According to English song-writer Leon Rosselson, the seventeenth century radical Abezier Coppe was arrested for blasphemy after repeatedly declaring that he didn’t believe in sin. Found guilty, he recanted, acknowledging that the sins his accusers might be prone to – “greed, tyranny, hypocrisy and pride” – really were sins after all. A neat reversal, I’ve always thought, considering the circumstances.
This week, I’m feeling about anger the same way that Abezier Coppe felt about sin. After years of carefully regulating my temper, I got angry recently. And you know what? I was right to do so.
I trace the distrust of my temper to a pickup baseball game when I was in elementary school. Another boy was cheating, and refused to admit what he was doing. He owned the bat and ball, he kept saying, so he could do what he want. Furious, I threw the ball at him, screaming he could go. I wasn’t aiming at him or anyone else, but the ball hit the girl on the catcher’s mound on the head.
She wasn’t hurt, but she left and so did the boy who owned the bat and ball. But I was so appalled at what I had done that, after half an hour of hiding, I marched over to the girl’s house and confessed to her mother what I had done. To my surprise, her mother hugged and forgave me, and nothing more came of the matter.
Except this: I told myself that I would never let myself get so blindly angry ever again. And, aside from a few sharp words, I kept that promise. I cultivated an easy-going attitude, one more prone to humor and sarcasm than anger – so successfully that the few times I did snap at someone, they were surprised. As several people told me after, they hadn’t known that I was capable of anger.
Later, I found another reason for avoiding anger. I realized that I was born moderately privileged, and that anger could be a means of invoking that privilege if I wasn’t careful.
So I told myself that a mature person resists giving way to anger. When I grew annoyed, I’d go out and do some heavy exercise, or at least some strenuous chores around the house. Almost always, I sat down calmer afterwards. Just as the only sins that Abezier Coppe acknowledged were those of the privileged, the only targets I allowed for my anger were abstract social ones and the people who defended them – and even then I felt uneasy and did my best to see more than one side to everything.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got angry for the first time in several years. I’m not going to give a play by play, but, after having someone inflict three out of the four of Abezier Coppe’s acknowledged sins on me (there was no greed that I could see), I told her what I thought of her bullying, thoroughly and in the bluntest terms I could muster.
What surprised me was that I wasn’t ashamed of my anger, and that I didn’t let it control me. Instead, I restrained it until there was no reason not to express it, and, having expressed it, felt no inclination to do anything further except mutter for a couple of days. Even more importantly, for the brief time I was angry, I felt perfectly justified.
I realize now there is a world of difference between a boy’s ability to restrain his emotions and a middle-aged man’s. Not only that, but in some circumstances, anger is the only sane response. At times, to suppress it would mean acquiescing to the unacceptable.
Does that mean that I have any right to go berserk, or to cultivate anger and keep acting on it for weeks or months? Of course not. Some limits still apply. But it does mean that a shadowy part of myself is not nearly as scary as I had long imagined, and – occasionally, at least – is justified and deserves to be expressed.
The price of this knowledge may be steep, but I suspect now that a similar incident would have come sooner or later anyway. At least in the circumstances I can say I learned something:
I’ll never be afraid of my temper ever again. Nor will I have any further doubts about my ability to control it.