Thursday, 1 December 2016

On Living with Anger, Part 2

How do I live with this anger? How do I make my own peace with it? In my last post, I raised these questions without answering them. Nor did I finish the story about that “Praise the Lord for Donald Trump!” Facebook post, which made me so angry, it gave me flashbacks to the last time I felt rage take over my life and made me fearful about how I’ll handle the coming four years.

That morning, I stood up from my computer with my heart clenched tight as a fist. It was only a day or two after the U.S. elections, and I’d moved through the mind-numbing shock and denial of the first 24 hours into pure, inflammable fury. The least thing could have set me off. That morning, it was the “Praise the Lord!” post. I wanted to scream at the writer.

But I was running late to my meditation session, so I flung out of the house on my way to the gym where I meditate twice a week with my friend and fabulous yoga teacher, Jessi Komes. I was so angry on my walk over, I could hardly see where I was going. Even as I joined the session—as I unrolled my mat and sat down, as I tried to concentrate on Jessi's opening words—my chest was constricted with anger. What a great irony, right? Trying to meditate—trying to let go of the self, to achieve oneness with everyone and all around me—while being so angry at the “Praise the Lord” commentator, I could've slapped her if she had been standing there.

Generally, I love meditation.

It reminds me of one of the mental spaces I get into as part of my writing process. I don’t mean sitting at the computer or in front of my open journal, putting words on the screen or the page. I mean the stage just before that, when you’re dreaming it up—when you let your mind open and open. Sometimes you go broadly, attentively blank; sometimes you free-associate wildly, but it’s always with a sense of energy—creative energy—rippling around you and through you. You feel more translucent or permeable, somehow, as if the spirit world and the physical world start to intermix. The novelist Ann Patchett has described her own pre-writing process in much the same way.[1] She was initially hesitant to marry her husband, says Patchett, because she didn’t want anyone seeing how she spent part of each day: sitting around the house with her eyes glazed and her mouth half open. That is what the pre-writing process is like. It looks like you’re doing nothing.

Meditation, I think, is a more dignified-looking form of this practice—and, in the sessions I go to, has the added benefit of being guided. I like having someone to help direct my thoughts. From week to week, Jessi leads us in a variety of meditations. Sometimes it’s a full body scan: Feel each toe, feel the top of your foot, feel the sole of your foot, feel your ankle. Sometimes it’s more image-related: Imagine a mountain, imagine yourself as the mountain. If you’ve done meditation yourself, you probably recognize these—and know I’m greatly condensing. But meditation, I find, regardless of the form each session takes, is an act of deep concentration, an almost holy awareness.

The morning of the “Praise the Lord” post, however, I hardly heard Jessi at all. For the first ten minutes of that half-hour session, my mind was a solid black cloud. Then Jessi led us into what I recognized right away as a form of the Compassion meditation.

You begin the Compassion Meditation by trying to picture yourself. It's strange to do, but you try. Keeping the image of your own face in mind, you direct these words to yourself: "May I be well. May I be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May I be loved."

You then call to mind someone dear to your heart. You hold his or her face in your thoughts, being aware of the positive feelings it gives you think about or "look at" this person. You say to this loved one: "May you be well. May you be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May you be loved."

You repeat this practice twice more: with a person you feel neutral about, someone you may not know well but whom you see regularly: a bus driver, a grocery store clerk; lastly, you imagine a person with whom you have conflict. You notice how different it feels to say the Compassion mantra to these different people. As a final step of this meditation, you imagine all four of you—yourself, your beloved, your neighbor, the person with whom you have conflict—standing together in a circle. And you say to them all, “May we be well. May we be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May we be loved.”

Beautiful, right? I’ve been in rooms where a dozen people did the Compassion meditation together, and half of us were brushing away tears by the end.
See? He has a Buddha smile.

That morning, Jessi began the Compassion meditation by asking us to imagine a baby we loved. This was easy. My sister Sandy’s new baby, Tavi, was much on my mind and my heart. He was born November 9, the day after the U.S. elections. What a world to wake up to! And yet in his very first photos, Tavi looked so deeply content. While Tavi’s blissed-out expressions largely means that he’s well fed and well rested—and blessedly ignorant of  U.S. politics—I like imagining his face. Looking at pictures of him does me good. And Tavi’s face brought me out of myself, during that meditation. It slipped me free of my anger, at least for the moment. Tavi’s face: I could picture that, in my mind’s eye. I felt my concentration gather around  it.

