Glancing over the titles of the posts in this blog site since it began just over a year ago, I am once again amazed at where my journey has taken me. Before it began, when I no longer had the will to keep fighting the illness and pain, I thought my life was (finally) over. Pain/medical management, along with an ever-expanding group of loving friends and the patience of an understanding God, restored not only my will but also my ability to rejoin the human race. I am not the same person I was before, but then who of us can claim to be the same as our younger selves?
First of all, for example, I had to adjust to the “new normal.” It was important to regain my ability to take care of myself, while also accepting that I was still somewhat limited, physically and mentally. I read an article recently about chronic pain resulting in a loss of gray matter in the brain on an annual basis, exceeding by at least 3 times the average for a healthy aging person. Sometimes I am actually aware of my thought processes searching for a new route to the data stored in my brain–data on what I used to know, and on how to accomplish certain activities. Some data seems lost to me for good. Some activities remain beyond the scope of my physical and/or mental ability. I often think in terms of “before the end of my pain and illness” and “after I began my new life.”
Then there is the issue of anger. I don’t remember when it began, but by late adolescence/early adulthood I frequently found myself swallowing what grew from a lot of diffuse anger to a frightening amount of rage. I soon realized that my words that were intended to convey merely a little displeasure were interpreted by others as threateningly angry. I began to be afraid of letting my anger out, fearing the results for both myself and others. Not knowing what to do with the bottled up anger, which only increased at a rate positively correlated to my growing sense of powerlessness, I truly believed myself to be a terrible person.
I divorced, believing that getting out of the world to which my husband had introduced me would allow for room within which I could regain some control of my life. My only response to those with whom I had been raised and who, with me, believed divorce to be a sin, was “God and I have agreed that murder and suicide are not viable alternatives.” However, what I found was that gaining control of my life meant two important things: 1) I could no longer blame my now ex-husband for the problems in my life; and 2) the anger was still there, still threatening to me.
So I still felt like a terrible person. A very angry, terrible person. But, given the chance, the human psyche can be a wonderful thing….
One hot summer night in South Carolina, as I tried to fall asleep after coming home from an adrenaline-filled 2nd shift as the nurse in the county jail, I had a waking dream that remains as real and memorable today as it was that night 33 years ago. I was in a dark, dank underground passageway, listening to the bone-chilling maniacal laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere. The ghostly faces of demons faded in and out of sight against the walls of the passage. I was already panicked when a strong voice announced “Follow me. I am going to show you who you really are.” My degree of panic accelerated, as I replied “Thanks, but no thanks! I already know who I am, I don’t like it, and I don’t need you to show it to me.” Despite my strong resistance, however, I found myself moving relentlessly toward the end of the passage, accompanied by the mind-bending laughter. The Voice said nothing. I dug in my heels, trying in vain to avoid the forward motion toward what appeared to be a castle-type wooden door (you know, the kind with a rounded peak on top instead of a straight edge). As I came nearer, the door began to swing open inwardly, and at first all I could see was a soft, embracing light. It was quiet and peaceful in that room—powerfully so. Still against my will, however, I crossed the threshold.
There, in the room, sat a lovely and graceful woman on a vanity bench, dressed in a floor-length layered white dress, brushing her long and lustrous hair while looking into the mirror. “Who…..” I began, and she turned to me just as the Voice returned to say “She is you.” “Impossible!” I replied. “That cannot be!” “It can, and is.” The Voice said.
And I returned to full consciousness, in my own room, stunned. Now I know that Freudians will look one way at this story, and Christians (whether or not schooled in psychology) will have their own interpretation. Just for the record, I personally prefer the latter, with a compelling use of Jungian archetypes.
That being said, although it did not all happen overnight, I began to take control of my life and incredibly wonderful things happened to me. Though without funds and resources, I was able to return to college and move on to earn my PhD fully funded by grants and scholarships. I did my research in South Africa, where I returned to teach for a total of seven years. What a privilege all that was, supplied for me almost through no effort of my own but because of my goals, rather than as an enticement to follow the wishes of my donors and mentors. It was incredible—unbelievable. How could I ever repay this huge debt?
I was truly a changed person in many ways. What remained with me was the anger. During the college years I could cover and ignore it because I was so blissfully happy. In South Africa, I recognized the sources of my adult anger: injustice, inequality, abuse of power, violence against the powerless–these all fueled my rage. Only now I had learned how to take the energy from that rage and use it, as an advocate and activist. I could do that whether the victim was me, or entire groups of disenfranchised people. I used the anger, but I could not use it up. It remained with me. Where could I find an antidote?
