd learned I didn't want to be a mother, though I hadn't yet learned that I wouldn't be. I'd learned that i was political, and that I was sexual, though I didn't yet know how to live a life that would feel rewarding for being this kind of person. And I learned I am angry. It felt like a kind of relief, an explanation. I'd spent the better part of twenty years with a forced smile screwed onto my face, feeling like how I behaved couldn't ever reflect how I was feeling; and learning that I was angry gave me permission to take it off, and not to feel bad about it.
I was in grad school, and the wheels of my relationship with my parents were just starting to wobble, though they hadn't come off completely. I remember being on the phone with my mother--I was having many empassioned conversations with her at that point in my life, trying desperately to get her to see me for who I am, rather that be disappointed that the projection of her grown daughter kept falling short. I told her that I was an angry person. I don't know what had happened that made me so sure, but I was. "I'm angry, Mom, I'm an angry woman."
She sighed. "You said that the last time your father and I were on the phone. He said it sounds like the kind of thing someone has told you about yourself. Who told you that?"
"No one told me this! This is who I am!"
A cab driver once told me my people were Somali; over a dinner once I was told by a woman I was meeting for the first time that I shouldn't teach yoga to incarcerated citizens; my mother had told me I'd meet my husband in college: all of this was wrong. But I knew that this quality of myself, This anger was real, was as much a part of me as practicing veganism or, now, yoga.
I don't try to pretend I'm not angry. I don't wish that I were different. I do try to practice not being consumed by my anger. (Mini-Ayurveda lesson: folks who are Vata dominant get angry, which makes them anxious, but in half an hour they forget why they were mad and everything is okay; Kapha-dominants are compassionate and forgiving, and their anger sets them into a funk, but if you cross them, they will absolve you because they want everything to be okay; but us Pitta-doms, we will cut your shit and then talk about you like a dawg. We burn hot and fast, and we don't forget (and seldom forgive) nothin'. This is my constitution, it's who I am. Without apologizing for it, I try not to be ruled by it, I work hard to keep that action balanced, because when it's not, the cost is high.)
It feels A LOT easier to be consumed by anger recently. Damage is real and far-reaching, and we keep making the same dumb mistakes as a modern civilization. I been angry for months now: angry at white men for feeling entitled to rape, conquer, possess, misappropriate and to have the nerve to say that they are the victims of oppression; angry at white women, for voting a racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, rapey, lying, ignorant carnival barker buffoon to our country's highest office; ANGRY AT THE FASCIST CURRENTLY "RUNNING" OUR GOVERNMENT AND ALL THE CITIZENS, ALL THE DECENT PEOPLE AT THE MARGINS OF AMERICA THAT ARE BEING OPPRESSED AND DESTROYED BY HIS BEHAVIOR; angry at my representatives for being too mindful of how to play politics and not calling our fascist farce of a government what it really is; angry at public media for talking about this like this fascist shitstorm like it is normal--This. Is. Not. Normal. On election night, I was angry with my husband because for weeks he swore there was nothing to take seriously about this election, even when I was shaking and sobbing and could see the writing on the wall, I was so angry I would not be comforted, because I knew what America was doing. Angry. I'm angry a lot.
At its worst, my anger is bitter, indiscriminate, petty, vindictive, and belligerent. But as I get more comfortable being angry, I discover that my anger has a bright side, too. I've discovered that at its best, my anger is clarifying, galvanizing, it has help me set priorities and let go of distractions. I am grateful for this discovery. I think it's time to stop requiring that we move away from anger, and instead, we gotta look at how we can use it productively.
I find in my work as a teacher and a healer, that I am more recently encouraging folks to take really good care of themselves: set a bedtime, drink more water, put down your screens, do your self-massage practice, and go to yoga. I give this advice a lot. But there's a lot to be angry about, and we need to be vigilant about our self care. (See this post for more on that.) I can give lots of advise on how to nourish, to soothe, to tend to. I am learning, though, that it might be okay to start advising ourselves on how to cultivate a safe, meaningful anger.