I thought Jessi would continue from there into the next stages of the Compassion mediation as I already knew it. But instead, she suggested, “Now imagine your own self as a baby.” This may be hard to do, she acknowledged; when you were a baby, you never knew what you looked like. You never thought about it. “But think of photos of yourself as a baby,” said Jessi. “Think of how someone who loved you as a baby must have been seeing you then.”

Into my mind came those black-and-white, squiggly-edged photos, three inches square, that were popular in the late 60s. I’ve seen photos like that in my parents’ big family album, photos of me with rolls of baby fat on my bare arms and legs and dark, staticky hair that stood  straight up on my head. I thought of my mother and father—so young when I was born! Were they really just 25 and 30? I thought of them living in Charlottesville, Virginia, my dad just graduating from medical school and my mom working in public health. I pictured my dad in his Mad Men black plastic-framed glasses, my mom with her hair in a bun and her skirt cut sexily over her knees. I was their first child, named after my aunt. I was wanted. I know that I was—that I am—deeply loved.

Well, let’s be honest. Just writing this now has brought tears to my eyes. I think I’m an easy crier. But that morning last month, as I sat on my mat and moved out of my anger into these deep memories, I started to weep. I wept right on through the following three steps of that meditation:

  • Imagine yourself as an elementary school child. Imagine who loved you. Imagine what you wanted then, what your dreams were. Your hopes. Remember what you cared about.  
  • My elementary school-aged self. (Third grade.)
  • Imagine yourself as a teenager now. You’re moving out into the world. You’re seeing more of what people can be. What did you want then? What did you hope? What was hard for you, and who helped you through it? Remember who was around you. Remember how you were loved.
  • Imagine yourself as you became an adult. By this stage in life, most of us have encountered some difficulty, some pain. We start to see ourselves as part of the world. Think of yourself in that moment when you knew you’d grown up. What made you happy? What did you fear? How did you know you were loved?
My young-adult self, with my Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter.
I saw my parents, my sisters, my brother, my aunts and my uncles. I saw my Hostetter grandparents. I saw my Brackbill great-grandparents. I saw my house in Hickory, North Carolina and the quiet green lake behind it. I saw my dad’s garden and the Smoky Mountains on the horizon. I saw my best friend in elementary school, who made clubhouses with me in the woods and swam in Lake Hickory with me every day in the summer. I saw my girlfriends in public high school and my favorite high school English teacher, who was also my cross country coach. Further and further into my life, I saw the people who’d surrounded me, helped me, encouraged me, loved me. I felt so overwhelmed by gratitude that if I hadn’t been in a room full of people just then, I would have sat there and bawled my head off. Instead I sniffled through the end of the session with my tears running into my collar.

That sense of love and gratitude that filled me up did knock my anger right out of my chest. It made me feel newly empowered. It made me remember who I am, that I am a doer, that I am strong, that I do not give in easily. It also made me remember how much of life I actually love, how much of life is worth celebrating. Even in calamitous circumstances, it can’t all be misery and rage and righteous indignation, 24/7. Or maybe it can, but I don’t want to live in that way.

Anger can be a sign that all is not right in this world, and you’re aware—you are acknowledging this. You’re so aware, you want to act, to stand up to the source of your outrage. My childhood heroes were people who did this: who stood against oppression and lived out their beliefs, regardless of danger. Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid Jewish people in their house during Hitler’s occupation of Holland; my aunt Pat and my uncles Earl and Doug, in the late 60s, went to live in the occupied villages and refugee camps of Vietnam, in a stance against the U.S.’s involvement there. Among the heroes of my adulthood are the members of The White Rose and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

My uncle, Doug Hostetter, in Tam Ky, Vietnam, 1969.
For all of these people, I think, their actions were driven by outrage, by a sense that the world they lived in had taken a turn for the worse—a turn they could not tolerate.

At the same time, their acts of resistance lasted for years of their lives. They could not have been angry all of the time. They could not have been bitter or panicked every minute of the day. Yes, their anger was the source of their action, but it had to be leavened, too.

Anger alone—anger unleavened—can be draining. And if we are drained, we are unable to act, to resist as fully and vibrantly as we can. This is inevitable, I think, if anger lasts too long, or if is not balanced with action, with hope, with compassion and with self-compassion.