Nelson Mandela suggested an idea that stays with me. After being released from prison and being in the public eye for some weeks, he was asked how he could possibly not be bitter about his unjust 27 years in prison. His simple reply was “If I bring the bitterness and anger out of the prison with me, then I am still in the prison.” My problem, however, is that acting on that statement must be much more difficult than he made it seem. After living for seven years in the middle of a revolution, death all around me and immanently possible, my anger had fueled a lot of action but was still very much with me. (Along with something like a veteran’s PTSD, later). But Mandela became my first black President (I was a permanent resident of South Africa, because I did not expect to return to the States) and I realized that with the influx of well-educated exiles returning home, my role was no longer necessary. Fourteen months later I returned to my own home.
It was home, but not the home I expected. I have written elsewhere how very much like South Africa during apartheid the attitudes of my country had become. It has become even more so since that post. As I write, I am still grieving over the Charleston massacre, and what it means about my beloved country. I find that the anger I feel is appropriate to the situation, and not overwhelmed by the old, built-up rage.
It is here that I finally come to the point of this article.
I have learned that managing built-up rage as well as new anger is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. I have my own meditation and calming exercises, others will choose what works for them. But the anger must be met first of all with my decision not to be ruled by it, followed by a plan of appropriate ways to either use it or let it go. I’m not a psychologist so I will not attempt a therapeutic explanation—it is only my need to order my thoughts by sharing them that drives me to write this article.
Letting go of the anger is not enough. The empty place that is left must be filled with something strong enough to help protect against the anger when it wants to return. Again, I had begun to see the answer in South Africa.
One day I was talking to an African lady, in one of the townships which was engaged in an uproar (euphemistically referred to as “unrest” by the S.A. media) and not really a safe place for a strange white woman to be. Our conversation, however, went something like this:
Woman: Why don’t you come in the house and stay with us? You will be safe here.
Me: Why would you offer me safety, when my presence could endanger you and your family? Why do you even trust me in your home?
Woman: Because first you are a human being, and we only survive if we look out for each other. But mostly it is because I can see that you love us so much that you suffer because we suffer.
The woman’s ability to offer unconditional love, and to accept it unconditionally, was the antidote I sought and one that I had spent many years trying to keep from controlling my life by banishing it. I could love, on condition that it be understood as a feeling and not a commitment. I had long stopped believing I was loveable because I was unable to believe the words of those who said they loved me. Therefore I could not be in control of my life if I depended on love, right? People can hurt you. I thought I did not need love. Yet in the words and actions of the woman described above, I saw what was important both to me as a person, and to me as a social advocate. I had to learn a lot about my emotions.
I have been home from South Africa for 19 years now, 17 of those years having been spent working 60-80 hour weeks and not making much headway with the deliberation and meditation required to learn things about love and anger that would have made my life much easier. About love, I have learned that it, too can be a deliberate decision and commitment, and that it also must be practiced faithfully and responsibly. The really difficult part of love has been learning to accept it, and learning to accept caring help when I need it. A friend once described me as being “rabidly independent,” which is not really so funny, when I think about it.
It took the overwhelming pain of my arthritis and disc disease, along with several other physical problems, to make me retire two years ago. The following year was a nightmare of pain and near helplessness. It was only after the successful efforts of my physicians to restore me to functionality that I realized the gift I had been given in meeting–and surviving–my greatest fear. Thanks to the loving care of special friends, including physicians, I know it is safe to accept help from people who care. I am slowly accepting that I am loved by people that I love. I still have a long way to go.
It is important to me, however, to acknowledge something else of great importance that I have learned. That is, in working to try to make a difference in my reachable world, I need to try to confine my anger to my own energy needs and use my love to guide my work with others. And to let the anger go afterwards, and to hold to the love unconditionally. Too much of my anger has spilled into my words and actions in advocacy, and not enough of the love that sparked my need to respond. There is already too much anger in our nation. I don’t need to add mine.
None of that means that I believe I should not be angry with the world that spawned a young man who would be proud to kill people at prayer. None of that means that I will just forget about it. But I am going to have to love my country an awful lot, unconditionally, to keep my anger from depriving me of seeing all of its citizens as equally deserving of my efforts to respect the spark of humanity I do not see because of my anger, even if I cannot love what they have done. My words must reflect both my anger at the injustice and my concern for all the players.
It’s hard. I am not very good at it yet. But I have made the commitment to try.