You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger. – Buddha
Sadness and anger are quite unpleasant as far as emotions go, and yet they are a normal part of the human experience. Essential, even. Take Riley, the protagonist in Pixar’s 2015 animated movie Inside Out, for example. In order to overcome a difficult moment in her life, she must absolutely listen to what her sadness has to say. The same goes for Riad Sattouf in the sixth volume of his biographical graphic novels, L’Arabe du futur. “Les émotions,” his therapist tells him, “sont comme nos enfants. Si on ne les écoute pas et si on ne s’en occupe pas elles tournent mal” (page 143). In my case, the child in question was not sadness, but anger.
Consider for a moment the following words, which I might have said once or twice to my ex-husband when he was still my husband but no longer wanted to be my husband: “You’re a fucking asshole!” Poetic, I know.
On their surface, these words appear to be about a woman expressing her anger at a man who might very well be an actual fucking asshole. He did, after all, make a joint decision with the woman to not have children. She is now 43 and childless with nothing of any significant value to show for her time on earth. It’s pretty much too late for her to come back on this decision now. This fucking asshole, on the other hand, can easily come back on it, and the woman is so angry about this.
In reality, these words have nothing to do with the man and even less to do with the woman’s desire for children since at no point in her life has she ever wished to be a mother. The words are for herself. She’s the fucking asshole. She’d had a great partnership with the man. She’d loved him and respected him. He’d been her best friend. The problem, foolish as it may sound to those of you who don’t care about this kind of thing, is that the relationship never corresponded to her vision of romantic love. It had always left her feeling incredibly empty and unfulfilled.
And what had the woman done with this feeling? She’d suppressed it. Ignored it. Everything else was so great, she’d told herself. She wasn’t about to throw the man away just because he wasn’t a romantic. She had hoped that it would come with time. But it never did. She’d been foolish to believe it ever would. And here he was, seventeen long years later, throwing her away. If she’s hurting now, if she’s regretting the years lost, it’s her own damn fault. She hadn’t listened to her heart, and she is so angry. At herself. At her mother, too, come to find out.
For the eighteen years she had lived under her mother’s rule, it had been tais toi donc here and ferme ta bouche there. This was how you kept the peace. You shut up. You told other people to shut up. You told your heart to shut up. All to keep the peace. Except that it hadn’t been peaceful at all. She’d been miserable. She had not felt fulfilled in her relationship. She had known from the very beginning that she never would be. And yet, she had not given voice to her feelings. She’d told them to shut up, just like her mother had taught her. And what did she get in return for her obedience to this flawed and irrational training? The upending of a life she would never have built if she had not shut up in the first place!
This is what happens when you ask the universe a question, even when you don’t know you are asking one: it answers. Not in any kind of straightforward speak, of course, and never without asking you to participate in the process. I was angry at my mother. Always had been, apparently. But I didn’t want to be angry at her. I wanted to love her. Unconditionally. But how?
Consider the owl, the universe answered.
And because this situation is urgent, and you need to be smacked over the head with this kind of stuff, consider also the goat, the giraffe, the rabbit, the ox, the ant, the alligator, the xerus, the rusty blackbird, the coyote, the sacred ibis, and the snail.
Emotions are like our children, the therapist told Riad Sattouf. Lest they turn bad, we must listen to them, we must take care of them. Sattouf’s sadness was a little girl who would appear to him in his dreams. My anger was a bunch of miserable looking, potty-mouthed animals jumping out at me from the cracks in the sidewalks of Brooklyn. If I wanted what I said I wanted, which was to love my mother unconditionally, then I had to consider what these animals had to say. Uncomfortable and shameful as it might have felt to do that, there was no other way around it. These animals were taking up a lot of valuable space in my heart. If I wanted to make room in there for love, then I needed to face them, and then release them.