So here’s my answer, in part, to the question, How do I live with this anger?

I acknowledge the anger. I won’t try to suppress or ignore it. I won’t bury my head in the sand. I’ll do whatever I can do to support the causes of mercy and justice and peace.

But even as I live with this anger, I will actively take care of my soul. I will surround myself with people who bring joy and light into my life; I will focus my action as much as I can on practices that empower. Less manic reading of Facebook or the MSBN newsfeed. Less silent trashing of people whose views radically differ from mine. More yoga, more meditation, more writing, more blogging. More phone calls to family and friends. More walks on the moors, more stopping to watch the brilliant cold sunsets of winter in the far north.
The view, yesterday afternoon, out my office window.

And meanwhile, I take courage from what my uncle, Doug Hostetter—the same Uncle Doug who went to teach high school in Vietnam during the height of the war—wrote to me recently, in light of the U.S. elections:

“I do believe that living for three years in a war zone led me to realize that there are always positive things than can be done, even in the most dire circumstances, if one keeps centered and keeps your eyes open for where the spirit is leading, or where there may be openings for using the power of love and truth.”

[1] In her 2006 Sarah Lawrence College commencement speech, “What Now?”


  1. I love this essay so much, Patricia.

    I have been writing one in my head for several weeks now. It's all about locating and telling the stories of courage and love to combat bullying and hate.

    I too remembered the story of Carrie Ten Boom. And how evangelical Christians flocked to watch The Hiding Place and to hear Ten Boom speak in person. There must be a way to connect courage, faith, and nonviolent resistance.

    Love Doug's words to you in the end, too. I will be linking to this post when I write my own.

    Keep meditating. I'll be doing another version of centering along with the monks at mid-day prayer. Will light a candle for

    1. Thank you, Shirley. We need a new Corrie Ten Boom, don't we? Someone who can speak across the evangelical - secular divide and ignite ALL of us to work for justice and nonviolent resistance.

  2. courage to use my anger in ways my most brave ancestors and friends have done: "even in the most dire circumstances, if one keeps centered and keeps your eyes open for where the spirit is leading, or where there may be openings for using the power of love and truth.”

    1. And I love it that you're meditating, too. I like to think of the positive energy we're sending out, along with many others who join us in meditation or prayer or some other form of spiritual yearning for a better world.

  3. Thanks for this beautiful post, Patricia. I love the interaction of word and photos. ❤️

  4. This is what I forgot or didn't know back in the 1980's when as an MVSer/activist I was angry all the time. Which lead to the worst depression of my life. I'm so often brought back to Beverly Harrison's essay "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love" where she reminds me that ethics and love grow out of struggle - out of anger, but anger isn't the last word.

    1. Dear Elaine, as you now know, I resonate with your 1980s experience of long-term anger and how it can lead to depression. I'm grateful for friends and resources to help us get through it this time -- and for your mention of Beverly Harrison's essay, which I'm going to read.

  5. I drive past a house every day when I take Neila to and from school. It's a small house with a tall flagpole, flying a LARGE Trump flag and a US flag above it. There are usually big trucks with confederate flags parked in the driveway as well. Over the weekend, as many of us have had the time to do, I noticed the people who live there decorated for Christmas. In their yard, there is now the addition of a large, light up nativity scene. The kings are dark skinned. This whole scene seems so odd to me. The Trump flag, the sacred nativity symbol, confederate flags, black skinned kings; it is so contradictory to me. I'm confused. I'm outraged. I feel like rescuing the baby Jesus and the black kings one day on my drive by.
    Patricia, I can see why your mind was distracted when trying to focus on meditation. I find myself distracted too, in every day life. I am angry too. I want to punch ignorance in the face instead of challenge it with my intellect and a clever retort. I feel inspired and like I am not alone when I read the many posts on Pantsuit Nation.
    If you aren't already a member of the Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation, let me know, I'll invite you. It's a group of about 3 million men and women who are angry too, but are sharing their stories of hope and goodwill in light of the election results.
    I love reading your blog!

    1. Kristin, the yard you describe is such a vivid (and harrowing) image. I'm afraid my dealing with anger would be much harder to do right now, if I lived in certain parts of the U.S. I'm so glad you've a support group in Pantsuit Nation and elsewhere. (And yes, I am a member!) We're in this together, sis.