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Smell the Coffee: The healing power of anger

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For as long as I can remember, I've heard that anger is a terrible thing, how it's negative and damaging and something to be avoided. And generally, with the exception of when I'm behind the wheel and in a hurry, I anger slowly and cool down quickly. I've never been one to rage or hold on to my mad. I thought it was my nature, the way I'd always be.

And then something inside me broke.

Without going into particulars, I was put in a position a few months back where I was told to accept something that wasn't, for me, a gray-area wrong. It was fully, both feet into the black-and-white unacceptable camp.

Those who would've benefited from the transgression I was expected to quietly accept were either completely oblivious to or deliberately turning a blind eye toward the wrongness. It unleashed a fury in me that I'd almost never experienced before.

And I couldn't let it go.

My mother is a master at letting bygones be bygones. She's simply not willing to remember negative details about those she cares about. It's a trait I admire. One that I have, at times, made my own. But sometimes, it's possible to wipe a slate clean too fast for your own good. Some slates might be better left dirty since there are times when a little anger can be healthy. I'll give a for-instance.

To those already familiar with the basics of my past, please excuse the rehash. I'll keep it brief. Basically, not long after the death of our younger daughter, my husband left. What she died of -- there was no way to have prevented it or cured it, there was no one to blame or aim my fury toward. It just was what it was. A hell of a huge pill to swallow.

And then my ex left and provided someone for me to be mad at, and that anger allowed me to focus and move forward in a way I absolutely know I wouldn't have been able to do had he stayed. Instead of curling into a ball and whining, "Look how much losing you crushed me," my mantra became, "I'll show him."

I pushed myself to do things that improved me and made life better and more fun for my daughter. Looking back now, I think it's possible that what he did and the way he did it inadvertently saved me. Hand-holding and back-patting weren't going to get me through to the other side. Anger did.

It's interesting how these old parts of my life keep influencing the new, especially now that I've rolled this full circle around to where anger comes into play once again. This fresh fury caused me to revisit that time, review what resulted from it, and recognize that anger can have value. Good can come from bad, but not easily or without effort. It took time for my ex and me to rebuild a friendship, but now he's one of my closest and most valued friends.

From that first big anger, the one at my ex, came almost nothing but positives. This latest seems different. I've been surprised by how many times my anger returns -- not toward those from the initial situation, which was there and gone fairly fast -- but toward other situations and behaviors that I simply shouldn't have tolerated as long as I have. I began standing up for myself, something I don't do easily. Or often. It's forced me to step beyond many of the lines I'd drawn in my sand, to make hard decisions and act on them. The part I'm having trouble with now is knowing when and how to let go of the anger.

A friend of mine, who deserves sainthood for the many times she talked me off the ledge over the course of a single week, told me that holding on to my anger was giving away my power, that my fury hurt no one but me. That by carrying it around, I was giving those I thought were in the wrong something they didn't deserve to have. I was wasting my energy rehashing what happened, thinking of things I wished I'd said or done differently.

My friend is such a composed person, and knotted up as I was, I knew I needed to get myself back to that kind of calm. We were sitting outside talking late one evening, and there was an ashtray on the table in between us. She suggested I write the names of anyone I was upset with or hurt by on little slips of paper and burn them. I did. It didn't help. I wrote and burned again. Drew little cartoon pictures and burned those too. The pyromaniac side of me was having a blast.

Sometime during the second sheet of paper, I realized the worst of my knots had untied.

It felt a little like magic, but I know it wasn't. It was a willingness to let it go. And a readiness.

While reading about the powers and dangers of anger, I ran across many pithy quotes that say it so well.

"Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness, and concealed often hardens into revenge." -- Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

"Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." -- Malachy McCourt

"Get mad. Then get over it." -- Colin Powell

But the one that hits the closest to home is from Gloria Steinem:

"The truth will set you free. But first, it'll piss you off."

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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