When you build a fire that you want to last, to burn brightly and to give light and sustenance, you feed it dry wood, you build it small and let it grow, you make sure it's getting enough air. If you feed it nothing but paper, it rages and then dies; if you feed it wet wood, it sputters; if it doesn't have enough space, it chokes itself out; fire is chemistry, but not everything combusts the same way.
If I give into anger without examining it thoroughly, if I feed it junk food, if I encourage knee-jerk, reactionary behavior as a result of my anger, then I'm not tending my anger well. If I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I will rot from the inside out, and I'll probably sling that rot all over everyone around me, claiming it's justice or righteousness.
It's hard not to feel like the vitriol, the chaos, the ignorance and racism and misogyny and fear that is motivating so many bad decisions right now is personal. When, with the stroke of a pen (or ten pens, or maybe even a crayon, because Who the hell understands why POTUS does any of the things he does), someone can render it impossible for you to return to work, or school, or to your nursing child who needs to eat; when policies are denying our basic human rights like a safe education; when Americans are being moved out of their home by our government so that it can pursue its own financial interests; when people who are utterly unqualified and inappropriate for government work are appointed to the Cabinet based on how big a check they can write; when men and women teach their children to hate; when men grab women with impunity because their president says they can; when white boys on playgrounds play "President" on by sitting around and making their friends of color collect wood chips to give to them as pretend money; when women have to fight for a legal right to care, to family planning; when black people have to defend their right not to be gunned down in streets by those who "serve" and "protect": when this is our world, it's hard not take what's happening personally. It's hard not to poke your anger, to starve it, to treat it like a mad dog, and then unleash it on your enemy.
It is personal.
But we can care for our anger, and use our anger, in a safer, wiser, and ultimately a more productive way.
Anger that Has Legs
Yoga is skillful action. So says Krishna to Arjuna when they are debating the usefulness of living your life's purpose. If in our anger, all we do is talk about it with others, like-minded but equally unmotivated, passing back and forth mouthfuls of bile, we remain malnourished, burning, and out of resource or direction. We must be galvanized by our anger into difference, into change, into dissent and resistance.
It's likely this resistance will make us uncomfortable. Remember, growth means moving beyond the boundaries we currently inhabit, and seldom is that an easy or pain-free experience. Resist like a yogi. Witness your discomfort, don't judge it. Interrogate it: what makes the discomfort of your anger-as-skillful action easier to hold, or harder? What are you tempted to reach for when you want to distract from action borne of anger makes you uncomfortable? Is that distraction leading you to something good? Or just to something else? Breathe into it, breathe through it; prioritize an inhale--literally, when you can't metaphorically--that allows you to be present with the sensation of discomfort from anger-as-skillful action, and soften into an exhale that releases excess but still holds your prana. Allow the anger to motivate action, not just frustration that stalls because you're unwilling to grow. There are so many ways people are acting for the good of others right now. There are things you can do. Get angry, and put legs under that action. Get active.
Anger that Has Vision
It is easy to allow our anger to age, to embitter, to sour into cynicism or mellow into resignation. It's easy for some of us who are purists, who aren't new to this kind of movement, to feel frustration at its imperfections, and allow that to stop us in our tracks. But nothing changes then. In order to manifest change we have to be willing to let our anger cast a vision of what can be, instead of being blinded. by it.
Now somewhere in this, some teacher is thinking that we're all supposed to detach from what's happening on this plane, right, that if yoga is also action without attachment to the results, that what difference does it make if swaths of people are being oppressed, undermined, denied their own humanity, because we're all on an individual journey toward collective enlightenment anyway. (Some scholar can tell you why we in the west have seized onto this so hard, why white individualism loves this yoga pseudo-philosophy of individual work. I can see the connection, but I lack the bibliographical knowledge to prove it, at least right now.) Maybe I can respond to it with a metaphor:
Imagine you're teaching an all-levels class, and the room is full of all kinds of people, with different skin colors, gender representations, body types, even physical abilities. Over the course of your sequence, you see people struggling. Hopefully, you don't ignore these people. Hopefully you don't openly mock them, or give them postures and practices that are beyond their scope to deliberately frustrate them. Hopefully you don't tell them that this class isn't for their kind and throw them out. (Hopefully you also don't write a dumb blog post about your projections of their struggle that totally both ignores and highlights your own privilege, which I'm not linking to, but is out there.) Hopefully you offer them a modification or two, an opportunity to experience some success, some comfort in their practice. You look closely at the learning community, and yo meet folks where they are and you hold space for all, not just some. You want the community of your classroom to be one where everyone can hold their own experience safely, can be challenged at a sustainable level, and maybe, just maybe touch something larger than themselves.
