First came the swell of pride: I had pedaled my bike into a whir and taken a dramatic fall Then came tender attention and a chance to be heroic all over again by barely wincing at the Bactine’s sting. But best of all was the moment the Band-Aid, my temporary badge of courage, came off. I was to “let the air heal it,” my mother instructed. And that meant I could watch a reddish-brownish-yellowish scab form and thicken, sometimes sogging, sometimes crisping until little crevices formed, and I could slowly, obsessively, peel off the bits that were ready, shiny pink skin waiting underneath.
Scabs were cool. And until this weekend, I believed they were necessary.
Our smartest friend had come over to teach us how to make a proper curry, and as he cooked, conversation strayed and rambled. “Vaseline,” he said at one point. “You want to cover a wound, not leave it open to the air. That only dries it out and makes it scar.”
Turns out the medical profession now agrees with Bash. So when I cut myself the next night trying to replicate his knife skills, I smeared Vaseline on top and stuck on a Band-Aid.
Then I wondered about politics.
Have we aired too many grievances? Are we so eager to expose our rage and frustration and hatred that we leave ourselves no chance to heal? Since the sixties, Americans have urged one another to “let it all hang out,” “open up,” make public confessions, speak our minds, hold nothing back. We never even began to learn the discretion with which Europeans lead their lives. Instead, after years of far less interesting Calvinist repression, we began a crude experiment in what we called honesty.
Which was often self-serving.
People made dramatic, out-of-the-blue confessions that made them feel better but jolted and crushed those who loved them. Divulging past hurts was meant to be therapeutic, but in the hands of unskilled therapists or naïve support groups, it turned into a wallowing that gave the pain even more power. Encouraged to identify with their struggles, people began to deem those struggles essential to their identity.
We forgot what Darwin told us in 1872: “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it.”
Wise mediators and therapists tried to warn us. They offered ways to listen, ways to have difficult conversations gently and respectfully. They admonished us to cool off before we tried to have a rational conversation and then word our feelings carefully, so they would not sound like an attack.
But the wise response sounded like way too much work.
Meanwhile, the wound most eager to find expression was anger, which is so often born of fear and frustration. We all have a lot of both, these days. And for decades, people have been told to vent their anger so they will feel better. Glad to oblige, they let it spew. Often, it was poisonous. (There is a reason so much on the internet is now pronounced “toxic.”)
Quite a while back, psychiatrists reached a new consensus: venting rage only intensifies it. This is where the old Serenity Prayer kicks in: express your anger calmly and directly, to the person who is causing it, as a way of finding a solution. If that is impossible—if, say, you find yourself constantly raging about things you cannot control—you just might spiral into a weird place where you are addicted to the adrenaline rush of your own rage. It feels powerful, and when you are scared and frustrated, feeling powerful is a welcome change.
“Sometimes I think the national obsession with politics has become a way to evade ourselves,” David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times piece.
People have found camaraderie and excitement in raging alongside others who are just as angry. The more they rage together, the more extreme or at least implacable their positions become. Now, so many have moved so far from the center that discussion feels impossible, and the actions of the “other side” are so reprehensible that the only possible response is rage or mockery.
I loathe anger. It never seemed like it should be necessary. “Pick a fight,” I was once advised when enduring an irrational, tantrum-prone boss. Supposedly, if I escalated the conflict, that would create an opening for others to pry away the boss’s power. But being told to mimic the very behavior I despised only made me angry at my counselor.
Flashes of righteous anger, we need. A cold anger at those who cause suffering. Anger as a warning of unfairness, injustice, abuse. But rage as an attack strategy? I would rather be galvanized into constructive action than waste energy fuming.
Most people disagree with me. They point out that it is good to see your enemy’s true colors, let their craziness spill into daylight, know exactly what has been bubbling and fermenting below the surface, and then slam right back with anger in equal measure. “That’s all they understand…. You can’t talk to these people…. They’re irrational.”
Often, yeah, they are. In the last few years, plenty of steam has escaped my own ears. I have felt stymied, maddened, pushed well past civility. Forgetting everything I knew, I started venting just as loudly.
It only left me feeling unsettled, not quite at home in myself or in the world.
The feeling is accurate, my husband points out. We are unsettled. This is no time for naïve Kumbaya singalongs.
All true. But can we be aware and involved without indulging in fits of useless rage?
Wounds that are exposed to too much air scab over. The body has to protect itself with thick, hard defenses. Often, it overdoes the scabbing—and that leaves permanent scars.
Somehow we all need to find a lighter, thinner protection for our own identity. Our beliefs need not bend, but our minds have to stay flexible. How do we manage that trick? The old rules of civility could calm us and keep us centered—if we all agreed to apply them. But that would take a mutual de-escalation, and so far, we seem to be too addicted to our angry memes and rants to set them aside.
And so we harden, and we pick at our scabs compulsively, forgetting that we are scarring ourselves in the process.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.