I have trouble controlling my anger, but like all good contrarians, I can’t be bothered to have anger issues like everyone else. Instead of expressing my anger too much, I don’t express it enough.
I do okay with its cousins. I can express resentment and frustration and disappointment, and I fashion myself as a true connoisseur of irritability. My relationship with irritation is nearly transcendent. It is a wonder to behold, unless it is directed at you, in which case I advise you to retreat, quickly, because the chances of you calming me down are approximately nonexistent.
In the right circumstances, I can muster up some anger in the abstract. What is the point, I ask you, what is the point of having an insufferably rigid moral compass if you don’t rail against social injustice now and again? I like to do that occasionally, so as to pretend to myself that my degree in Women’s Studies has practical application in real life.
But pure anger– undiluted, unambiguous, directed at someone specific who deserves it– is not part of my emotional arsenal. This is not without its benefits: I get to look civilized and refined in comparison to people who can’t control their tempers, which usually only makes them angrier, which in turn makes me feel smug. I like feeling smug. Very satisfying in a petty sort of way.
But not expressing anger gets to be a problem with, oh let’s pick an example at random here, let’s say for instance my absolutely horrible relationship history, the typical pattern of which consists of the other person doing atrocious things to me while I respond with the all the fortitude and charisma of a potted fern.
This reluctance to express anger in appropriate situations is a function of both nature and nurture. I am a biological female, which means that I have less testosterone advising me to get into fist fights or to start wars with hostile nations. And I am a societal female, which means that cultural traditions for literally thousands and thousands of years have conspired to make me peaceful. We women are expected to be the diplomats and the peacemakers and the teachers, not the warriors.
(I learned this in my Women’s Studies classes. SEE? TOTALLY PRACTICAL DEGREE. Albeit useless for getting a job.)
Biology, culture, take your pick: whatever the reason, women rarely engage in physical violence. Exceptions abound: this is not a universal rule that applies to all women all of the time. Some women become career soldiers, and some of the most courageous warriors in history were women: think Joan of Arc and Boudica and Jennie Irene Hodges, who dressed in drag so she could fight in the Civil War. Plus you’ve got plenty of violent women in civilian situations: Anne Bonney and Mary Read were professional pirates (the Blackbeard type, not the modern Somali type). Lizzie Borden knew the business end of an axe. And modern teenage girls in catfights are fearsome to behold.
But even that language is loaded. Girls engage in catfights, which are bad enough but not, you know, real fights. A lot of scratching and hair-pulling and screaming, not a lot of crippling punches to the sternum.
Unusual circumstances and unusual women aside, females don’t fight. We aren’t supposed to, and usually we don’t want to. We will defend ourselves, usually inadequately, but we rarely attack.
So guess what. I’ve started taking karate lessons.
Here’s the thing: I’m not doing it for self-defense. If I cared about defending myself against aggressive strangers, I’d buy a can of mace. Cheaper and quicker than years and years of studying martial arts.
As it happens, I’m not worried about defending myself against aggressive strangers. Statistically speaking, any intentional violence done to me will come at the hands of a loved one. Get this: the leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder. The murderer is almost always the father of the child.
Not that I’m pregnant. Just trying to point out here that being attacked on the street or raped by a stranger behind a bush is much less common than domestic violence. And it’s much harder to fight against someone you love. Most women will resist an attack. Most women will try to defend themselves. But very few women will return (or initiate) an attack upon a husband or boyfriend or uncle or stepfather or whoever. (Notable exception: women will go to unprecedented lengths to protect their children, but that’s a moot point for me.)
My own history bears this out. I have been on the receiving end of some absurdly violent situations. (Oddly, considering everything else I’ve gone through, I have never been physically beaten up. It’s on my to-do list.) I have suffered emotional, spiritual, psychological, and sexual violence, and it’s always been from someone I loved. There’s never been a knife or a gun. (There was a bomb, that one time, but the explosion wasn’t aimed at me specifically so it doesn’t count. Probably. Probably doesn’t count.) We’re talking about weapons-free abuse from people who were supposed to be honoring and respecting me as much as I honored and respected them.
In hindsight, maybe a bit of carefully directed anger– you know, freaking standing up for myself— might have been useful.
This is difficult for me to reconcile. I am non-violent to my core. Politically and personally, I recoil at the thought of causing physical harm to someone else. I would like to think that, if I were ever in a life-threatening situation, I would be killed rather than kill. I hope I would pull a Gandhi and die with integrity.
That’s right: I care more about honor than life itself. Now you see why I like Russian novels.
This is where karate will help. The classes themselves are a controlled situation, where I am not just permitted but encouraged to move violently. I am appalled at the thought of actually hurting someone, but if you do it right, you don’t hurt the person. You just leave them, er, temporarily indisposed.
I’ve studied yoga for years. It’s actually proving useful in karate: the other students complain afterward of aches and bruises, and I’m all confused (“Oh, being thrown to the floor again and again and again and again was supposed to hurt? Huh.”). But the problem with yoga is that there is very little body-slamming involved. None, really. With yoga you’re not supposed to be angry. That in fact is the whole entire point of yoga.
But I’m trying to cultivate anger, and if it works out the way I hope, karate will teach me to express that anger in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe the way to tap into the my ridiculously repressed emotional anger is to move about with some nice healthy violence. No one gets hurt, but I still get to move with more kinetic energy than, you know, lotus pose.