Or maybe you don't. Please let me know, because I don't want to take class in a learning environment that only recognizes and provides for some of us. Not My Jam.
But assuming you want your classroom to be a space where everyone can come and get something, you have to look and listen closely to your students, and what they're able to articulate they need and what they need but aren't able to ask for. Sometimes we get it wrong, but we always keep listening. To willfully turn a blind eye to the microcosm of your classroom and by your (in)action to deny, oppress or dispossess others: well you need to to some reckoning and reconciling around that if that's your classroom.
Now imagine your classroom is your block. Your ward. Your city, state, country.
Your classroom is the world.
Cast a vision that motivates you to get active, and that actually believes that what you do--the phone calls, the emails and letters, the conversations you have with folk who don't agree with you, the posters, the checks written and objects donated, the work seen and unseen--is making a difference, is making a change. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, get active and cast a vision.
Anger that Has Roots
Part of the work that I do means I'm always the person that will ask you if, in the midst of all your anger and your work, if you're taking care of yourself. I have had plenty to say on the subject of self-care, so I'll try not to repeat myself. All I will say about roots and foundations of anger is this:
Make sure your anger is pure. Don't be mad that some chippie hurt your feelings or that you couldn't buy the thing you wanted or your man got took or whatever. Let your anger be righteous, based in justice. As a person who dwells in anger, petty comes real easy to me, and often, I have to do several gut checks to make sure that I'm acting out of a pure space, rather than a selfish one. So be sure your anger is clean.
Make sure your anger makes space for joy. Remember how a few weeks ago when Beyonce announced to the world she's having twins with these amazing pictures of herself, and folks were like, "OHMIGOD!" 'cause they lose their mind over Beyonce, and some folks were like, "You can't get happy about that, the world is falling down around us!" and other folks were like, "I can feel rage and joy at the same time!" 'Member all that? I fall squarely in the joy/rage camp. I didn't lose my mind over Beyonce's pictures, because I seldom lose my mind over Beyonce*. But our world is a shitstorm of bad news, and bad behavior. If you're blind to the oppression and trauma that people are experiencing at our government's hands, it's due to your own willful ignorance, because it's out there and it's everywhere. We have to find some joy, some hope, that we can hold beside your anger. Not only do we have to care for ourselves as a revolutionary practice, but we have to find and hold tight the qualities of life that are joyful as a revolutionary practice. Joy is our birthright. So is safety, and liberation. Think of the creativity, the beauty, that are parts of our humanity expressing itself: Josephine Baker. Frida Kahlo. Mozart. Toni Morrison. Chaka Khan. Marc Chagall. Anne Frank. Phyllis Wheatley. Amy Tan. Gabby Douglas. Mahalia Jackson. Matisse. Audre Lorde. Sandra Cisneros. Kerry James Marshall. Carrie Mae Weems. Beyonce! We people can do a lot when we seek to celebrate what is beautiful and powerful about us, about each other, about being alive. Those oppressive forces and agents, they seek to steal and destroy that which makes us human; our joy, our laughter, our love, is as much a part of that as our anger. As Emma Goldman has been said to have said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution."
I don't apologize for my anger. I won't ask you to, either. Let's make sure that our anger is motivated, can cast a vision, and can still hold joy.
*Don't be mad. Sure, Bey's amazing and talented, and I loved her Superbowl Halftime show. I think she's brilliant and powerful, and what she can motivate in our culture is remarkable. I sure like her better than Oprah. But I'm just not that interested. Lemonade did not change my world, and I couldn't care less what she names her kids. I'm watching her trajectory with mild curiosity as someone who's interested in what a black American woman with as much influence as she has is doing with her power. I'm not a hater. I'm also not a fangirl. Hope we can still be friends. xo