“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
—Augustine of Hippo
There is a lot to be angry about. Skyrocketing rates of COVID, financial stress from months of quarantine, deadly racial injustice, political chaos . . . and that’s just the first few things that come to mind. I am angry. More importantly, I’m okay with being angry.
One of the more common misconceptions about resilience is that there is no room for anger. We are to focus on gratitude, hope, and optimism, right? Look on the bright side! Find the silver lining! Count your blessings. Yeah, well . . . sorta. I’ve made no secret that I used to struggle with the concept of optimism. I worked for years with survivors of trauma. I know that horrible, unjust things happen and there are no rose-colored glasses pink enough for that kind of pain. It wasn’t until I came to understand that optimism had nothing to do with head-in-the-sand cheerfulness that I could wholeheartedly embrace optimism. If we are to be optimistic and hopeful, we need to be able to feel the anger at the way things are so we can be courageous enough to change them. Rebecca Traister, in her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, challenges us to not push down or push away anger, but to think, act, and integrate it into our lives just as we do with joy or sadness. Sociological researcher and author Brene Brown acknowledges that “owning our pain and bearing witness to struggle means getting angry. When we deny ourselves the right to be angry, we deny our pain.” She warns, however, that holding onto or internalizing anger exhausts us, numbs us to joy, and makes us less effective in our efforts. This begs the question, how can anger be integrated into agents of optimism, hope, and resilience?
Evolutionarily speaking, anger is important to our survival. It is a signal that something is wrong and triggers our fight or flight instinct when we are in danger. When we listen and become curious to what anger is telling us, our anger can be used more as a tool than a weapon. Only then are we able to be not just reactive, but responsive. Is our anger telling us we have been treated unjustly, betrayed or exploited? Is our anger covering for the harder-to-face emotions of grief or shame? When we fully understand it, our anger can be a great catalyst for resilience.
My friends Paul and Taylor are currently exhibiting anger-as-catalyst in beautiful and powerful ways. Earlier this year, Paul Harris, a Black professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, was recommended for promotion to Assistant Professor, but was blindsided when he learned that he had been denied tenure by his all-white Tenure Committee. Paul came to the tenure process with eight years of successful research, publication, citations, and presentations. He had stellar teaching evaluations. He had years of previous academic reviews stating he was “exceeding scholarship expectations.” His work had gained him grants and awards. His tenure committee downplayed his work, questioning the validity and scholarship of work that had previously been lauded. After his first appeal was denied by the provost, Paul and his wife, Taylor Harris, put their anger into action. Paul took his appeal to the next level and is speaking out not just about the injustice of his case, but of the systemic injustice faced by scholars of color in academia. Those of us who are colleagues and friends joined grassroots efforts to see that he be granted the tenure he has earned. Taylor, an author and activist, published an article called Whiteness Can’t Save Us on Catapult, an independent daily digital magazine. It is a breathtaking testimony not only of her husband’s stolen tenure, but of being Black in America. Theirs is a perfect example of anger being transformative. It is rooted in justice, courage, and love. Transformative anger (and the courage required to express it) is rooted in the hope that things can be different. Their righteous anger ultimately led to a reversal of his tenure denial.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Taylor and Paul’s three-year-old daughter said it best: “When I’m angry, it’s because my heart is broken.” She knows, even at her tender age, that when we listen to our anger, it will tell us something about ourselves. What we learn can help lead us forward.
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