Understanding Anger as a Spectrum by Meredith Clark

Somehow it is already application season in the Episcopal Service Corps world for the 2019-2020 cohort, which means I have started interviewing new candidates for Life Together and talking to current fellows about doing a second year. This is my third season of LT applications, second as the reviewer, and I have been asked a lot about my experience in the program. What have I learned through Life Together? What are the best and worst parts of doing an ESC fellowship? How do things change in your second year? I readily name dirty dishes as the biggest challenge, 90% seriously. The other questions require more thought. Thankfully, Life Together loves reflection. If I had to name one skill that I honed in LT, I would say the ability to reflect with a growth mindset.

I am an intense, strong-willed, passionate young adult. As a child, I was more aptly called short-tempered, stubborn, and emotionally reactive. Anger, although discouraged in society, particularly from women, is a spectrum just like any other. On one end is beautiful, just, righteous anger that sparked #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Civil Rights Movement. Jesus used righteous anger when he denounced oppression and exploitation. This anger reforms or builds anew, while clearing the bad. On the other end of the spectrum is destructive, harmful, unproductive anger—the anger that sparks hate crimes, abuse, and war. As a child who felt emotions deeply, I lacked the ability to fully control and understand my anger. I didn’t hit people or start a war, but I would have meltdowns or hold grudges or lash out verbally. I do not like this about myself, but it is true. As I matured, I improved my control to maintain friendships, jobs, etc. After all, who wants to see a teenager/twentysomething throw a temper tantrum? Society demanded that I keep my anger inside, but did not help me sort through it. Bottled up anger at everything from a driver cutting me off to being sexually harassed and racially demonized was all shoved down inside until it periodically erupted in an incoherent, overwhelming deluge that sent me into depths of hopelessness and bitterness. Then I would clean it up and the buildup would start again. Greater progress was slow and hard-won.

Enter Life Together.

Life Together, a program that intertwines work, home, and spiritual life, is also intense. Orientations lasts 1.5 weeks and demands that we learn new styles of worship, understand the building blocks of social justice work, make friends, and settle into our new house communities all at once. It also asks us to reflect on our growth every single day, both internally and externally. It’s a lot.

My first year of Life Together orientation, it was quickly apparent that one person was consistently detracting from the community. I recognize patterns easily and was the first to recognize gaslighting, manipulation, and patterns of abuse. It made me cry and it made me angry. Fortunately for me, my housemates agreed and we all held each other through the painful process of extricating ourselves from this extremely harmful situation. We worked with the Life Together staff, and when progress wasn’t good enough, I insisted on more. I leaned into the LT tenets of community and justice. I put myself out there for my house when my fellow community members were too exhausted or anxious, and they thanked me for it. I started or furthered conversations about gaslighting, abuse, misogyny, intersectionality, and holding men of color accountable for their impact on women and nonbinary people of color. Later, when our house lost heat in January and the dishes froze in the dishwasher, I demanded support from the program and we got it. All year, when I thought things were wrong or unfair, I fought for better. This was anger used righteously. Many people who had shied away from my anger were part of the systems hurting me, so I steeled myself and learned to push through it. It made me strong and it made me proud, and it earned respect and gratitude.

Unfortunately, I did not know how to untangle empowering anger from the insidious kind. I took comfort in the justness of my actions and positive results and failed to recognize the parts that were more petty than progressive. As my mom says, I got bogged down in “shoulda, woulda, coulda” and ruminated. When the next year started and there was not an immediate threat to the safety of my house, I felt lost. I had nothing to fight, and that anger had given me purpose. Worse, my new housemates who had never witnessed the times my anger was beautiful and necessary, didn’t seem to understand or appreciate it. I felt lonely and resentful and confused.

You know what? Sometimes when I’m upset, no moral imperative has actually been violated. It might sound ridiculous and obvious, but that’s how I felt. I was never taught to use my anger well. Raised as an East Asian girl by a single mother, I had been urged to “be less angry” and “calm down” most of my life. Then in 2016-2017, I taught myself to use anger as an invaluable tool for justice. Anger was shameful and then it was proud and rebellious. I am only now understanding anger as a spectrum. If you’ve ever taught yourself how to do something that you weren’t allowed to do as a kid, you might understand my journey teaching myself about anger. The hardest part is sticking with something unfamiliar that demands so much effort. Getting started is hard, and once you’ve begun there are always missteps in addition to leaps forward. My first year of Life Together, orientation was the catalyst that prompted me to untap the benefits of anger. Then I stumbled, stalled, got turned around and lost. I got scared. Through it all, the LT structure encouraged and often required that I keep going. I participated in contemplative practice circles, prayer partners, and trainings, and thought about them long after the events ended. Life Together allowed me to make mistakes and recover. The program and my site held me when growing pains knocked me down, and welcome me as I move forward again.

I will probably spend my entire life learning how to truly understand and utilize my anger, and I am grateful to have that chance.