The poet May Sarton experienced anger as “a huge creative urge gone into reverse.” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that it is often “an alluring substitute for grieving,” granting us the illusion of agency in situations that bereave of us of control. Poet and philosopher David Whyte pulled on anger’s weft thread to reclaim it as “the deepest form of compassion.” But anger, like silence, is of many kinds and thunders across a vast landscape of contexts, most of its storms ruinous, and some, just maybe, redemptive.
That is what the sharp-minded, large-spirited, incomparably brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin examines in an essay titled “About Anger,” found in her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library).
Le Guin begins with a case study in the cultural history of anger as a tool of social change — epoch-making change she lived through and helped engender:
In the consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism, we made a big deal out of anger, the anger of women. We praised it and cultivated it as a virtue. We learned to boast of being angry, to swagger our rage, to play the Fury.
We were right to do so. We were telling women who believed they should patiently endure insults, injuries, and abuse that they had every reason to be angry. We were rousing people to feel and see injustice, the methodical mistreatment to which women were subjected, the almost universal disrespect of the human rights of women, and to resent and refuse it for themselves and for others. Indignation, forcibly expressed, is an appropriate response to injustice. Indignation draws strength from outrage, and outrage draws strength from rage. There is a time for anger, and that was such a time.
Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.
Le Guin considers how the uses of anger can metastasize into misuses when its aims are left uncalibrated under the ferment of time:
Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.
Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous. Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.
A century and a half after Walt Whitman admonished that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Le Guin adds:
The racism, misogyny, and counter-rationality of the reactionary right in American politics for the last several years is a frightening exhibition of the destructive force of anger deliberately nourished by hate, encouraged to rule thought, invited to control behavior. I hope our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.
She examines the tissue of public anger under the microscope of the most private laboratory there is — the self. In a disquieting reflection on the personal experience of getting angry, she writes:
I find the subject very troubling, because though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger.
I know that anger can’t be suppressed indefinitely without crippling or corroding the soul. But I don’t know how useful anger is in the long run. Is private anger to be encouraged?
Considered a virtue, given free expression at all times, as we wanted women’s anger against injustice to be, what would it do? Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air. But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment. A brief, open expression of anger in the right moment, aimed at its true target, is effective — anger is a good weapon. But a weapon is appropriate to, justified only by, a situation of danger.
Most of our mundane outbursts of anger, Le Guin points out, are not reactions to actual danger, nor even to perceived danger — they are a kind of reactionary weapon-waving against our own insecurities, impatiences, and irritations. She writes:
Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger. Then the threat passes or evaporates. But the weapon is still in our hand. And weapons are seductive, even addictive…
In an introspective search for any positive use of anger, Le Guin finds one — the safeguarding of self-respect. But upon closer inspection, she recognizes that what we may perceive — and react to — as disrespect often turns out to be mere misunderstanding or a case of two human fallibilities awkwardly bumping into one another without ill intent. After all, if Joan Didion was right in the astute observation that self-respect springs from “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” — and of course she was right — then rising to anger upon feeling slighted by another is a maladaptive abdication of that responsibility. Le Guin, inquiring deeper with disarming self-awareness, acknowledges as much:
As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, “I pity her poor taste.”
Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear.
Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognize it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely. If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of? That gives me a place to look at my anger from. Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.
In a sentiment evocative of Cicero’s case for the constructive side of envy, Le Guin considers a particularly pernicious species of fear:
Jealousy sticks its nasty yellow-green snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.
The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately, it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.
Le Guin comes back to the notion that all anger is a response to fear. (Descartes framed fear as the antipode of hope, which implies the most damaging aspect of anger: the relinquishing and active annihilation of hope.) She examines the elemental core of her fears:
My fears come down to fear of not being safe (as if anyone is ever safe) and of not being in control (as if I ever was in control). Does the fear of being unsafe and not in control express itself as anger, or does it use anger as a kind of denial of the fear?
One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger. Anger turned, perhaps, against the self, because fear — fear of being harmed, and fear of doing harm — prevents the anger from turning against the people or circumstances causing it.
If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.
I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.
Le Guin ends with a mighty open question, partly challenge and partly — indeed mostly — a rhetorical verdict:
What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?
Complement this portion of No Time to Spare, a magnificent read in its tessellated totality, with Martha Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness and a Zen master on the four types of anger and its paradoxical constructive side, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the artist’s task, the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, and what beauty really means.